Pickleball is Bainbridge Island’s contribution to the world of sports. Indeed, it was on an old converted badminton court on the front lawn of Carol and Scott Stover’s home on Pleasant Beach Drive where the game first began in the mid-1960s.
The origins of the game should be familiar to most islanders by now, but it is certainly worth repeating. Three friends, Barney McCallum, Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard, along with their families, developed the game back in the summer of 1965 and began playing on that dusty, old slab of asphalt.
Bordered by trees and an old outbuilding, and showing a few signs of wear, the game’s first court – still in its original condition – is something of a shrine to pickleballers everywhere.
Over the years, the Stovers have been gracious hosts to countless locals, pickleball world champions, authors, historians, and passionate players from around the world, including at the first Founders Tournament in 2019 when some visitors literally knelt and kissed the court.
“It happens all the time,” Scott said regarding the number of pickleball pilgrims, some as far away as Florida and Hawaii, who occasionally come knocking at his door.
For their decades-long maintenance and care-taking of the first court, the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum (BIHM)recently recognized the Stovers as one of their 2021 “History Heroes”. Dave and Kathleen Thorne and Karen Vargas were also honored during the online ceremony.
“We are so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with (the Stovers) and feel grateful for the work they’ve done (in) preserving Court #1 on their property,” said Brianna Kosowitz, Executive Director of BIHM.
“They have done what is sometimes the hardest part of history,” added Sean Megy, a BIHM board member and volunteer and himself an avid island pickleball player. “They have preserved it. With the construction we see on our shores, it isn’t hard to think there are many different ideas someone could have for waterfront property. Instead they have chosen to honor the legacy of the game.”
The Stovers were as surprised as anyone when they learned they would be receiving the History Heroes award, that includes a beautiful crystal-etched trophy with their names inscribed on it.
“We had no idea,” said Carol. “We were very surprised and very honored. … We got to know Brianna and the history people while putting on the Founders Tournament.”
“I guess we were doing the right thing,” interjected Scott, with a laugh.
Along with allowing tours of the first court during the tournament – held in August 2019 – the Stovers lent organizers original paddles and other historic equipment for display.
The couple, who have been married for 48 years, were among the founding group of pickleball players. Carol is a second cousin of Barney McCallum and she and Scott have played most of their adult lives. They’re even pictured on one of McCallum’s original 1970s-era pickleball box sets that included paddles, balls and a net and sold for under $30.
Moreover, Scott played in the first ever tournament at Green River Community College in 1976 and won! Interestingly, Arlen Parento, the father of one of his opponents that day, was a Boeing engineer and would go on to fashion the first composite pickleball paddle in 1984.
Today, pickleball is one of the country’s, if not the world’s, fastest growing sports. It’s estimated that nearly three million people are playing in the United States alone, as courts sprout up in places like Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida and Minnesota.
“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.”
At Battle Point Park, on any given day in almost any type of weather, you can find people playing pickleball. Last summer, six new courts – aptly named the Founders Courts – opened for play at the park adjacent to the long-standing tennis courts.
Getting court time on the new courts, or some of the re-striped tennis courts, when they are available isn’t easy to come by, according to those in the know.
“It’s crazy,” said Scott Stover. “They’re sweeping the snow off the courts” in order to play. “During Covid time, lots of people are playing and the courts are overbooked. They need to build six more!”
Meanwhile, Megy says pickleball on the island, where he estimates more than 400 people are playing on a regular basis, is a great form of camaraderie and sociability for many people.
“The game is played by all races, colors, religions, abilities, and little kids to folks in their ‘80s and ‘90s,” he said. “It is a game that unites, and encourages sportsmanship. In fact it creates community.”
Next up for the island’s pickleball community are plans for the 2021 Founders Tournament. A kickoff meeting will be held virtually at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 11.
“We (will) introduce our plans for the tournament this year, gather any feedback, drink some wine (virtually of course), answer any questions, and detail opportunities to get involved,” Megy said. “We have many new and exciting elements to reveal for this years tournament, including play format changes to ensure more games; venue additions; and organizational partnership details.”
A Founders Tournament paddle signed by co-founder Barney McCallum will be given away by random drawing of attendees near the close of the mixer. If you are interested in attending, follow the link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/6379031024