A pickleball enthusiast digs deep into his enthusiasm for the popular sport — and finds that what it really delivers is a sense of community.
Words and photographs by Jedidiah Gant
In my late 30s, I hurt my knee playing indoor soccer. This was a blow: From travel teams to my high school team to college intramurals and pickup games as an adult, I’d been playing soccer for decades. It was the center of my exercise and social life. I’d played on many fields, met many people — some of whom are now my best friends — and shared many pints after matches.
But my doctor said I should only run and bike — activities where you move forward in a straight line. Both were sports that involved a lot of solitude and individual motivation. I did them somewhat begrudgingly.
Then, on a trip to visit family in Massachusetts last July, I discovered pickleball. (I’d seen it before: many years ago, my family stumbled into Worthdale Community Center and saw senior citizens playing a new paddle game in the gym. We’d asked about playing, but we would’ve had to rent paddles, and the courts were all full.) My brother-in-law had been playing for years, and I was recovering from Covid and needed to socialize outdoors for the remainder of my quarantine. He volunteered to teach me the game.
It came pretty naturally, a credit to growing up playing tennis, as well as many ping-pong games in friends’ garages and breweries over the years. It felt like the perfect mix of these two sports.
We played in the 90-degree heat as I adjusted to the new rules, equipment and court. The ball is lightweight and plastic, sort of a hard version of a wiffle ball; the paddles are hard and bigger than ping-pong paddles.
There’s an area close to the net called the “kitchen,” or No Volley Zone, where you can’t (ahem) volley the ball. Short shots are called “dinks.” The game has a side-out scoring system, which means you can only score a point when you are serving. Lots to learn!
But after one game, I was hooked. We played several more times on vacation, and I bought a few paddles and balls. My wife and kids got into it as well. When we got back to Raleigh, I researched public courts and learned about two locations close by, at the North Hills and Method Road parks.
I was nervous the first time I approached the packed North Hills court. I knew no one and barely knew how to play the game. There was a mysterious system to get into a game that I didn’t understand — racks with color-coded slots for paddles. Luckily, some regulars explained it to me, so I popped my paddle into a slot and got ready for my turn.
I needn’t have worried: From the moment I stepped onto the courts, I was immediately welcomed. Everyone had a smile and was willing to play with a stranger. The first few games were fun, even though I’m sure I made several mistakes.
One year later, I’m one of those regulars. I’m at North Hills several days per week, playing with whoever shows up — partners that range in age from 10 to 76 with all genders and races in between. (Once, a nun in a full habit was a challenger on the court.) I lose myself in the game on the regular, playing for hours at a time.
We joke that “One More Game” is the sport’s unofficial motto. My wife and our son have gotten more into it, too, and I’ve even played several amateur tournaments with a partner I met on the court.
When I’m not playing, I’m on text chains, group chats, Facebook groups and email newsletters. I have apps on my phone to find courts when visiting a new state or city. I watch professional tournaments online and even traveled to Charlotte for finals day of the Professional Pickleball Association tournament.
In May, I worked with Artsplosure to put up three temporary pickleball courts in City Plaza featuring murals painted inside the kitchen. For the entirety of the two-day event, the courts were packed with newbies, families and regular players.
I know my obsession is just part of a nationwide phenomenon — ESPN, Amazon Prime Video, CBS and more have signed up to air tournaments live, local tournaments are constantly popping up and many more pickleball courts are planned in the area.
I think I know why: Pickleball is more than just a fad sport. It’s a cultural catalyst. I’ve never seen anything quite like the democratic, impromptu and cooperative aspect of the game. It’s like pick-up basketball, but accessible to more age ranges and skill levels. Pickleball offers something we can all use more of in our lives: friends, exercise and, more than anything, community.
If you’re ever in need of a partner to hit the courts, I’m always up for one more game.
This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.