Everybody out on the courts!

The pickleball sensation sweeps the Island.


You may have noticed those small tennis courts in such places as Niantic Park in Oak Bluffs or at the Boys and Girls Club in Edgartown. They aren’t, in fact, tennis courts for those of us who are under 5 foot 5. They’re for a sporting event called pickleball. Never heard of it? Here’s what I suggest for a quick immersion: Hie yourself over to the Boys and Girls Club in Edgartown, Monday through Thursday at 10:30 am, and try it out. You’ll be hooked immediately. Everybody is.

Here’s what you’ll find: The small court will put you close enough to the net that you’ll probably be able to lob the ball across, at least some of the time. The paddles, slightly bigger than Ping-Pong paddles, more metallic than rubbery, smack the ball with a sound like a croquet mallet, making you feel like an Olympic-style athlete.

Here’s the saving grace, though: The balls, of a thin plastic and with holes like Wiffle balls, are so light that the titan-sounding paddle smacks are smoke and mirrors for a gentle game. You could thwack someone on the head with one of these babies, and that someone might not even startle.

Steve Auerbach of Oak Bluffs now heads up a local pickleball organization, 100 strong and growing by the day. Auerbach, in 2015, knowing nothing about pickles or balls or pickleball, encountered Jay Scofield, retired sports coach from the regional high school, and Joyce Dresser, woman about town in Oak Bluffs, as they set out to put together pickleball courts. Auerbach took himself posthaste to the Boys and Girls Club, picked up a paddle, and was converted like Constantine at the sign of the cross.

Everybody appears to be reeled in hook, line, and paddle. This past Thursday, starting at 10:30 am, I watched a B and G event stocked by 10 players, all of them over 50, which is not to say pickleball is necessarily an old folks game, but the pertinent part is that anyone can play it.

Carolyn Little of Vineyard Haven said pickleball “saved me through the winter.” Bill Blakesley, who recently moved into senior housing, credits pickleball with turning his health around. “I started playing 16 months ago. It gave me the impetus to change my diet, and I dropped 65 pounds.” Jill Waxweiler of Oak Bluffs, at the end of the two-hour game-fest, and as a few of the players were breaking down the portable nets, said with a gamine grin, “I’m off to bowling!”

One of the pickleball regulars, physical therapist Larry Greenberg of West Tisbury, reached by phone, said he too had fallen hard for the sport a couple of years ago: “It’s less stressful on the joints.” He described its history going back to 1965 on Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Seattle. “Someone taped up a Ping-Pong ball to improve the badminton volley. The hybrid quality of the sport led someone to name it after the pickle boats in the harbor. A local family developed equipment, and it took off from there.”

So how do you play it? This reporter was a little concerned that the rules might be too complicated: I was reminded of the English game of cricket, famous for being incomprehensible to anyone outside the U.K. But no, Auerbach reassured me that it was easy-ish to follow. I won’t try to lay it out like a formal rulebook, but both players on a side have a turn at pitching, and each enumerates the score, so that it sounds something like, “I-1-2.” It occurred to me that any elderly player needing to keep track of an uncommon score such as pickleball’s will be fit not only physically, but cognitively.

The first two hits need to veer diagonally, and the rest is catch-as-catch can. Some good volleys occur, and even less experienced players are often able to participate in these, smacking the ball across with those terrific macho sound effects.

These morning games are played from Monday to Thursday, and all the teamsters, being older and therefore gentle-hearted as all grandparents tend to be, expressed pleasure that a $5 game contribution from each player goes to the Boys and Girls Club.

I had a great chat with CEO of the Boys and Girls Club, young Jessie Damroth, who grew up here, then later graduated from American University in D.C. and then Duke University. Talking to this beautiful and brilliant woman was like achieving a quickie graduate degree in business. The best term I learned was R.O.I. for return on investment. Not sure what it meant, but I was determined to sling it around as I performed my errands later in the day.

Ms. Damroth expressed her pride in the B and G Club, now up to 575 members this year, meaning it has grown by 274 percent in the same year. I also met young program director Jeff Duart, from the MVRHS class of 2010. He loves sports and young people, and he’s got some cool moves as a hip-hop dancer. His past progression in life involved working on a bullying and suicide hotline for Native American teens.

The club itself is a joy to enter, with deep lavender walls, picnic tables for afterschool snacks, and these rules on a whiteboard for all who enter, reminding me of the book “Everything I Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” because the same apply to this code of good behavior:

  1. Listen to staff
  2. Respect the equipment
  3. Respect each other
  4. No running
  5. No gum
  6. Eat at wood floor
  7. No swearing
  8. Keep your hands and feet to yourself

To sign up for pickleball, email Auerbach at auerbachsteve@gmail.com. He wants new players to know that as soon as the weather improves (it’s snowing as I write this), there will be free pickleball instruction offered on the Niantic Park courts on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8 to 9 am.