FORT WAYNE – Basketball involves a basket.
Football needs a foot.
There is a base in baseball – four, to be precise.
And the concept to dodge ball is quite obvious.
We could continue this line of logic, but by now you get the picture.
Yet there is a game gaining popularity called “pickleball,” which has absolutely nothing to do with pickles, be they dill, cucumber, buttered, speared or sweet gherkin. So let’s get that out front: Pickleball is not a formed, mushy sphere on a unique relish tray surrounded by carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes and deviled eggs.
Pickleball is a sport; an activity; an outdoor or indoor hybrid of tennis, table tennis and badminton.
Picture a 22-by-10-foot pingpong table (sans legs) and two people (or one, if we’re talking singles) on each side of a net whacking a Mountain Dew-colored whiffle ball with wooden paddles larger than those used for table tennis but smaller than racquetball racquets.
Serving is underhand, corner to corner. Because of a 7-foot line that spans the width of the court, players can’t stand at the net, like in tennis. Game is to 11 points, win by two.
Except the organizers of the recent Senior Games at Lions Park waived the win-by-two rule to speed up the 64-person men’s and women’s tournament that was sponsored by the Fort Wayne Parks Department.
The question put to 85-year-old Max Beck, who had just come off one of the five courts, was simple: “So what’s the object here?”
Beck’s answer was equally simple: “Beat the other team, which we haven’t done so far.”
If anybody knows pickleball, it’s Beck, a Huntington native and retired machinist from Slater Steel.
Every winter, between Thanksgiving and the first of April, Beck and his wife, Clara, would venture to Mission, Texas, on the southern tip near Brownsville, where they first saw their first game of pickleball.
When he and Clara came back north and realized nobody around Huntington or Fort Wayne knew the game, Beck made it a point to educate them.
“Been playing it, oh, eight years, I guess. I’m not quite sure,” Beck says. “When you get our age, you don’t keep track of years; you sorta forget ’em.”
Obviously it’s a game for all ages, but because of the compact court which limits running at full speed, it’s ideal for those with silver in their hair and titanium in their hips and knees.
“I used to be a tennis player,” says 73-year-old Lynn Boggs, whose matching vertical scars down both knees are the evidence of double-knee replacement surgery in December. “When I heard about this, I love it.”
Ken Flora didn’t know the game until he and a friend went to see what all the ruckus was about.
“I got in the door and they stuck a paddle in my hand at Franke Park,” he says. “They kicked the devil out of me but I was determined to learn the game.”
The more he learned, the more he became involved, to the extent of earning the official title of United States of America Pickleball Association ambassador for the past year and a half.
“It’s addictive,” he says with a whisper.
At last count, there are about 160 players who show up now and then at the game’s regular times: 8:30 a.m. to noon Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays in the summer at Lions Park. The group also plays indoors during the winter. It’s the same Monday through Thursday, at the same times, at Franke Park, along with Wednesday and Thursday nights, and also at various times at the downtown and Parkview branches of the YMCA.
Of the 108 card-carrying members who pay $10 dues, one of the regulars and resident ringer is 65-year-old Jim Johnson, although nobody knows him as Jim Johnson.
Mention J.J., however, and everybody knows his story.
Slowed by the heart disease cardiomyopathy, Johnson underwent a heart transplant four years ago; Sept. 11, he says, was the day.
“I don’t know if it’s hereditary,” he says, wiping his face three minutes after a match. “Maybe I drank too many Pabst Blue Ribbons or chased too many wild women.”
Eight months after surgery, J.J. gave the game a whirl.
Flora was right. J.J. was hooked on pickleball.
It was 1965 when the late U.S. Congressman Joel Pritchard and a friend began an impromptu backyard game of badminton. But instead of using a shuttlecock, they were batting the dog’s ball back and forth. And when the opportunity arose, the dog named Pickles would race between the two men and quickly retrieve his property, then run off. It was, after all, Pickles’ ball.
So the newly invented game could have just as easily been called Roverball or Fidoball or Lassieball.
But pickleball it is, and it’s getting new converts.
Two of the morning’s younger players stopped by the folding table where Flora sat and returned the paddles they borrowed.
“We’re newbies,” 59-year-old Bob Briones says, nodding in the direction of his doubles partner, 62-year-old Mike Taylor.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen it,” Taylor says. “I know I’ve got to keep active and keep movin’. The longer I sit, the harder it is to move.”
“It’s a little bit tricky. It’s a little bit of tennis, a little bit of volleyball, a little bit of badminton, a little bit of pingpong. Well, quite a bit of pingpong. The guys are putting their spins on it.”