September 26, 2018

Finding Pickleball’s sweet spot

Marshall Pura, 73, had never heard of the fancifully named sport of pickleball when he came across a story about it six years ago in an AARP publication. 

Sometimes described as pingpong on steroids, the game is played with short, square-headed paddles and a perforated plastic ball akin to a Wiffle ball on a court that’s one-fourth the size of one used for tennis. It sounded perfect for Pura, a former tennis player with a bum elbow who was looking for a retirement pastime that would be easier on his bones and joints. 

The former marriage and family therapist fell in love with the game, playing it during the summer while visiting family in New Mexico. There was just one problem.

“This is 2010, and believe it or not, we don’t have one pickleball court in all of Los Angeles County,” he said.

And so began Pura’s odyssey to bring pickleball — a relatively new sport — to L.A. The game got its start 50 years ago on Bainbridge Island near Seattle when a couple of creative dads decided to repurpose an old badminton court. They wrangled their kids to play with, grabbed some pingpong paddles and a Wiffle ball, and the game was born. 

Today there are special pickleball paddles that cost between about $20 and $100 and a national tournament run by the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA), which uses nets set at the same height as for tennis.

Where does the game’s goofy-sounding name come from? The most popular theory centers on the dog that belonged to one of the game’s inventors. Supposedly, he liked to chase the Wiffle balls and run off with them. His name? Pickles.

With no place to play locally, Pura ended up signing up for a pickleball tournament in Escondido in San Diego County. 

“I thought I was pretty good in terms of playing pickleball and wanting to test the waters in a tournament,” said Pura, a fit guy who ran a dozen marathons over the course of 10 years starting when he was 53. “In Escondido, I got whipped pretty badly.”

Getting knocked out of the tournament early did have one notable upside: Pura had time to mingle and chat up other players. They offered him advice on bringing pickleball to Los Angeles. 

One of the first things Pura did when he got home was join the USAPA, whose membership has tripled in the last three years, according to Justin Maloof, executive director of the organization. As one of its volunteer ambassadors, Pura’s principal task became spreading his passion for a sport that now claims more than 2.5 million participants in the U.S., according to the Sport & Fitness Industry Association.

Pura’s efforts locally found numerous stumbling blocks, however. He was unable to persuade officials near his home at Griffith Park to allow some tennis courts to be used for pickleball during off hours. He also found little support when he took his appeal to a nearby retirement home. 

“The director says to me, ‘Well, our people are more interested in line dancing and bingo and computers,’ ” said Pura, who grew up in an Orthodox household but considers his own Conservative.

When his contact at a Glendale recreation center didn’t show up for a meeting, he decided to stop by the local YMCA, where one of the directors mentioned she was looking for a game they could play on the roof. 

“She opens the roof door and she shows me not one but two abandoned paddle tennis courts,” Pura said. “They are very similar dimensions [to pickleball]. She says to me, ‘Do you want it?’ My mouth drops open. ‘Sure.’ ” 

Pura put up signs in the gym offering free clinics. The first day, one woman showed up, Maxine Johnson, who was then 83.  

“I happily say, [Maxine] just turned 90 a few weeks ago,” Pura said. “She has not missed two sessions per week for [all] those years.”

Other players, some considerably younger, started turning up, too. “The game is good for nine to 90,” Pura said.

Among those who took to the game was Doug Nichols, 65, who lives in Santa Monica Canyon and sought out Pura at the Y three years ago. “He taught me to play,” Nichols said. “He is very patient. He has a good sense of humor.” 

Now Nichols teaches others how to play at Memorial Park in Santa Monica and at the paddle tennis courts at Venice Beach. 

Kim Webb, 55, is another of Pura’s students. The Studio City resident started playing with him at the Y two years ago. Now that the Y courts are out of commission because of roof repairs, they play at Pacific Park in Glendale, which has a large outdoor space painted for three pickleball courts. (It is used for basketball at other times.) They also sometimes play in the park’s gym as the game can be played indoors as well as outdoors. Currently, Webb plays six times a week, sometimes twice a day. 

“He is so enthusiastic about the game,” she said of Pura. “He would rather teach a new person and get them comfortable with the game so they get to play than play against players who are also there at his level.” 

These days, Pura plays pickleball four times a week, mainly at Pacific Park in Glendale and the Los Angeles Tennis Club. (He has friends who are members of the private club.) Other places to play pickleball in Southern California include Simi Valley’s Rancho Tapo Community Park and Allendale Park in Pasadena. (Visit usapa.org for additional locations and information.) 

Last year, Pura participated in the first pickleball tournament ever held in Los Angeles County. It was part of the California Senior Games in Arcadia, and he took home gold in his singles division. The sport has a particularly enthusiastic following with seniors, and courts are most common in communities with large senior populations.

Still, Pura, who has taught the sport to middle school students and even younger kids, hopes that pickleball eventually will become part of school physical education programs. “It is easy to learn and the equipment is cheap,” he said. 

He also thinks an aging population means the game is poised for considerable growth in the coming years. But what would really help move the sport from niche status to the forefront, he said, is a celebrity taking up the game. 

“What really, really would do it,” he said, “would be if a president would take on the sport of pickleball.”