In the fall of 2022, members of the Longbranch Improvement Club put a bug in Kelly Hettinger’s ear. They wanted to play pickleball. Easy to learn and designed to be played by old and young alike, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the country.
“Why not?” Hettinger, the club’s volunteer coordinator, said.
That November the club opened for players every Tuesday with two pickleball courts, each court outlined with blue painter’s tape that was pulled up for events.
Hettinger attended every session for the first two or three months, making sure newcomers got oriented, that players knew the basics, and that everyone got a chance to play. Now, Hettinger said, the program practically runs itself. Someone coordinates schedules for a month at a time and volunteers monitor play in two-hour shifts.
After six months the LIC decided to use vinyl tape to demarcate the courts, so they don’t need to retape after every rental. Orange nets keep stray balls from sailing into the bathrooms.
Hettinger brought in someone to teach two classes on pickleball basics and safety. “Scoring is pretty simple,” she said. “The main problem is players remembering who served last and what the score was.”
“I don’t think we’ve had an injury-free week yet,” Hettinger said. “But injuries have been pretty minor, and we added ice packs to our equipment box.” Players sign a waiver before they can play.
“You don’t dive for a point!” said Dan Hunter, one pickleball regular.
Hettinger estimated that about 25 to 40 players come each week. Some stay all day and others play for a few hours. Some go home for lunch and return in the afternoon. Most are retirees, but younger players participate as well, especially toward the end of the day.
“I’ve heard people say they’ve lived here 50 years and are getting to know people they never met before,” Hettinger said.
“I wasn’t especially interested in playing,” Tom Nosenzo said. “But I started volunteering in April. Now I play more than I volunteer. I’ve grown to love it. It’s not about winning but being part of the community.”
Sharron Dean comes two or three times a month. “It’s good exercise and it’s fun so it doesn’t feel like exercise,” she said. “You get to know people — their individual style, strengths, weaknesses, and trash talk.”
Phil Digirolamo started last fall with no previous experience. “I love it,” he said. “Your age or gender doesn’t matter. The small court is an equalizer. The social part is really fun — we’ve gotten to know a whole subset of the peninsula we would never have met otherwise.”
Pickleball is expanding its reach on the Key Peninsula. In January the Key Peninsula Civic Center opened two courts on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to noon, coordinating the day with the LIC.
The game was invented on Bainbridge Island at the summer home of Joel Pritchard, a politician who served as a state representative and senator, then as a U.S. congressman and lieutenant governor before his death in 1997. In the summer of 1965, restive children greeted him and a friend when they returned from a golf game.
When they couldn’t find a shuttlecock for badminton, they got creative.
They lowered the net, experimented with paddles and a whiffle ball, invented rules, and found a game that worked for young and old. Three years later they trademarked the name and formed a company to manufacture paddles and kits.
By 1990 the game was being played in all 50 states. It was declared the official Washington State game in 2022.
But pickleball is not without its controversies.
Tennis courts have been drawn and quartered. The noise of the paddle smacking the hard ball has led to bitter complaints and lawsuits by neighbors. The two competing leagues, Major League Pickleball and the Professional Pickleball Association, merged in September, avoiding clashes about who could participate in the thousands of tournaments held every year.
The sport has had an economic impact that goes beyond tournament play and equipment sales. A shopping mall in Connecticut credited pickleball with reinvigorating business when they converted a closed Saks Fifth Avenue store into the largest indoor pickleball facility in the country, with 28 courts. Within six months, Macon, Georgia, had outdone the shopping mall when the city opened a 32-court facility.
“It’s been our ambition to make pickleball to Macon what golf is to Augusta, and have this be the premier pickleball location, at least in the southeast of the United States, if not the country,” said John Roberts, manager of the facility.
There is a rumor of a tournament this year at the LIC, which Hettinger declined to confirm or deny.
The LIC courts are open on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The civic center courts are available on Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to noon. The official pickleball organization, USA Pickleball, has information including game basics and tips on their website at usapickleball.org.
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