By Kim Hasty
Photography by Matthew Wonderly
OK, everyone, have a good evening.
Hey, let’s pack up those nets, turn off the lights and go home.
Ahem. Really, you guys. It’s closing time.
Welcome to Wednesday evening pickleball at Myers Park Recreation Center, where no one seems to want to stop playing. People have been dinking and volleying for nearly three hours now. Even so, if center assistant Dominique weren’t telling everyone it’s his duty to close the place up, it seems as if some folks would keep playing all night.
Perhaps you haven’t yet heard about pickleball, but you will. And you will love it. It may sound like a bit of a generalization to say that everyone who tries it loves it. But, really, everyone loves it.
“The first time I played,” says Jayshawn Campbell, “I was addicted.”
Campbell, a Westover High School graduate who played football and basketball and then ran track at Campbell University, is a 28-year-old lithe and lean staff sergeant in the Air Force stationed at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Like many people, he figured pickleball was for the senior citizen set when his father Jason encouraged him to play a few years ago.
That’s one of the unique attributes of pickleball, generally regarded as the fastest growing sport in America. Stop into Myers Rec on a Wednesday evening, and you’ll likely see people of all ages, shapes and sizes, demographics and ethnicities. And they’ll all be chatting, chuckling and rotating in and out of games on the three available courts in orderly fashion.
Chatting and chuckling, but also overhead slamming or deftly angling the ball out of each other’s reach every chance they get.
“It’s something you can learn and get really good at fast,” said retired veterinarian John Lauby. “And even the best players are really nice people.”
According to the USA Pickleball Association, the sport’s national governing body, the creation of the game is most often credited to three men in 1965. The three had returned home to Bainbridge Island, outside of Seattle, after a round of golf. Seeing their families sitting around, they ventured out to the backyard onto an old badminton court. Lowering the height of the net, they began hitting a plastic ball with ping pong paddles. The three men came up with rules for the game and purportedly named it after one of the family dogs, Pickles, who relentlessly chased after the balls.
Some say the game is a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong, but it also has elements of racquetball. Those who have played racquet sports seem to have the easiest time picking up pickleball, but anyone can catch on easily enough to enjoy themselves.
And sometimes that leads to leave other games behind.
Lauby, who is 77, discovered pickleball two years ago while on a tennis excursion to Palmetto Dunes on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. After a three-hour morning tennis clinic in the 100-degree July heat, he didn’t think he didn’t think he could endure another clinic scheduled that afternoon.
A friend offered him some advice: “They’re playing that pickle-something game over there and they’re laughing and having fun. Why don’t you join them?”
So Lauby did.
“And I haven’t picked up a tennis racquet since,” he said.
Pickleball has been steadily growing in Fayetteville through the efforts of several dedicated enthusiasts. The late Steve Beck was the one who invited Ted Fujimoto to play. Now Fujimoto sends regular emails to let everyone know weekly schedules and any issues that may arise.
When Fujimoto began playing, Hope Mills Recreation Center was the only site that offered the sport. The pioneering group or players, which includes, to name a few, Wayne Mayes, Horace Whitaker, Beatrice Beishline, Donn and Terry Hendrickson, Jason Campbell and Clarence Caldwell, approached Myers Recreation Center Director Monique Gilbert about setting up courts at her center.
“She’s been our biggest supporter,” Fujimoto said. “We appreciate her support so much.”
Gilbert allocated funds for a few nets, paddles and balls, then set aside that Wednesday evening timeslot, which has proven popular for the group. When it came time to resurface the basketball court, she had the crew paint pickleball lines.
“This group is a pleasure to have around,” she said. “I love having them here, and I’m glad to help in any way I can.”
Beishline introduced Sharon O’Hara to the game, who now is a regular with her husband, Pat. She points out another advantage of pickleball’s friendly atmosphere.
“As a member of a military family, I moved many times and never had time to meet people in community where I lived,” said O’Hara, who won a gold medal in pickleball with Beishline in the Cumberland County Senior Games a few years ago. “Pickleball in Fayetteville is like having a great big family that loves you whether you win or lose a game.”
Opportunities for play are growing. Gilbert introduced the local players to Tommy Stewart at J.S. Spivey Recreation Center. “Now we can play six days a week,” Fujimoto said.
Another big plus was the addition of three beautiful outdoor courts at Massey Hill Park, complete with lines and nets. The old tennis courts at Rowan Street Park also are now lined for pickleball, though nets have yet to be added.
Phil Harris, a lifelong Fayetteville resident who is executive director of the Highlands chapter of the American Red Cross, sees opportunities to grow pickleball in Fayetteville. He started played a few months ago, and he’s hooked.
“It seems like we’re talking about things like soccer complexes which are expensive propositions,” he said. “Maybe we could get some of the other rec centers onboard with pickleball. It’s a different model than other sports. The barrier for entry is pretty low. All you need is a racquet and some tennis shoes. It’s not like skiing or golf where you need clubs, green fees, lift tickets.”