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Pickleball: Developing a taste for the sweet sport with the sour name

Pickleball player Joe LoRusso 0718916

First, start with the name. Pickleball?

The funny-sounding name notwithstanding, pickleball is a sport, and a growing one at that, its aficionados will tell you.

Mentioning the word “pickleball” is bound to prompt curious looks from those who had never heard of it before.

If pickleball is the best-kept secret in sports, that may not be the case for long. Those who know the game that is played on a court one-third the size of a tennis court with a paddle and a plastic ball that resembles a Wiffle ball, will tell you it is on the rise. The sport’s national governing body, the USA Pickleball Association, calls it “one of the fastest growing sports in America.” Nationwide, there are more than 2.46 million pickleball players, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. USAPA membership is on the rise. Since 2010, membership has increased by 503 percent, according to USAPA spokesman John Scott.

The USAPA says there are almost 13,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the United States.

A younger generation of pickleball players is making its way, too. Some schools have incorporated pickleball into their physical education programs.

The emergence of pickleball on eastern Long Island may be attributed to snowbirds, who brought more than a suntan back with them from Florida, where pickleball is huge and where some of them discovered the sport. When they returned to New York for the summer, they had trouble finding places to play.

The Villages, Florida, has been labeled the pickleball capital of the country. Carol Czujko of Mattituck used to spend time in The Villages. “We would play like crazy for the whole month we were in Florida, and then we would come back home and there was no pickleball,” she said. “Now it’s becoming more and more popular. More people are learning about it.”

That is thanks to the efforts of people like Artie Johnsen of Calverton. Pickleball Artie, as he is called, was credited with bringing pickleball to Riverhead three years ago after a long lobbying effort with the town.

Johnsen said when he first approached town officials about getting pickleball started, “They were like, ‘What’s pickleball?’ They look at you like you’re a little crazy.”

Four pickleball courts have been set up at Stotzky Memorial Park in Riverhead, which will host the fourth annual Pickleball Fall Classic Tournament for players age 50 and older in October. In addition, a tennis court at South Jamesport Beach has been reserved for pickleball on Wednesday evenings.

“It has really grown a lot,” said Ashley King, the assistant Riverhead recreation program coordinator.

King said 25 teams participated in a tournament at Stotzky Memorial Park last month, and the courts are packed with people on Saturday mornings. During the winter months, indoor pickleball is played at Riley Avenue School.

Pickleball has arrived in the Town of Southold, too. Like Johnsen, Nick Cordone of Southold is an ambassador for the USAPA, recruiting players and spreading the word about the game. He has overseen three sold-out instructional clinics at Jean W. Cochran Park in Peconic this summer, where two of three tennis courts have pickleball markings in yellow paint.

“It’s been an overwhelming success so far,” said Ken Reeves, the former Southold recreation supervisor who is working for the department as a consultant.

Reeves said the three sessions maxed out at 16 people per session. “We have an extensive waiting list,” he said. “It’s very popular. People want to learn.”

Cordone said the qualifications for playing pickleball are simple. “If [you] can pick up a paddle and still swing, if you can move, you can play,” he said while his 5-year-old granddaughter, Ava, stood nearby, holding a paddle.

And therein lies a great attraction to pickleball. Although it is open to players of all ages, it is particularly alluring to the 50-plus set because it is more forgiving to the body. Played on a court about one-third the size of a tennis court, less running is involved and much of the swinging is underhanded, allowing players to enjoy an aerobic activity while limiting the aches and pains that might be felt playing tennis or paddleball.

“The workout is tremendous,” Cordone, 68, said. “This particularly age group now is looking for something beyond tennis because they’re getting beat up by tennis.”

Pickleball is also inexpensive and fun to play.

“You get hooked on it,” Johnsen said. “I love the sport. I love the activity. The people that you meet are just fantastic. They’re not there for anything other than to stay healthy.”

Story after story has been related about players being sold on the sport the first time they played it. Randi Ackerman, who splits time between Cutchogue and The Villages with her husband Gary, can be counted among them. She said she plays four or five times a week. “I would play every day, three times a day,” she said. “If someone calls me to play, I never say no.”

And then there is someone like Joe LoRusso, 73, of Baiting Hollow. While wintering in Marco Island, Florida, LoRusso and his wife, Laurie, visited some tennis courts one day to see what was going on and saw a funny looking court. They were introduced to pickleball and took lessons.

“That was the beginning of the insanity,” he said.

A retired mechanical contractor, LoRusso became so enthralled by the sport that he built a concrete pickleball court in his Baiting Hollow backyard two years ago.

Pickleball has been the subject of national television features, the sport with the funny name. It is an odd name.

“It’s like almost embarrassing,” said Lillian Simpson of Southold, who played for only the third time last Thursday in Peconic. “Are you kidding? Pickleball?”

So, where did that silly name come from?

The game was invented in 1965 by a congressman from Washington State, Joel Pritchard, and businessman Bill Bell, according to the USAPA. Accounts differ on the origin of the name. One claim is that Pritchard’s wife, Joan, called the game pickleball because it was a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong, similar to a pickle boat in crew in which oarsmen were chosen from leftover boats. Another account has it that the sport was named after the Pritchards’ dog, Pickles, who chased the ball and ran off with it.

Regardless of what it is called, pickleball may be the most democratic of all sports.

Jim Christy, who lives in Mattituck and The Villages, has never seen anything like it. He said it is a sport in which a newcomer can improve dramatically quite quickly.

“Everybody has an opportunity to be very successful at it, regardless of age, regardless of sex and, quite frankly, regardless of health,” he said. “You will never find [another] sport like that.”

Judy McGunnigle of Peconic found that out when she took the sport up seven years ago.

“I was somebody who never did any sports and I was able to step into it and have fun at it,” she said. “That’s the neat part about it. You can be unskilled and you can do it, and you can progress in your own fashion.”

Gary Ackerman said, “There’s a lot of strategy to it, a lot of finesse, and as you play it, you get better and better.”

That’s pickleball, the sweet sport with the sour name.

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Photo caption: Joe LoRusso, 73, likes the sport so much that he built a concrete pickleball court in the backyard of his Baiting Hollow home. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)