(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)Forget Terrell Owens. Forget Ron Artest. The most controversial figure in sports today — at least in the world of Westside Los Angeles table tennis — is the improbably named Ed Ball. A devoted proponent of the classic hardbat game, Ball is on a one-man crusade against sponge-surface rackets.

According to Ball, the softer surface gives players an unfair advantage by allowing them to deliver shots with much greater spin. “You come to the game with a souped-up racket, there’s no dialogue,” says Ball, who looks like an athletic Anthony Perkins. Ball also contends that the classic game relies on technique, not equipment, to generate power.

The self-proclaimed “hardbat revolutionary” is so outspoken about his anti-sponge stance that he has been banned from nearly every table-tennis hall in the city.

“They have a smear campaign against me,” says Ball of his enemies, whom he calls “spin doctors” and “pro-sponge propagandists.” Ball was excommunicated from one table-tennis venue for writing about a club director’s “uncontrolled indoor re-gluing fetish.” (The latest trend in pingpong is to re-glue a spongy sheet of rubber to the racket just before each game. The chemicals react with the rubber to rejuvenate the surface, creating even more spin — as well as noxious fumes.)

“[Re-gluing] is like planned obsolescence,” says Ball. “It reduces the rubber’s life. The pro-sponge propagandists love the glue game because it means more money. They’re not only selling the glue, but also the rubber, which is up to $40 a sheet.”

Like all great crusaders, Ball’s mission is on behalf of a higher power. His inspiration is pingpong legend Bobby Gusikoff, the last player to win the U.S. Open using a hardbat racket.

Ball switched to hardbat in 1997 to bring attention to his mentor’s plight. Gusikoff is ill, and Ball is currently accepting donations for the former champ’s hospital bills.

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