Why Do I Play Pickleball?

Karen and I just got back from Edmond where we won a medal in mixed doubles. Karen thinks we should get money rather than medals. I remind her that I’m a two time loser in side jobs…golf (I made $271.00 in 1982 as a pro) and writing (I received $107.20 in book royalties in 2019) which works out to 4 cents an hour. We should just be grateful for a medal and love of sport.

Folks often ask me these days about pickleball. What is it? Why do I play?

I often reply with details…the size of the court and I describe the ball, the paddle, and the strategy. But the reason I play has nothing to do with any of that. Let me describe it without the technical stuff.

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Why do I play pickleball? 

First, pickleball is not particularly difficult. You can play in your age group and ranking class. But what is challenging for me is the social aspect. Pickleball is a new way to talk across the fence to neighbors in an age that has lost the art of easy conversation. I am a social introvert, often masking my guttural instincts to scream or tackle someone when I play. Tackling isn’t allowed in pickleball. But occasionally, you can smash a ball into an opponent as long as you quickly feign lack of intention. That is the easy part.

The difficulty lies in the hellos and hugs, the sharing of life and stories, and a feeling that we are even closer than 6 degrees of separation. Pickleball circumvents the social rule that says we are all just six handshakes away from knowing everyone in the universe. You are indeed a friend of a friend in pickleball, and the logarithmic social distance seems truncated to the point that you are instantly neighbors visiting over your backyard fence about children, paddles, and sore knees.

Second, it reminds me of neighborhood backyards when I was a kid. There was always a game, a sense of inclusion young with old, and we played for hours on end.

Pickleball is after all, at its heart, a backyard sport. It was invented near Seattle by three dads whose kids were bored. Some say the name pickleball derived from the inventor families cocker spaniel named Pickles who chased the ball and ran away with it. This was my youth, inventing games and making rules as you go. Pickleball is more refined today. But it still feels backyard. And just like our old backyards, the fences cannot contain us.

So, I’m sitting in the Life Time fitness facility in Edmond watching 24 simultaneous games of pickleball from a cafe lounge overlooking the courts. And I’m thinking about how my backyard has grown, and yet it is the same.

  • It’s New Years Eve 1968 and I’m watching the Bluebonnet Bowl and the Oklahoma quarterback is #11 Bobby Warmack. The kid from Ada who listened to every Sooner football game on the radio just like I did growing up. Bobby Warmack is playing over there on court 12.
  • On court 3 is David Redding from Harding University who was a legend in tennis and now he is a legend in pickleball. He is playing with his wife Kay and we shake hands and catch up on the old days at Harding where our tenures overlapped a couple of years.
  • And Phillip from Cherry Hill, NJ, just down the road from where my wife grew up in the pine lands of Jersey and where I worked as a CPA 25 years ago. He talks about his family and what he remembers about Cherry Hill. He has showered and changed and is wearing a smart fedora hat. He isn’t much like me at all, but today we are the same and we talk easily about our families and New Jersey.

The backyard is shinier now, there are more people, but it isn’t that much different from childhood. There is something altogether evocative and gritty about the backyard of my American youth. We could be whomever we wanted to be in our backyard…Willie Mays, Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning…and with Levi’s streaked with grass stains and sweat illuminating our faces like sudden glory, we were.

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The thrill of victory and agony of defeat somersaulting off a ski jump on the Wide Wide World of Sports rang true in our backyard. Tackle football without helmets, bats cracking baseballs that landed in the Johnson’s daffodils, and barn ball which pitted two people in a match of rolling a tennis ball onto a roof and catching it before it hit the ground.

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The thrill of victory was a whiffle ball homer over the fence into the neighbors yard and the agony of defeat was realizing their bulldog had your ball in his mouth. You are Pele as you bicycle kick a soccer ball between fence posts topped with Pepsi cans and you land square on your coccyx. We were physically and sociologically shaped on freshly cut lawns with clothes line goal posts and a sideline fence making out of bounds calls indisputable. Mom called you to dinner but hunger was no match against the guttural cry of competition. So you ignore the dinner bell because you are on the fifty yard line with the sun going down, drawing a hook and ladder play in the dirt which culminates in a last second touchdown. Your buddies carry you off the field and the celebration echoes through the suburban woods. Who could possibly think of food in moments like those?

This is why we play pickleball even as our sacrum throbs and this is why we won’t come in for dinner because we are having too much fun. The cries of competition and voices of friendship float in the air like moths swirling around a lit candle. We have returned like spawning salmon to the sacred space of our backyards.

8 responses to “Why Do I Play Pickleball?”

  1. I loved this! You perfectly captured my youth sports experience with kids in the neighborhood. I’m still smiling thinking about it. Very well written. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for perfectly describing how social Pickleball is. Loved going to memory lane while reading your work. You should get PAID!

  3. Just absolutely great read and memory’s of playing in the back yard or street corner half ball or stickball, all now relatively Pickleball. Spot on. Great great.

  4. I’m playing for the first time tonight and already planning on playing with my grand boys after one evening of watching… and you’ve so eloquently described my “why”! LOVE this!

  5. Nailed it and brought back a lot of great memories growing up in SW MI. In summer, sunset was closer to 9pm so we would sometimes miss dinner because we were playing or doing something down by the river. 😉

  6. Great memories Brent. It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about all those games in the vacant lot… touch football, baseball, even capture the flag… back when kids could stay out after dark. We not only learned the thrill of competition but the value of teamwork and the art of communication with friend and foe. Back then we got mad at ourselves or others when we didn’t win. Now we can laugh with our Pickleball friends and opponents about our athletic shortcomings.

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