Pickleball: Hybrid sport invented by bored Congressman is sweeping Philly

A Tuesday night game at Pleasant Park in Mount Airy.

The Summer Olympics have shone light on a number of strange competitive sports – racewalking, anyone? But right here in Philly, another weird game is quickly catching on: Pickleball.

“I first heard about it when I was in Arizona visiting friends that moved down there,” said former LaSalle University co-head tennis coach Stan Shoemaker. “So I go out there and I see this court – it looks like a mini tennis court – and I immediately fell in love with this game, like most people do when they see it.”

Described as a hybrid incorporating aspects of tennis, volleyball, Ping-Pong and badminton, the sport was started in the 1970s, but didn’t catch on locally until Shoemaker returned from his trip in the winter of 2008 and started a group on Meetup.com. Soon 20 members ballooned to nearly 200.

“It’s the most growing sport around,” Shoemaker said. “I’ve had everyone come out, from people in their 20s up to 85. I’ve got two grown kids, five grandchildren and even the little one, who is four years old, she’s starting to play a little Pickleball herself. It’s a game for a lifetime and I just keep getting more and more calls about it all time.”

Masons Mill Park in Huntingdon Valley, which hosts biweekly matches, has even painted official Pickleball courts, Shoemaker said. He attributes the game’s rapid spread to its social nature.

“It’s unbelievable how people find out from friends and relatives and say, ‘When can I play? The sooner the better,’” he said. “And they keep coming back – that’s the thing – because it’s social. Once you get started, you want to keep coming back.”

Dan Wheeler, who won the gold medal in his age division at last year’s USA Pickleball Association National Tournament in Arizona, started another biweekly group at Mount Airy’s Pleasant Park in April. “Most people are coming to Pleasant, especially the better players,” he said. “We mix the better and the weaker players sometimes, but often, for competition, the better players want to play among themselves.”

As for the Olympics, he doesn’t expect to see Pickleball alongside trampolining and curling any time soon. “I don’t see that happening,” he said. “It’s not a knock against the game. While Pickleball is played in some other countries, it’s pretty much a U.S. sport.”

Brand new set of rules

– Pickleball is played on a badminton or tennis court with the net lowered and a smaller area marked off. Players use lightweight wood or composite paddles and a perforated plastic ball similar to a whiffle ball.

– Games can be played in singles or doubles and usually end at 11 points. A point can only be scored by the server or serving team.

– The server hits the ball underhand from below the waist with both feet behind the baseline. The ball must bounce once before the receiver can return it and bounce again before the server can hit it back. After that, the ball can be hit either in the air or after it bounces.

– The game is more accessible than tennis or badminton because the short racquets require less hand-eye coordination, the underhand style is easier on the joints, the smaller court means less distance running and the perforated ball travels slower, making each rally longer.

– Groups ranging between 12 and 20 people meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Pleasant Park, East Slocum Street and Chew Avenue, at 5:30 p.m. and play until dark. Groups also meet on Saturdays at 9:30 a.m. at Masons Mill Park, 3500 Masons Mill Road. For more locations and times, check out the Pickleball meetup group of Philadelphia and the suburbs.

And why is it called ‘Pickleball’?

1965 – Pickleball was invented by Washington State congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell at Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island, Washington by creating four wooden paddles and using a perforated plastic ball to play on the property’s old badminton court. It was named for the the Pritchard family cocker spaniel, Pickles, who used to chase the stray balls and hide them in the bushes.

1967 –
Pritchard had the first permanent Pickleball court constructed in his Seattle backyard.

1976 – The world’s first known Pickleball tournament was held at the South Center Athletic Club in Tukwila, Washington.

1984 – The USA Pickleball Association was formed to promote the sport’s growth and advancement on a national level, the first rulebook was published and the first composite paddle was constructed by a Boeing Industrial Engineer with the fiberglass, Nomex and honeycomb panels used by commercial airlines for their floors and structural systems.

2005 –
USAPA reorganized as a nonprofit more focused on promoting Pickleball as a sport than crafting a lucrative business.

2008 – The Rules Committee published the USA Pickleball Association Official Tournament Rulebook. Pickleball came to Philadelphia.

2008 – 420 places to play on about 1500 individual courts in 43 states and four Canadian provinces were listed on the USAPA website, up from 39 known places to play on about 150 individual courts in ten states and three Canadian provinces in 2003.

2009 - The first USAPA National Tournament was held in Buckeye, Arizona and drew nearly 400 players of all ages from 26 states and several Canadian provinces.


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