Pickleball Gains Traction in Chapel Hill
by Kelsey Weekman
A fluttering of sneaker squeaking and paddle-on-plastic fills a gymnasium room of mostly middle-to-late-aged men and women.
Rows of participants stand and sit at the edge of the three-court layout, eagerly awaiting their chance to play.
Pickleball, the fastest-growing sport nationwide, borrows features from other sports — the court from badminton, the rules and net from tennis, the paddles from table tennis and a hole-covered ball similar to wiffle ball. And it’s catching on in Chapel Hill.
What is it about the sport that has people like retired nuclear engineer J.B. Marr on the court five days a week?
Marr, who hosts pickleball events and coaches new players, said the initial idea of pickleball sounded silly to him.
“What kind of person would play a game called pickleball?” he said.
Marr has since transcended the bounds of being a pickleball enthusiast and is now a self-proclaimed addict. He attributes the simplicity of the game as the factor that draws people in.
Jim Wilson, a Chapel Hill coach and ambassador for pickleball, was the first person to introduce it to the Chapel Hill area.
Wilson is spending a month in Florida with his wife to enjoy the sport with fellow players. He said the combination of competition and camaraderie makes people especially enthusiastic about the game.
“Pickleball players are like one big fraternity or sorority — we seem to have a common bond,” Wilson said.
Pickleball involves more hand-eye coordination than power, and, in Chapel Hill, players are separated into groups based on skill level. The separation allows individuals the opportunity to compete on equal levels of play, so no one feels particularly bored or beaten based on their personal level.
“We had one guy who was 85 years old and, to see him walk on the court, you might think he’s not going to be a great player,” said Barb Everett, a pickleball coach and event organizer.
“He’s got that tennis background, though, and he’s just deadly on the court.”
Everett said games can last between 10 and 45 minutes. Non-tournament games are played until one team scores 11 points — the difficulty lies with the rules that you can only score on a serve and you have to win by 2 points.
The length of the game depends on skill level, but regardless, every game involves friendly banter.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female,” Everett said. “It’s fairly simple to learn. It’s just a fun game.”
Everett’s first pickleball experience started as a disappointment — she came to the Chapel Hill Community Center looking to play badminton, but the summer schedule eliminated playing time.
She saw that there was designated time for pickleball and decided to try it out with her husband Rob. She said the game was easy to learn because she was already used to badminton, and for her, pickleball is just human-sized ping pong.
Alan Rader, general manager of the Chapel Hill Tennis Club, said the sport is easy to accommodate because the lines can be painted onto existing tennis courts.
At the Chapel Hill Community Center and the Hargraves Community Center, indoor pickleball courts are painted over existing basketball courts.
Despite the ease with which courts can be added, pickleball play is increasing faster than facilities can accommodate it.
There has been a six-to-one ratio between player growth and court growth over the past four years, Marr said. He said the excitement and enthusiasm of the game is intoxicating, even for a passive observer.
“You’ll have to try it to truly understand,” he said.