SCOTT AND CAROL Stover’s front lawn on Bainbridge Island is quite literally Ground Zero for pickleball. It was on a slab of asphalt on the Stovers’ property, formerly used as a badminton court, where Barney McCallum, Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard developed the game back in 1965.
Bordered by trees and an old outbuilding, and showing signs of age, the game’s first court is something of a shrine to pickleball enthusiasts.
The Backstory: Discovering the allure of pickleball firsthand — after a couple initial whiffs.
Just more than a year ago, at Bainbridge’s inaugural Founders Day Tournament (this year’s event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic), scores of players attending the event — many from other regions of the country — made their way to the first court.
Some just stood in awe. Others knelt and kissed the ground; many took pictures. A few actually played a game or two on the sacred ground.
“It happens all the time,” says Scott Stover of the pickleball pilgrims, some from as far away as Florida and Hawaii, who occasionally come knocking at his door.
He and his wife, a second cousin of McCallum, don’t mind. They’ve played all their adult lives and are even pictured on one of McCallum’s original 1970s-era Pickleball box sets, which included paddles, balls and a net and sold for less than $30.
“Pickleball started here, has gone around the world, and now it’s back,” says Scott, shaking his head in slight bemusement. “It’s amazing what Joel, Barney and Bill thought up and created.”
PICKLEBALL IS ONE of America’s fastest-growing sports. It’s basically a combination of tennis, badminton and squash that can be played in singles — two players facing off against each other across a net — or doubles, with two players on each side.
The sport has caught fire over the past decade or so not only with aging baby boomers, former tennis players and ex-jocks, but also with people with little or no previous athletic ability. And it’s not only taking off in resort communities in Arizona, Hawaii and Florida, where tennis courts are being restriped to accommodate growing demand; it’s become a worldwide phenomenon.
It’s estimated some 4.5 million people play the game globally, and roughly 40% (in the United States, at least) are female participants. There is a national association devoted to the sport — the aptly named United States of America Pickleball Association — with a bimonthly magazine, several books on the game’s history and how to play it, as well as weekly tournaments held in every region of the country, if not the world.
The U.S. Pickleball National Championships are held twice yearly, in the spring and fall. Over the past two years, billionaire Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of Oracle, and himself a pal of pickleball, has co-hosted the fall extravaganza at his tennis complex in Indian Wells, California, near Palm Springs, where organizers repainted and restriped more than 40 courts to accommodate the game.
“It’s an amazing tournament” held over a long weekend, says Scott Stover, who has attended several over the years. “It’s a lot of fun, with a lot of great play.”
Pickleball is much more than watching the “pros” slamming overhands back and forth. It’s also a multigenerational game that can be played by high-schoolers and septuagenarians alike on the same court at the same time, which is one of the reasons for its exploding popularity.
ON A BEAUTIFUL July evening on a court at Bainbridge’s Battle Point Park, 17-year-old Cai Haught is teamed with 56-year-old Bill Schilling. Across the net are 65-year-old semi-retiree Jon Hussey, with partner George Gallant, a 50-year-old local plumber.
The play is swift and crisp, and the banter is friendly but a bit chippy at times.
“Nice volley,” Schilling yells at Hussey after Hussey sends a return shot that neither he nor Haught could handle. “I guess we’ve got to let the old guy have one once in a while!”
As Haught and Schilling paw at each over some tangled footwork, Hussey shouts over the net, “Children! Get along, please.”
It’s clear this foursome enjoys competing against each other. They’ve been playing for going on three hours on this particular day, and most of them play three or four times a week, either against each other or with an array of partners.
Bainbridge Island now has at least 400 active players. And that same degree of participation and dedication is repeated in many communities all over the Puget Sound area and the Pacific Northwest.
“Pickleball is for everyone,” says Gallant, as sweat drips down his face. “It doesn’t matter how old you are or how fat you are. Anyone can play.”
Schilling, a real estate investor who is considered one of the island’s better players, agrees. “I can have a competitive game with a 75-year-old, a 25-year-old and a 60-year-old all on the same court,” he says. “That’s one of the things that’s so special … Look at the U.S. Open (last year): A 25-year-old was matched up against a 44-year-old” for the championship. “What other sport would you see that in?”
