Tuesdays with Si

Life lessons over the Ping-Pong table

It's hard to tell if Si even understands what Paul does for a living. He's never been to the small, elegant store that Paul and his brother Jeff run in Scottsdale. Sometimes Paul will pull a check from a diamond sale for $30,000 or $40,000 out of his pocket and show it to Si. One night he brings photos from a recent trip to Beverly Hills. Paul and his pretty girlfriend flew over for the première of Tag Heuer's new line of sunglasses; there was a party at the Sky Bar afterward.

But the older man doesn't seem so impressed. Si is more concerned with sales of paddles and balls. He used to sell equipment at the table tennis club, but his health is so poor that Paul has taken over the small side business. Most of the profits go to Si, Paul says.

Paul's father, Jim Hamra, recalls that Paul played Ping-Pong as a little boy in northern California, beating six-foot-four men and anyone else who would dare come to the table. When the Hamras moved to Phoenix in the mid-'70s, Paul found the table tennis club -- and Si. He started taking regular lessons and won some trophies.

Paul relaxes with his yo-yo between games at the Phoenix Table Tennis Club.
Hector Acuña
Paul relaxes with his yo-yo between games at the Phoenix Table Tennis Club.
Si and his trophies, and more of Si's trophies.
Hector Acuña
Si and his trophies, and more of Si's trophies.

The Hamras sold turquoise jewelry at Park 'n' Swap on the weekends, and Jim recalls that Paul was always a natural salesman. He eavesdropped one day as Paul, then a seventh-grader, prepared his younger sister Denise for a sale. "She had no idea what to make of people coming and talking to her. I can remember him taking her aside and saying, 'Just talk to them. Look them in the eye and smile and tell them it's silver and it's Indian made.'"

Paul and Jeff always loved watches, and in 1986 the two opened Hamra Jewelers. You might have seen their ads on cable television. Paul's still the salesman; Jeff handles the business side.

Starting the store and keeping it going occupied almost all of Paul's time for several years, but he never stopped playing Ping-Pong -- he always travels with a paddle -- and never forgot Si.

"Occasionally, I would go visit Si," says Paul. "He would say to me, 'Paul, you have so much potential. Why did you stop coming to play table tennis? Remember what I told you when you were a kid. If you find something you like, even if you don't play it as much, still stick with it because you have a natural talent. It will help you down the road. When you're older,' he said, 'all the money in the world won't mean anything to you. Your health will be more important.'"

A couple of years ago, Paul realized he was starting to get out of shape.

"I missed the sport and I missed Si. I went to the club and I asked some people, 'Is Si Kenig still teaching?' 'Yes,' they said, 'he's over there playing.' And I looked up and, sure enough, there was Si."

Paul signed up for Tuesday night lessons. Now he's lost weight, and he's found that playing Ping-Pong with Si even helps him out in business, teaching him patience with older clients.

"I have to spend three hours with some customers where normally it would take me 30 minutes. My brother Jeff can't do that, he doesn't have the patience. I'm the one who gets called to the sales floor. I'll sit down for three hours and I'm okay with that. I realize it's an older person and you have to have a little bit of empathy."

Plus, Paul can use all the help he can get with his Ping-Pong game.

Paul was on a team that finished third in the Phoenix Table Tennis Club intramural tournament this spring. But after some prodding, Paul admits he didn't do so well himself. He chokes in competition.

"Everybody gets so serious," he says. "They get serious like I get serious when I make the big sale."

When he's warming up, Paul's game is nearly perfect. But as soon as he plays for points -- even against Si, during a lesson -- he gets impatient, trying to smack the ball past his opponent. And, because Ping-Pong is such a delicate game, the result is often his own lost point.

"If you played in the tournament like you play here, you would win," Si tells Paul as they finish volleying.

Si is determined that Paul will overcome this problem. "Paul's got a beautiful backhand, but he abuses it. He hits too hard," Si says.

He tells Paul to take his time.

Immediately, Paul begins losing game after game to Si.

"You're falling apart," Si tells Paul. And it's true.

Paul wins the sixth game, 12-10 (tonight they're only playing to 11 points), then loses the next one, 11-3. He wins a couple more, Si wins a couple more, then, as usual, Paul calls time out.

"Let's take a break for just a second," Paul says. "Ooof, Si, you wear me out."

"You're supposed to win easily," Si says.

Paul remembers when he'd get tired as a kid, Si would tell him, "Anybody can be good. The hard work makes it up."

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