Pickleball is a sweet game with a sour name. It began in 1965. Joel Pritchard, congressman from Washington State and Bill Bell, successful businessman, were relaxing at Pritchard’s home on Bainbridge Island, WA (near Seattle). They began dreaming up a game their families could play together. The property had an old badminton court so Pritchard and Bell looked for some badminton equipment and could not find a full set of rackets. They improvised and started playing with Ping-Pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball. At first, they placed the net at badminton height of 60 inches and volleyed the ball over the net. As the weekend progressed, the players found that the ball bounced well on the asphalt surface and soon the net was lowered to 36 inches. The following weekend, Barney McCallum was introduced to the game at Pritchard’s home. Soon, the three men created rules, relying heavily on badminton. They kept in mind the original purpose, which was to provide a game that the whole family could play together. Despite rumors about a dog named Pickle, the game was created before the dog joined the family.
Flash forward to the summer of 2014; my wife and I were visiting the Mount Shasta area when we decided to play tennis one morning. After playing for an hour, we noticed about 12 people our age playing a different game on the tennis courts near us. Curious, we wandered over to watch and witness the laughing and verbal jousting the group joyously engaged in as they hit a tennis ball sized whiffle ball with a short-handled paddle. It didn’t take long before the group began asking us to join them.
Pickleball (PB) is played on what could be described as a small tennis court; the smaller dimensions mean less running and more fast-paced interaction. It is played with four people, and the social interaction tends to be light-hearted and fun.
Soon, my wife and I were wielding paddles made from featherweight materials such as graphite composites that allow the ball to travel when hit—think of a Wiffle ball the size of a tennis ball with evenly spaced holes. The ball is light enough to be blown by the wind or spun skillfully off a paddle. The game itself rewards touch, finesse, placement, and patience rather than power, so both women and men can compete evenly. The most effective shot is the delicately placed dink just barely going over the net.
Soon, we were hooked on PB, however, we couldn’t find anyone playing nearby until we heard about a friendly group in Cambria. We joined their group and made the 50-mile round-trip journey twice a week. Shortly after, a small group formed in Cayucos and played on the tennis courts there until the group merged with the rapidly growing base in Morro Bay.
It doesn’t cost much to play—just purchase a paddle for between $40 and $120 and a good pair of court shoes. Most courts ask for a donation when you come to play—MB asks for $1 and supplies balls, paddles, chairs, and racks to hang your paddle while waiting to join a game. You may even borrow a used paddle from the box.
In 2016, Kathryn Thomas and her husband Robert began organizing a group at Del Mar Park in Morro Bay. Similar to Cambria’s start-up, they had to use portable nets. Eventually, the growing group of PB players petitioned the Morro Bay City Council for permanent courts at Del Mar. The City Council looked at the growing interest and decided to help. That is when MB Pickleball took off. The laser-leveled, brightly colored, fenced courts made the game much more enjoyable. Today, one can visit the Del Mar courts and find 40–60 people playing, laughing, competing, and making new friends. Since the game is less physically taxing than tennis, many BabyBoomers have taken it up. Lately, more young people are playing because they like the fast pace, close proximity, and excitement of the game— think Ping-Pong only with a larger net and playing area.
The PB experience in Morro Bay draws people from all over the country and even some visitors from overseas. People bring their paddles and are soon in a game making new friends. Many retired folks come from other areas to vacation here knowing they can participate and play their favorite game right here in Morro Bay. Today, pickleball sites are located in several locations throughout our county. Morro Bay PB holds regular clinics for those who want to learn the game; it also hosts tournaments such as the Polka Dot one held last year. Morro Bay players are fortunate because we can play outside all year long whereas other areas in the country have to move inside during the winter.
Kathryn Thomas has moved on, but the Morro Bay courts are here to stay thanks to local volunteers like Susan Craig who organizes parties and get-togethers, Elliot Gong (ambassador), Nancy and Kathy (Fish and Game officers) who are leading an effort to acquire a court-side defibrillator, Skip Sorich whose free labor helped improve the courts (and he offers free lessons to new players), and Donna Shaw who is the chairwoman of the club.
Often, I am asked about what kind of people play pickleball. The other day there were children as young as 10 and adults as old as 80. They come from all different walks of life: David, a newly retired teacher, Greg—a Vietnam vet who flew helicopters evacuating wounded soldiers, Susan and Stan who run a real estate company in Morro Bay, Frank (6’ 4” good luck hitting a lob over his head), Gordon—a retired doctor, Howard—a lawyer, and other regulars like Brian & Sheila, Jeff, Lance, Bob, Harry, Chuck (age 80), Keith, Carla, Sandy, Sue, Rich, Diane, Jeff, Lou, Rob, Erin, George, Muffy, and Kim. These are just some of the regulars who come and play for fun.
Some individuals took up pickleball because of shoulder injuries; they could not serve an overhead tennis ball anymore. PB requires one to serve underhand, although some individuals still manage to spin it or fire it past an opponent. Tennis players take to the game quickly as do Ping-Pong players and other eye-hand coordinated people. One popular feature at MB involves how the courts are stratified according to skill level, so you can play at whatever level you choose.
Laguna Middle School in San Luis Obispo has offered pickleball as one of the 7th grade PE units for the past 35 years. As a result, grandparents can play the game with their grandchildren.
If you want to learn more, go to YouTube to view amateur and professional videos of the game—better yet, come to Del Mar Park any morning and visit the pickleball courts. You’ll be glad you did.