PICKLEBALL GOT ITS start on bucolic Bainbridge Island one summer afternoon in the mid-1960s. Pritchard was a member of the Washington House of Representatives at the time, and would later serve as a Washington state senator, in the U.S. House of Representatives and as Washington’s lieutenant governor. He and his neighbor Bell, and their wives, were looking for something different to do with their kids, who apparently were bored, whiny and driving them crazy.
The two men sent the kids out to an old badminton court behind one of Pritchard’s three cabins along Pleasant Beach Drive. Using a mix of paddleball paddles, badminton rackets and Ping-Pong paddles, the kids — including co-founder McCallum’s brood — were laughing it up playing some sort of fun, newfangled game.
Bell and Pritchard joined their families and made some adjustments, such as lowering the net height to align with Pritchard’s hip. The next weekend, McCallum arrived, and the trio began creating rules and analyzing equipment.
During Happy Hour one night, the families christened the game pickleball, after Pritchard’s cocker spaniel Pickles, who loved lying around courtside and running off with loose balls.
Over the next months and years, the three acknowledged “founders” created rules and refined many aspects of the game. They tweaked the net size and came up with a standardized paddle and agreed that a hard Wiffle ball was perfect for their game. (The game is played with different balls for indoor and outdoor games. The outdoor balls have smaller holes and are made of harder plastic.)
Pickleball’s popularity began to grow in the 1980s and ’90s, when “snowbirds” from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere migrated south for the winter and spring and brought the game with them to places like Arizona, California, Florida and Hawaii. Also helping spread interest in the game was a Seattle-area company called Thousand Trails, which installed courts at its membership campground facilities up and down the West Coast.
Today, pickleball is played on a court that is roughly the same size as a badminton court — 44 feet long by 20 feet wide — but, unlike badminton and tennis, players on each side must let the ball bounce once before volleys are allowed.
One of the biggest differences between pickleball and other net games is the so-called “kitchen,” a 7-foot-deep nonvolley zone in front of each net that prevents taller players from having an advantage over shorter ones.
Many agree that this particular innovation, devised by McCallum — the acknowledged business mind and promoter behind the game’s success, and the last of the three inventors to die (he passed away in November at the age of 93) — is the reason pickleball has such a wide appeal among players of all ages.
TAKE CAI (pronounced Cy) Haught, for example. She began playing the game on Bainbridge with her next-door neighbor, Joe McKee, when she was just 14 years old. She and McKee, who is in his 60s, used to play badminton on his court, and then one day, he “stumbled on pickleball,” Cai remembers.
That was in the summer of 2018, and before long, Cai was not only playing on McKee’s converted badminton pitch, but another eight hours a day at the pickleball courts at Battle Point Park.
Cai found herself playing against people who in some cases were 50 years older, but she enjoys the competition and the camaraderie.
“My preschool teacher called me an old soul,” says Cai. “For some reason or another, I feel more comfortable around older people. … I generally hang out with people older than myself.”
She thinks the diversity of ages is the real beauty of the game. “(Pickleball) is the only sport you can do that,” she says. “It’s one of those games that, even if you don’t have a sports background, you can pick it up in a few hours.”
Typically, in summer months, she’ll play several hours a day, up to three hours “socially,” then more competitively. “I enjoy the competitive nature of the game,” Cai says. “You can have fun and be social but also be competitive … and that’s not problematic.”
Cai, like a lot of good players around the region, enters tournaments from time to time, but she doesn’t see herself turning pro like some younger players are doing.
ON THE OTHER end of the age spectrum is Sherry Burke, a 72-year-old grandmother of seven, who began playing just more than two years ago. She caught the bug when a neighbor at her Bainbridge condo complex put up a poster for a “Pickleball 101” session at Battle Point Park.
She checked it out and recalled thinking, “Wow, this is fun.” Burke ordered a paddle and gear from Amazon and got rolling.
Her only hesitation was the realization that she didn’t know many people at the courts. “I was looking at a complete group of strangers,” she recalls. “It was a bit like junior high school.”
