The new old game with a funky name hits the tiny kingdom.
by Beth Wilder photos by Brit Huckabay
Since last September, I have had countless conversations with friends and family that go something like this:
“You’re doing what?”
“Wait . . . what did you say?”
“Is this a joke?”
These conversations are usually accompanied by some head-shaking and perplexed looks and more than a few stifled giggles. And with good reason. I reacted the same way when I first heard about pickleball. Yep, you heard me right. Pickleball. It’s a thing. And it’s a really fun thing with a funny name that has become my new obsession.
Pickleball, which actually has nothing to do with pickles but a lot to do with balls, is currently the fastest growing amateur sport in North America. According to the USA Pickleball Association (and yep, that’s a thing, too), the sport has exploded in the last decade with over 4000 courts across the country and almost 3 million people playing on a regular basis. With its popularity, you would think more people would know about pickleball, but the sport is relatively new to Birmingham. The game has been popular on the west coast and in Florida for decades, and new arrivals from those areas brought their obsession with them as they moved into Central Alabama. Dan Tourtellotte, director of security, special projects, and sports initiatives at the Levite Jewish Community Center, is credited with bringing the game to Mountain Brook. For several years, Dan listened to the buzz about pickleball in the fitness world, then members began requesting to learn the game. In September 2017, the LJCC introduced the sport to a packed house and it now has over 60 people playing on a weekly basis.
“The game is addicting, fun and easy to learn,” said Dan as he explained the popularity among the LJCC members. LJCC tennis pro Dale Clark said the appeal can be attributed to several aspects of the game, but mostly the fact that it is very social and can be enjoyed by all. “Pickleball brings all ages and abilities together on one court. Everyone can play and enjoy it, no matter your skill level,” he said. And that is precisely what drew me to the sport. It is a laid-back, fast-paced game that doesn’t require the finesse of golf or the athleticism of tennis. Almost anyone can pick up the sport quickly, without costly lessons or time-consuming clinics. As Dale likes to say, “It takes years to master the game of tennis. You can master pickleball in about 15 minutes.”
The USAPA describes pickleball as a combination of tennis, ping pong, and badminton. The game is played with a paddle similar to a ping pong paddle —smaller and lighter than a tennis racquet but made with a solid surface. The court is the same size as a regulation badminton court, but the net is much lower, only 36 inches from the ground. Players volley a plastic ball similar to a wiffle ball back and forth, attempting to knock it out of their opponent’s reach to score points. Because the court is smaller and the ball lighter, strength and speed are not as important as they are in tennis. Like any sport, it can be played at a highly competitive level, but it can also be enjoyed on a recreational level. Athletes and weekend warriors alike are drawn to the game. For many long-time tennis players, pickleball is a great way to recover from an injury or continue to enjoy a competitive sport into their 70s or even 80s. For racquet-sport novices like me, pickleball is the perfect game to pick up later in life. Though most players are 50+, millennials are getting into the action, too, as a fun, co-ed way to burn off steam and socialize. “You don’t have to be a great athlete to enjoy the game of pickleball,” said Kirsten Robinson, LJCC athletic director and a millennial herself. “That is what makes it the perfect social sport. It can be enjoyed by so many different types of people playing together at the same time.”
Actually, that is exactly why pickleball was invented. Back in the summer of 1965, three suburban Seattle dads were searching for a game their families could enjoy together, no matter their ages or skill levels. The initial idea that first Saturday was to play badminton, but they couldn’t find enough rackets or shuttlecocks. So they improvised and used what they could find: ping-pong paddles and wiffle balls. The game was a hit with the kids and the adults, and the fathers soon developed rules and built a permanent court in the back yard of one of their homes. The game spread among their friends and neighbors, and by 1972 the three inventors created a corporation to protect the sport. By the early 1980s people were playing up and down the west coast. With the advent of the internet and online videos more and more people are being exposed to pickleball and the sport has exploded in recent years. Today, you can read Pickleball Magazine and go on a Pickleball Cruise and even watch tennis greats Andy Roddick and Andre Agassi play pickleball in a charity fundraiser. In other words, pickleball has arrived.
The 60 regular players at the LJCC agree with the experts that pickleball is the greatest new sport in town. Linda Howard, winner of the LJCC’s first pickleball mixer in February, had to give up her beloved game of tennis after two knee replacements. “I was devastated when I found out I couldn’t play tennis anymore. But now I’m addicted to this game,” she said. “Pickleball saved my life!” Other long-time tennis players like Debbie Sher are not willing to give up tennis, but still love playing pickleball a few times a week. “I like to play both, and I will keep playing both as long as I can,” Debbie said. “Pickleball is a game my husband and I love to play together.” Elizabeth Salem, millennial tennis enthusiast, played pickleball for the first time a few weeks ago when her regular tennis clinic was cancelled due to rain. She was a natural, and I should know because I played against her. There’s nothing quite like losing to someone who was literally holding a paddle for the first time in her life. “This is a great game,” she said. “I’ll definitely play again. This will give me something to do when it’s raining.”
David Christy is an ultra-marathoner who took up the game as a way to socialize with his fellow LJCC members. “Running can be a solitary sport and this is a lot of fun,” he said. “I just wish a marketing expert had come up with a better name than pickleball.” Which brings me to the question everyone eventually asks: why the heck is it called pickleball? The game’s historians are divided on this one (and, yep, there are pickleball historians). It is rumored that one of the inventors of the game had a dog named Pickles and that dog had a bad habit of running away with the balls during family games. Another inventor’s wife claims to have coined the phrase after the term pickle boat, which is used in the rowing world to describe a crew made up of all the leftover rowers who weren’t chosen for a top boat. Either way, almost all pickleball players agree it’s a pretty terrible name for a pretty awesome game. But in the spirit of this crazy, laid-back, socializing sport, most pickleball players don’t care. They are too busy having a ball. “I never thought I would be proud to be called a picklehead,” commented LJCC personal trainer Troxell Paulter with a laugh.
And I don’t mind being called a picklehead, either. Like I said, this sport is my new obsession. My husband might say it has taken over my life, but I wouldn’t go that far. I play two or three times a week, and I own two racquets, and I have been through a couple of pairs of shoes since September. That might seem excessive, but I don’t see a downside to a fun game that provides a little exercise and a lot of laughter. A game I can play with my 20-something children as well as my new middle-aged friends at the LJCC. A game that is competitive, yet laid-back at the same time. Call me a picklehead. I don’t care. Just try this game once, then we’ll see who’s laughing.