Francis begins another childhood flashback with the day that Larry saw him dejectedly sitting on the back steps of the Wreck Center. When Larry inquires is Francis is all right, Francis confesses that he feels lousy because he is “rotten at everything,” like dancing, singing and baseball. Silently, he adds talking to Nicole Renard to his list of failures.
Francis’ list of perceived failures shows that his perspective on the world is narrow. He attaches exaggerated importance to activities that most would consider mere hobbies. This also shows that he is still obsessed with his crush, unable to relate to the world without Nicole as a reference point.
Wanting to help Francis, Larry convinces him to return to the Wreck Center the following day to start lessons in a new sport in which Francis is sure to be a “champion.” When Francis returns the next day, Larry begins to teach him the sport of Ping-Pong. Soon the Wreck Center crew arrives, intrigued by the new sport. For the first time in his life, Francis hears people cheer for him.
Larry indulges Francis’ childish view of the world by promising to make him a “champion” (or in other words, a hero) simply by providing him with something to succeed in, even if it is something as simple as Ping-Pong.
At the end of the first lesson, Larry convinces Francis to stick with Ping-Pong, giving him a new sense of purpose at the Wreck Center. Often, he admits, he looks for Nicole during his good games. After a particularly skillful defeat of Joey LeBlanc, Francis spots his crush and she blows him a kiss.
As Francis becomes better at Ping-Pong, he sees it as a way to win the affection and attention of Nicole. Now his childish view of heroics becomes intertwined with the simple ideas of winning and losing, both in the game and in love.
While Francis is in the Wreck Center practicing Ping-Pong, he begins to notice how Nicole is not only a beautiful dancer, but her routines with Larry are becoming more intensely sensual. Eventually, Larry announces that the Wreck Center will host a “double header,” a Ping-Pong tournament one day with a performance of the musical Follies and Fancies, staring Nicole, the following day. Secretly, he admits to Francis and Nicole that the arrangement was mostly a pretense to showcase his two favorite pupils.
While Francis does not quite understand what he is observing, the fact that he senses an odd connection between Larry and Nicole is the first premonition of the tragedy to come. This passage serves to deepen the tension between who Larry appears to be to his students and who he truly is on the inside.
On the day of the tournament, Nicole approaches Francis who finally musters enough courage to tell her he loves to watch her dance. She replies in turn, telling him that she loves to watch him play Ping-Pong. For the first time in his life, Francis feels a rush of confidence as the tournament begins. Finally, Francis defeats Louis Arabelle to be named the Wreck Center Ping-Pong champion. As Nicole hand Francis his trophy, his eyes begin to tear up out of joy.
The difficulty Francis faces in simply speaking a full sentence to Nicole, the exaggerated importance of her words of encouragement, and Francis’ emotional reaction to winning a Ping-Pong tournament that was almost designed to let him win showcase how simple Francis’ struggles are as a child. As a “champion” for the first time in his life, he has also become a “hero” simply by winning.
As Francis just begins to savor his moment of victory, Joey LeBlanc calls out for Francis to challenge Larry for the “real championship.” The crowd agrees, chanting along until Francis, riding the wave of his victory, agrees to the match.
This instance of Francis’ idol becoming his rival foreshadows future conflict between Francis and Larry. Tellingly, at this meeting, Francis still has the mindset of a child, thinking only in terms of winning and losing.
Halfway through the game, Francis realizes that Larry had been letting him win. At the last point, Francis grows hesitant, unsure if Larry will go through with the charade or win so decisively that the whole Wreck Center would know that the game had been his from the start. Ultimately, Larry allows Francis to win, and the Wreck Center crowd goes wild.
While on the surface, Larry’s actions seem benevolent — aiming to lift up Francis in front of his friends — they betray a manipulative side of Larry. Francis being hailed as the Wreck Center hero for a false victory also shows how his conception of heroics is fundamentally flawed, void of any moral or ethical concerns.
In the midst of the celebration, Nicole approaches Francis and calls him “my champion,” reminding him that she wants him to attend a party at her house after her dance performance. However, as present day Francis reveals, snapping the flashback to a close, the next day was December 7th, 1941: the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Here, Nicole reinforces Francis’ simple, skewed version of heroics, equating victory with success in that he won the game and now has “won the girl.” However, with the return to the present at the mention of Pearl Harbor, Francis foreshadows how his childhood was complicated by the war and the real world problems it introduced.