But, as Burke soon discovered, the pickleball community on Bainbridge was very accepting. “It was fun to fall into a group that didn’t know me,” she says. “The teaching, the learning, the encouragement. … Now I’m addicted.” Burke plays four to five times a week and has added indoor and outdoor shoes to her pickleball ensemble.
As it turns out, the game is more than just a fun social outlet for Burke. Her late husband, Bob Burke, a Seattle attorney, died suddenly six years ago of a brain tumor. He passed away just three weeks after the diagnosis. Burke was devastated by the tragedy, but had emotional support from four adult children (three of whom live on the island) and five — now seven — grandchildren.
“You can only read so much,” says Burke. “This has been a gift for me.”
Like others, Burke enjoys the social aspects of the game as well as playing with a wide assortment of people of all ages.
“It’s been very positive in a lot of different directions,” she says. It’s “competitive but in a friendly way. … and then doing the (Founders) tournament last summer (in 2019) and meeting people from Indiana and Oklahoma who love the game. Wow. It’s something about where it started (that attracts people). I remember meeting a guy from Oklahoma. He was like a kid in a candy store” playing on the first pickleball court.
The wisecracking Schilling, on the other hand, epitomizes the former athlete who enjoys both the competition pickleball affords and the camaraderie and friendships. In his younger years, Schilling was an “extreme athlete,” he says, doing everything from mountain biking to rock climbing to white-water kayaking and skiing.
Pickleball sort of crept up on him. He has a multiuse sports court at his home on Bainbridge, and he remembers “goofing around with his kids” playing pickleball, but, “I didn’t really know anything about it.”
Then, about seven or eight years ago, Schilling and his family were visiting his in-laws in Arizona when he stumbled upon a pickleball game near the complex where they were staying.
“These older guys there asked me to play,” Schilling recalls. “I just got schooled.” He says he remembers thinking, “Holy smokes. There’s really something to this game, so much strategy.”
From that point, he was hooked.
“It was a real eye-opener,” he says. “I never would have guessed. Now I’m somewhat of a fanatic.”
Schilling plays four to six times a week and takes his pickleball paddle wherever he goes. Through his business, he travels to Canada, Colorado, Florida and Arizona. “Anywhere I go, I can get a game,” he says.
MEANWHILE, A NEW set of pickleball courts — the Founders Courts — was completed this summer at Bainbridge’s Battle Point Park. The six new courts will complement two adjacent tennis courts that will be resurfaced and restriped for pickleball and will be shared by participants of both sports.
The new courts are the culmination of years of politicking and private fundraising by a group of dedicated Bainbridge pickleballers, led by businessman Clay Roberts and his retired buddy Bill Walker. The two organized volunteer support and helped convince the Bainbridge Island Metropolitan Parks District Board of Commissioners to earmark just more than $250,000 for the construction project to go along with the more than $50,000 raised by island pickleball backers.
While lots of communities around the country are building new courts, none of those locations are where the game has its roots. So Roberts and company are undertaking the building of a historic park at the entrance to the new courts.
“Baseball has Cooperstown, New York; basketball has Springfield, Massachusetts; and now pickleball will have the Founders Park on Bainbridge Island,” says Roberts, flashing a smile from ear to ear.
The vision for the park is an interpretive “plaza” adjacent to the new courts and a gathering place for players and visitors. The park will include a grand arched entrance and kiosks with interpretive displays chronicling the history of the game and stories about each of the founders.
Visitors will enter the park on walkways festooned with engraved pavers with the names of pickleball clubs, ambassadors and individuals from around North America and beyond, and guests will even be able to play with some of the original paddles, contributed from families of the founders.
Bainbridge backers aren’t sure when all these improvements will take place, but Roberts and cohorts are appealing to the game’s 1,600-plus clubs around the country, and the millions of players who pick up a paddle every day to support the effort.
“Buy a paver for the person who taught you the game,” says Roberts. “Become part of the permanent history of pickleball.”
But it might be Burke, the grandmother who took to pickleball after her husband passed away, who best sums up the essence of the game. “It really suits all (abilities),” she says. “Half the fun is meeting new people.”