ALTADENA, Calif. — There has to be a Sam-I-am in your orbit too, right? Somebody insistent: Do you like pickleball? Do you?
You’ve got to to know at least one evangelist pushing America’s Fastest Growing Sport like it was green eggs and ham: You may. You may like it. Try it! Try it!
Someone like Adam Do: You will see.
My personal pickleball liaison: A 24-year-old communications intern for the Los Angeles Clippers, who didn’t have to be especially pushy pitching a column about his new favorite pastime.
I’d been curious anyway: What’s the deal with this pickleball phenomenon?
Isn’t it a sort of ping pong-tennis hybrid meant for retirees?
Sure. Retirees like Andre Agassi and John McEnroe. And Tom Brady. But also LeBron James (who hasn’t retired yet). And NBA referees. And WNBA players. And non-athletic not-so-regular people too, like A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio and George Clooney. And, as of February, some 8.9 million people in the United States, by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s count.
You can’t have such a big hit on your hands without the participation of young people like Adam. The son of Vietnamese immigrants, he grew up in the San Gabriel Valley doing taekwondo, swimming at the YMCA and playing pickup hoops. No tennis nor ping pong in his past, but there’ll be days of pickleball ahead. Years, probably. Because the dude is downright devoted.
Invested might be a better word, considering the few hundred dollars he’s spent on proper paddles and how many hours he puts in at the court.
“It’s true that this sport is an easy-to-learn sport, but it’s really hard to master,” explained Adam, who was introduced by a friend about his age. “All the media coverage about how this sport is easy or it doesn’t require much from your body, it’s kind of like a misconception. It really depends on who you’re playing with. With how much the age range has widened, the play has also widened.”
In other words, oh, the places the game is going! – while, yes, annoying (some) neighbors. Turns out the pop-pop-pop of paddles can register as a welcome ASMR sensory experience to some, and like a brain-frying popcorn machine to others.
Bad news for all those audibly opposed: If you’re a pickleballer, the game has a way of leaving you wanting more, more, more. Remember when you were a kid playing Super Mario Bros. and you just kept restarting until you conquered a level? Like that.
Pickleball — picture, in our case, doubles tennis with paddles instead of rackets, on a 44-by-20-foot court with a 36-inch tall net and a 7-foot non-volley zone called the kitchen — isn’t easy to master, no.
But it’s easy to play, and as a first-to-11-points affair, it goes quickly, so it’s easy to just one more game a whole morning away.
Adam and I never had to wait more than 20 minutes, I’d say, to try to get our lick back. We went 1-4 on the recent Sunday morning he invited me out, even though there were 60 or so of his pickleballing friends gathered there at Charles S. Farnsworth Park in Altadena.
The crowd of people going back and forth on those four adjoining pickleball courts at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains was as diverse as a jury pool in L.A.
Maybe more. You won’t find yourself awaiting instructions beside a 7-year-old like Mateo Kućan-Mull.
From him to 70-something-year-olds, lawyers and professors and retired high school basketball coaches. Tennis players, past and present, going back and forth. Also people who used to hoop or play football or run long distances, some much more recently than others. About as many women as men.
And there’s no telling who the best players are until you see them in action. Although these folks kept telling me there is something of a tell: “If you see knee braces, you’re done. They’re gonna just smash on you,” Jason Crown, 27, said.
It’s truly an all-comers meet-up in a way that other recreational sports aren’t. You can’t very well pick up a basketball for the first time and be ready to go run five-on-five at the park, where if you’re a girl on the court, you’re either the only one, or maybe one of two.
Once upon a time, I was the youngest player — by decades — on slow-pitch softball teams with mostly working buddies. And I’ve seen the breadth of crowds at neighborhood pools, but it’s not like those folks are all going to hop in and have themselves a water polo match.
Public tennis courts throughout L.A. draw lots of ages and backgrounds too, from what I’ve experienced, but you generally play with who brought you.
Comparatively, pickleball is no-pressure speed-dating. A quick dance to 11 and then a timeout, not so much to catch your breath as to catch up with other players.
“I met so many people up here, that’s the thing that gets me,” Marvin Walker, 57, said. “They’re nice up here. I don’t know what they do when they get in their car and go to wherever, but up here, it’s nice people, very nice, and all different ages. That’s what I like about it. You know when you can go to an environment where you ain’t gonna have no drama? That’s what I like.”
Pickleball is for everyone, even if it isn’t for everyone.
Not everybody is so eager to socialize.
And the pickleball explosion has coincided with an uptick in tennis, too, the USTA announcing this year that participation has grown for three consecutive years, to more than 23.6 million. And with court space at a premium at most places, it’s led to some hard feelings.
And some people, well, they just don’t like it, Sam-I-am.
So they say. But try it! Try it! And you may.