Alister showed up for his interview in a tie, white shirt, and sweater; his pants neatly pressed and shoes polished. He was far-and-away the most over-dressed student in the busy food court in the Busch Campus Center, and we spent three hours talking. He seemed as interested in me as I in him, an extremely rare dynamic in my experience interviewing people.
Part of his story involved tennis, which helped turn his life around. Since he was asking a lot of questions, I mentioned that although I was a poor to intermediate dink-and-dunk tennis player, I was much better at table tennis. In fact, I teased, I could probably kick his butt. Well, that's all he needed to hear. Before long, the trash talk was flying. The gist of it: He had Division 1 tennis skills and youth while I had experience and psychological know how. Because he studied so much, I told him, he was probably too out of shape and would wilt.
That's where I thought it might end but, in the next several weeks, we had a few follow up conversations about the story and, at a photo shoot near my office, the subject of a match came up again. And so a date was set. Alister picked me up a few weeks later in front of my office on a Friday after work and drove us to the lobby of a nearby residence hall, where there were two ping pong tables on the ground floor. We agreed to a best-of-seven match, games to 21 points (at least a two-point margin to win). I could tell during the warm up volleying that we were pretty evenly matched. Alister was a little better shot maker, but I was slightly steadier. He brought his own paddle. We split the first two games, which were close. Back and forth it went until we found ourselves tied 3-3, perspiring and ready for the rubber match.
Alister made some odd grunting and celebratory sounds at times. He just couldn't contain his intensity and competitiveness. In the rubber match, he came out of the gate fast, and was leading 15-9 when I started to mount a comeback and tied the contest at 19-19. Ahead 20-19, he went for the win and hit the ball long, making the score 20-20. My sigh of relief could be heard in downtown Piscataway (if there is such a thing). He went ahead 21-20 and 22-21, but I hung on both times.
But then I won the next two points and, suddenly, he was behind 23-22, back against the wall, with a look of serious concern on his face. Well, the table tennis Gods were with me that evening as he volleyed the next point an inch wide of the table. 24-22. Game, set, match. We weren't even out the door before Alister demanded a re-match.