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The Camden Academy table tennis team heads to the national championships, with an assist from Daryl Morey

The Camden Academy table tennis team heads to the national championships, with an assist from Daryl Morey
The Camden Academy table tennis team heads to the national championships, with an assist from Daryl Morey

 


During a tour of Camden Academy Charter High School, Daryl Morey spotted a familiar device.

Do you play table tennis here? the 76ers' president of basketball operations asked Camden Academy principal Dara Ash.

That led to a meeting between Morey and Alla Lantsman, the math teacher who runs the after-school club that has since qualified for the American Youth Table Tennis Spring Scholastic National Championship. Now Morey and the Sixers are sponsoring the five-person team trip to that tournament, which will be held Sunday in Richardson, Texas.

It's mind-boggling, said Abdul Fofanah, a sophomore on the team. I never thought I could go on a trip to Texas, like on an airplane, and have it paid for for me.

READ MORE: What can the Sixers learn from these playoffs? Five tips to consider for next season.

That touchpoint was possible thanks to Camden Academy's involvement with former NBA player Shane Battier's Take Charge foundation, a mentorship and college preparation program for juniors and seniors that Morey and his wife, Ellen, have partnered with. That the high school is around the corner from the Sixers practice facility provides the opportunity for personal visits from Morey and other Sixers staffers, rather than simply becoming a charity project for which the organization writes checks.

It's also surprising (but not surprising) that the tables caught the attention of Morey, whose eclectic interests outside of building NBA rosters include writing a musical and chess.

He played a lot of table tennis as a kid, he recently told The Inquirer, and even competed in a national individual tournament in Michigan, where he was swept by the eventual champion. He picked up the sport again when he handled basketball duties for the Houston Rockets, because table tennis Olympians Jimmy Butler (not that one) and Tim Wang live in town. These days, a way for Morey to get exercise is to play at PingPod in Old City.

Lantsman is now much more than a math teacher and club advisor. She grew up playing table tennis in Russia and still competes locally and around the world, winning a national tournament in her age group last summer. In 2021, she became vice president of the West Jersey Table Tennis Club, which has been in operation since 1966. She emphasizes that table tennis is for everyone. She regularly sees 90-year-olds play in practice and league matches, but like other competitive sports, it requires work to hone the physical and mental skills needed to succeed. General fitness, footwork, coordination and quick reaction time are crucial, she said.

Some students come up to me and say, 'Oh, I'll beat you,'” Lantsman said. But once they take [the] paddling, they realize it's not that easy. You have to see what your opponents are doing. You have different speeds. Different movements. You have to realize it [your opponents] weaknesses to use to win.

You're constantly changing your game. You are always analyzing. So it also requires a lot of thinking.

Now Lantsman is passionate about recruiting more young people into the sport, starting at her school.

Last year, then-freshmen Fofanah, Eddie Cook, Jian Karlo Lopez-Jimenez, Chase Scotton and Zyair Simmons, who have been friends since fifth grade, decided to give the club a shot together. Fofanah proudly calls the group nerds, while Simmons acknowledged that he's never really been a sports person. And when they started playing, we weren't good. I'll say that,” Fofanah offered with a chuckle.

READ MORE: Emma Hayes is friends with Dawn Staley. How did that happen?

But they trained after school and on weekends at the West Jersey club. With the help of the American Youth Table Tennis Organization, they now have three professional caliber tables and twenty paddles at the school.

They are very dedicated, Lantsman said of her students.

Added Simmons: Once I started playing, I really started to enjoy it. I can't really put into words, but it's great to have something like this [great] boys around me to play.

The top two middle school and high school teams from each state are invited to the American Youth Table Tennis Spring Scholastic National Championship, which begins with round-robin play before becoming a single-elimination tournament. But Camden Academy had no funding in the budget for the trip, and some players acknowledged their parents wouldn't be able to afford the costs either.

Lantsman thought about Morey, but was initially hesitant to send an email asking if he was interested in helping.

He responded within three minutes, Lantsman said. … It's huge to me that we have this opportunity to send our students.

Five days after the Sixers were eliminated from the playoffs, Morey was in the Camden Academy cafeteria, handing out his team's official shooting jerseys and shorts that the players will wear during the tournament. That their faces lit up upon receiving the Sixers gear was a reminder for Morey to keep in perspective the benefits of professional sports that can make you numb.

The team headed to the Dallas area this week, a trip that Lantsman says has made some of her other students a little jealous. She hopes their achievement will inspire more people to join the Camden Academy club and more schools will join them at the tables. Meanwhile, Simmons is feeling a bit nervous because I've never done anything at this level before.

And Morey is looking forward to watching the livestream of the tournament, where these players will represent Camden Academy and the Sixers.

Going to the national championships, Fofanah said, when we first started, was a joke. But it's real now, so we'd show it.

Sources

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