Pickleball passion outpaces new courts in Kalamazoo County

A sport that began as a family's lazy, summer day amusement more than half a century ago has exploded into a nationwide sensation today. And Southwest Michigan is no exception to the rapidly expanding popularity of pickleball.

With elements drawn from sports as diverse as tennis, badminton, and ping pong, pickleball attracts players of all ages and abilities. It's played on a court similar to tennis but with a paddle, not a racquet. And the small, hard, plastic ball has holes in it, like a whiffle ball. Patrick Sinicki, the president of the Kalamazoo Pickleball Club and outreach program says the rules are fairly simple. You volley the ball back and forth, but it must bounce once on each side of the net. 

"In tennis, you can just serve it and attack the net. In pickleball, you can't do that," Sinicki says. That's where technique comes into play. "You have to do the hardest shot in pickleball — the 'drop shot' — where you try to drop the ball gently over the net." 

There are also a few other rules, like keeping your feet out of "the kitchen," the area on either side of the net, which is 34 inches high instead of 36, as in tennis.

USA Pickleball says the sport dates back to the mid-1960s. "Pickleball was invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle, Washington. Three dads — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell, and Barney McCallum — whose kids were bored with their usual summertime activities — are credited for creating the game. network." 

Jim Hackenberg, 75, former president of the Kalamazoo Pickleball Association and winner of five gold medals in the U.S. Pickleball open.Since then, it has evolved into a sport that's attracted "big money" sponsorships and tournaments and has been shown on TV networks like ESPN, CBS Sports, and The Tennis Channel. 

For a long time, past Kalamazoo Pickleball Club president Jim Hackenberg says pickleball had the reputation of being an "old person's game." But Hackenberg, the national pickleball champion, says that was never really true and certainly isn't today. "We have a picture of my wife's mother, who is 97 and still plays a little bit," Hackenberg says. "It's of her, my wife, our daughter, and our granddaughter all playing at the same time — four generations playing together. That's not something you see very often in many other sports." 
Dean Matt was aiming to beat the Guiness record in the 48-48-48 Pickleball Challenge this spring.
Hackenberg, who's 75, adds that the average age of pickleball players in the U.S. is now about 35. "The best female player in the world right now is a woman who is only 16 years old; she's just a phenomenal player."

Hackenberg won five gold medals in the 2023 U.S. Pickleball Open, where he played with his wife Yvonne. The USA Pickleball National Championships will be held in November 2023 in Naples, Florida.

Minnie Lapoint, 97, with Dean Matt who was trying to beat a Guiness record by participating in the 48-48-48 Pickleball Challenge at Ramona Park this spring. But not everyone gets into pickleball with the idea of playing it professionally or competitively. These "social" players hark back to the sport’s early days when it was all about having fun. Take recreational players, like June Millar of Richland, who can be just as devoted to the game as those playing in high-level tournaments. "It can be intense," Millar says, "And I like it. It's an exercise. But it also makes me focus on what I'm doing right that minute. My mind doesn't wander, where if you're doing laps or running on a treadmill, your mind just kind of wanders off. I really like how pickleball makes me focus."

Millar agrees with Hackenberg that pickleball now appeals to players of all ages and levels of athletic ability. She says, at her "home court" at Ascension Borgess on Gull Road, "We have a high schooler that shows up, and maybe a young, 20-year-old in college, and I play with a ping-pong player who's 82. And on a good day, he can beat me. We will go up against the kids and it's even up on most days. They don't mop the floor with us, and we certainly don't mop the floor with them, but we give them a good workout."

Because of the rapid rise in the popularity of pickleball, finding an open court can be a challenge. Millar says, when she started playing at Kindleberger Park in Parchment, about 20 people would show up. But that's now doubled. 

Portage Mayor Patricia Randall, right, also enjoys pickleball."Sometimes you'll wait 20 to 30 minutes in between games because of the backlog of people waiting to get on," Millar admits. "I'm retired. I can spend the day if I want to. But a lot of people are there for a brief period of time and they're only getting one game, and I'm hearing that's an issue throughout the area. So, we need more courts." That demand is only expected to grow further as Kalamazoo area high schools and even Western Michigan University add pickleball programs.

You can find a list of area pickleball court facilities here.

Millar is involved in efforts to help meet that rising demand in her community. She's helping raise money to build six pickleball courts at Richland Township Park. Township trustees recently voted to cover the rest of the project's $400,000 cost, after donations. The project is also getting support from Kalamazoo Pickleball Outreach, the fundraising and promotional arm of the Kalamazoo Pickleball Club. 

The outreach uses money from business sponsors and the fees paid by players in the club's annual tournament to promote the sport. Club President Pat Sinicki says, "In the first couple of years, we donated money to groups like Big Brothers-Big Sisters and St. Jude Children's Hospital, among others. But later, we decided to start promoting pickleball here to grow the sport and increase the number of courts here in Kalamazoo County."

The biggest pickleball court complex in the county is currently at Ramona Park in Portage. It has 12 courts and is the home of the annual Kalamazoo Pickleball Club Tournament, which will be held July 14-16, sponsored by Latitude 42. Past club president Jim Hackenberg expects a good turnout for the event. 

"A few years ago, we were the host of the Great Lakes Regional Tournament, where we had over 500 participants playing. But now that we're no longer regional, our numbers have dropped a bit. We anticipate that about 250 players will be involved this year at all levels." Hackenberg says people interested in getting into pickleball can get a good look at the sport by coming to the tournament, where admission is free.

Hackenberg, Millar, and Sinicki say there are other ways to learn more about pickleball. They say you can watch free tutorials on YouTube or go along with friends who are already playing. The Kalamazoo Pickleball Club also offers several clinics for pickleball newbies through the Parks and Recreation Department in the City of Portage. But the sessions held at Ramona Park fill up fast. Sinicki says, sign-up for the first sessions in 2023, "opened up at midnight one night and all three of the leagues were filled with 53 players by 10 a.m. The first person signed up at 12:02 a.m. in the morning!" Sinicki says the best way to get in is to keep an eye on the city's website and act quickly when new sessions open up.

And if you want to dive in and try the game with a friend, check out one of these local pickleball court facilities here.

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Read more articles by Andy Robins.

Andy Robins was a radio news journalist for four decades, most recently as news director of public radio station WMUK 102.1 FM in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is now an independent journalist and co-creator of the Retro Rockets podcast about vintage science fiction: https://retrorocketspodcast.podbean.com/