Born on Bainbridge Island – Pickleball is for Everyone!
My interest in pickleball came about several months ago, when Mickey Molnaire at the Chamber of Commerce, suggested it would make a great article, after all, my blog is all about Bainbridge Island and pickleball was born right here. During my initial research stage, I was amazed just how popular this game is, and how it’s grown exponentially, becoming one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, as well as internationally.
It all began one summer afternoon in 1965, when Joel Pritchard and his friend, Bill Bell, returned to Joel’s Bainbridge Island home after a game of golf, to find a very bored group of family members (I can just imagine the cries from the children…“Daaaad…I’m bored”…). The old badminton court on the property seemed like the obvious solution, and Joel and Bill went in search of the equipment only to find there wasn’t a full set of rackets anywhere to be found. The solution, improvise! They gathered up some Ping-Pong paddles and a perforated plastic ball and began volleying the ball over the 60 inch net (badminton height). However, it didn’t take long to realize that the asphalt surface of the court was ideal for bouncing the ball, and they decided to lower the net to 36 inches. The game was a huge success, and the following weekend they introduced it to another friend, Barney McCallum. Barney was just as smitten with the game as the Pritchard and Bell families, and soon the three men created formal rules (using badminton as a guideline), always keeping in mind the main focus — a game the whole family, regardless of age or athletic prowess, could play together.
By 1967 the game had become a hit on Bainbridge Island and the first permanent pickleball court was built in the backyard of the Pritchard’s neighbor and friend, Bob O’Brien, in 1972 a corporation was formed to protect the game. As the mid-1970s rolled around, the game received national recognition via articles published by The National Observer in 1975 and in 1976 an article titled “America’s Newest Racquet Sport” in Tennis magazine. In the spring of 1976, the first known tournament was held in Tukwila, Washington. Over the next eight years, the game would continue to gain momentum and in 1984 the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) was organized. The official rule book was published in March of that year as well as the creation of the first composite paddle made by Arlen Paranto, a Boeing Industrial Engineer. By 1990, the game was being played in all fifty states. In 2001 the game made its debut at the Arizona Senior Olympics, played at the Happy Trails RV Park in Surprise, AZ, 100 players participated in that tournament and over the next few years it grew to almost 300 players. By 2003 there were approximately 150 courts nationwide and in three Canadian Provinces, it was also included in the Huntsman World Senior Games, held each year in St. George, Utah. In 2017, the International Federation of Pickleball sanctioned an annual international competition, attracting players from around the world, this year’s game was held in Essen, Germany. Fast-forward to 2019 and you’ll find approximately 4,000 locations on the USAPA’s Places 2 Play Map, as well as many international venues.
Although pickleball has become a national and international sensation, it’s never lost its hometown roots or the reason it began in the first place; a fun family sport.
“On Bainbridge Island today no one actually knows how many pickleball courts exist because the courts are nearly all privately owned. The game grew as a family sport and residents set up their own courts by adding single court asphalt areas or using existing sport court space. Many painted lines on the streets and played there in the evenings with their kids and neighbors.”
Wanting to know more about this hometown sport, I reached out to the Bainbridge Island Pickleball group and was pleased to be contacted by Larry McMillian. Larry was great and very informative, but suggested I speak with Clay Roberts, one of the “de facto” leaders of what Clay calls “pickleball flash mob here on Bainbridge”.
Clay and I started off with a very important question: the name. I’d read two different versions as to how the name pickleball came about—it has nothing to do with pickles. According to Joan Pritchard (Joel’s wife), “the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats”. However, according to Barney McCallum, the name came about because the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, would chase the ball and run off with it, as Barney put it, “The Pritchards’ had a dog named Pickles, and you’re having fun at a party, right? So anyways, what the hell, let’s just call it pickleball”. Although it’s believed that there is truth to both stories, the latter seems to be the most popular.
Clay explained that there isn’t a formal pickleball club on Bainbridge Island, thus his term “flash mob”. For the most part, the game is regularly played at Battle Point Park tennis courts (for other island locations, click here) with permission from BI Parks & Rec, the courts were modified by adding blue pickleball lines over the white tennis court lines, thus creating a dual-court venue. On average, the Battle Point courts see approximately 400-plus players a month, in May alone they logged almost 600 players. This popularity made it quite obvious, they needed their own dedicated courts.
