Pickle-Ball -- Founders Of Game Say Paddle Sport Simply Is A Barrel Of Fun

When he was introduced to Pickle-Ball several years ago, Sid Williams of Tacoma thought it was a ``wimpy'' sport.

``I found out differently, once I got out on the court,'' Williams said. ``I was sore for two days.''

Williams became so enamored with Pickle-Ball that he later became executive director of the U.S.A. Pickleball Association, which oversees tournament play, mostly in the Northwest.

``It's a good workout, a good aerobics exercise,'' he said.

The sport was the invention of Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard and a few friends, created to ease the boredom of Pritchard's children during a vacation at the family's summer home on Bainbridge Island 25 years ago.

What Pritchard inadvertently developed, along with Barney McCallum and Bill Bell, was a game for all ages.

``This was a game we made up for fun, a game kids could play and that kids in the inner city could play,'' Pritchard said. ``It's a great party game. Anyone can learn in 20 minutes how to hit the ball and have fun.''

Pickle-Ball, as a game with a registered trademark is properly capitalized like Frisbee, now is played in the United States and Canada. And by all ages. Several hundred older Seattle-area residents regularly play at senior centers, parks and recreation facilities and community centers. Tournament players range in age, Williams said, from 8 to 81.

``It's becoming a competitive sport,'' Williams said. ``There are 5,000 to 7,000 people in the Puget Sound area who play it competitively.''

Although there are only estimates of the number of participants, recreational players around the country probably number into the hundreds of thousands. Pickle-Ball Inc., a marketing and production company formed by Pritchard, Bell and McCallum, based in Ballard, sells about 150,000 balls, 30,000 paddles and 7,500 complete sets a year.

``We sell in all 50 states, mainly to junior high and high school programs,'' said Doug Smith, the company's manager.

Pritchard, a longtime tennis and badminton player, developed the game for his children, who said, typically, that they didn't have anything to do.

``We worked on it for two or three days and had it pretty much worked out in four or five days,'' Pritchard said.

Pritchard and friends fiddled first with worn-out badminton equipment, then carved out wooden rackets. Gradually, they pieced together something that made sense.

What evolved was a game played with wooden paddles slightly larger than those used in table tennis. Also used are a plastic whiffle ball and a tennis-style net that has a height of three feet.

``What makes it such a great game is that the serve isn't so dominant, like it is in tennis,'' Pritchard said.

Serves must be below the waist and the serving side must allow the return of serve to bounce, thus eliminating the serve-and-volley advantage. No volleying is permitted within seven feet of the net, preventing players from executing smashes from a position at the net.

``We got pretty fussy about the rules,'' Pritchard said.

Once the rules were agreed upon, the new sport needed a name. It was widely accepted that Pritchard, then a state representative who later served 12 years in Congress, named the game after his dog, Pickles. Actually, Pickles was named after the game.

``I said we needed a nutty name,'' Pritchard said. ``Something like Pickle-Ball.''

Pickle-Ball is played on a hard surface 44 feet long and 20 feet wide, about half the size of a tennis court. McCallum and another friend, Robert O'Brien, were the first to build courts, Pritchard said. Sen. Slade Gorton, then state attorney general, built courts at his home in Olympia and summer home on Whidbey Island.

``Slade was the only person I know who had two courts,'' Pritchard said.

Compared with tennis, Pickle-Ball is a space-saver that can be played in driveways, using portable sets, or gymnasiums.

The sport gained popularity slowly. Pritchard and associates did not form a company until 1972, seven years after they invented it. The company imports nets from Wisconsin and solid balls from Ohio. Holes are punched in the balls by a small company in Clearview, where paddles also are made.

Although the company is profitable, Pritchard said ``we've never taken a dime out of it. We thought if we built a better mouse trap maybe it'll grow. And it has.''

Because a game cannot be patented, the Ballard company has competition from several other firms. Larger sports companies have inquired about buying out the local firm, Pritchard said, ``but they were looking for a backyard game.'' A drawback is that it cannot be played on grass.

Simple to learn, Pickle-Ball has the same skill levels as any other racket sport, from novice to expert. Unlike tennis, however, it does not require extensive training and practice to reach an acceptable level of competence.

Quick reflexes and agility, rather than power and speed, are major attributes in Pickle-Ball.

However, people had better steer clear of games with the likes of Pritchard, McCallum and another Pritchard friend, Jim Weller. All in their early 60s, they play a strong, tough game.

While doubles is good exercise, depending on the level of competition, singles can be quite taxing.

``That's really true of tournaments,'' Williams said. ``I've seen players who could play eight games normally who come out of one game of tournament play exhausted. There's the anxiety factor. Every point is important so they try for everything. Nobody wants to lose.''

Pickle players have plenty of options

People who want to play Pickle-Ball shouldn't find themselves in a pickle for finding places to play. Any local tennis court will do, but several organizations have organized tournaments and leagues.

The United States of America Pickleball Association, headed by Sid Williams, organize 10 to 15 tournaments a year in the Puget Sound area. A major tournament is set for Sept. 7-9 at the Highline Athletic Club in Burien. Call 473-2266.

The Northwest Pickleball Players Association is a fledgling organization developed to ``reach out and make people aware of where to play'' in the region, said Ted Rihn, an interim board member. Write NWPPA at P.O. Box 4472, Federal Way, 98063-4472.

The fall program for drop-in Pickle-Ball begins Sept. 27 at Mountlake Terrace Junior High School, 5303 228th St. S.W. Seniors will play on the six courts from 4 to 6 p.m., with open play from 6 to 8 p.m. The cost is $1.50, with free use of equipment. For details, call 775-6477.

Each quarter at Kent Commons, an evening doubles league is organized. Cost for the next league, Sept. 20-15, is $55 per team. To preregister call 859-3350.