They approached BI Parks & Rec department to discuss the possibility of dedicated pickleball courts—the idea was a hit, and it was decided that building new courts alongside the existing tennis courts at Battle Point Park would best serve both the tennis and pickleball communities. They also contacted the Sequim Picklers, who’d just completed their new courts, which were the ideal layout, and the Bainbridge Island Pickleballers hoped to emulate their design. Architect Christiane Johnson of KataTjuta Architecture was the pro-bono designer of the Sequim courts, and generously donated the plans to the Bainbridge Island Pickleballers. Although BI Parks & Rec are still in the process of finalizing their approval for development funding, collecting bids and finalizing the design, the dream of the new “Founders Court” at Battle Point Park is well on its way. In addition to the new courts, they hope to install kiosks depicting the history of the game and promote the courts’ use for developing young players in both pickleball and tennis.
As our conversation was nearing its end, Clay tried to explain how the game was played, but we both quickly realized my athletically-challenged brain wasn’t grasping it, so he suggested I head out to the courts at Battle Point Park to observe and possibly play a game or two.
The predominate theme in my conversations with Larry and Clay revolved around the social aspect of the sport and the players’ desire to share and teach anyone and everyone about it. When I arrived at the Battle Point courts, that theme was immediately evident. I’d only just approached the chain-link fence surrounding the courts, when several people asked if I was interested in playing…had I played before…they had extra paddles…come on in! After explaining why I was there, I was directed to Dean Sterrett, who was currently involved in a game. Jill Sterrett, Dean’s wife, and Rebecca Goldsmith waited with me and we chatted about the game. They told me that quite often, passersby would stop at the fence to watch, and the players would immediately encourage them to come in and play—that’s just how it is, social, inviting, and welcoming. They pointed out several of the usual players, which ranged in age from an eleven year old boy, a young lady from Bainbridge High School, and a variety of men and women between the ages of twenty and ninety—some were playing more relaxed games, some were quite competitive, all were having a great time. Pickleball is a low-impact sport, making it ideal for people of all ages, genders and athletic ability.
“Placement beats power every time.”
After Dean’s game, both he and Jill gave me a rundown of the game rules, how it was played, and we even volleyed the ball back and forth for a bit. The game always begins in the Northwest corner of the court (a tribute to its birthplace here in the Pacific Northwest), and is played as doubles or singles, doubles being the most common. The first serve must be made underhand and the ball must hit the paddle below the server’s navel level, games are played to 11 points, but must be won by at least 2 points. For more detailed rules and regulations, click here. Dean began playing a few years ago, three times a week. Now he plays almost every day and has recruited Jill, who said she was a novice player, but she clearly knows her stuff. In a nutshell, pickleball is addictive and a wonderful way to get out and exercise, socialize and generally enjoy yourself.
To honor this important part of island history, the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum presented a plaque to Barney McCallum, the last living founder of pickleball, to be placed at the location of the first pickleball court in the Pleasant Beach neighborhood of the island. In addition, they are sponsoring a Founders Tournament, which will be held August 22-25, 2019 at Bainbridge Island High School. For deadlines and the tournament schedule, click here.
Stop by the museum to view their pickleball exhibit and learn a bit more about the sport, you can also pick up a signed copy of The History of Pickleball: More Than 50 Years of Fun! by Jennifer Lucore and Beverly Youngren. Jennifer is a gold medal champion who has won the top titles in 17 USAPA Nationals, 11 Canadian Nationals, 6 International, 4 Tournament of Champions, and 2 US Open events, she’s also a pickleball blogger. Beverly and her husband, Bob, began playing in the 1990s and have played competitively for almost 20 years. If you are unable to stop by the museum and pick up Jennifer and Beverly’s book, you can purchase it here.
A special thank you to Larry McMillan, Clay Roberts, Dean and Jill Sterrett, Bill Walker and Sean Megy for taking the time to speak with me about the game. An additional thank you to Rick Chandler, Curator of the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum for allowing me to photograph the exhibit.
*Photographs by Margaret Millmore. Pickleball museum exhibit photographs by Margaret Millmore and taken with permission from the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. Dedication photograph by Sean Megy, dedication plaque photograph by Bill Schilling.