What do you get when you combine badminton, tennis, ping pong and a gregarious cocker spaniel? These are the ingredients for the sport known as pickleball.
The history of pickleball began with the familiar summer whine that often causes parents to take drastic measures. In the summer of 1965, the “I’m bored” mantra was chanted by the children of two families on Brainbridge Island in the Puget Sound area of Washington. Two desperate dads, Bill Bell and Joel Pritchard, who just happened to be a US Congressman, invented a game.
The game started on an asphalt badminton court in Pritchard’s backyard. But, alas, no one could find the shuttlecock. The dads quickly improvised with a whiffle-type ball. The kids found it difficult to hit the 3-inch ball with the lightweight rackets. Once again, necessity was the mother of invention. The dads made wooden rackets that resembled ping-pong paddles. As the game evolved through the afternoon, it was determined that players could hit the ball on the bounce as well as in the air.
One afternoon of fun was had by all. But what about tomorrow? Bell and Pritchard huddled to form a strategy to keep the kids interested in the game. They lowered the net from five feet (badminton height) to three feet (tennis height). Now, they just had to solve the dog problem.
“Pickles, you bring that back here right now!”
The whines of “I’m bored” were replaced by kids yelling at the dog. Pickles, the Pritchard’s cocker spaniel, took an interest in the new game, particularly the ball. When he could get away with it, Pickles would fetch the ball and hide in the bushes. He wasn’t the most popular dog at the party, but he did get the game named after him.
The kids were happy and the dads were pretty proud of their new invention. The next weekend, they introduced pickleball to friend Barney McCallum. The three men wrote down the first official rules of the game. Pickleball has three unique attributes that you won’t find in any other racquet sport: the serve position, the double-bounce rule and the no-volley zone.
Serve Position: You put one foot in, you keep one foot out, you keep one foot in and…you serve the ball. An inconvenient tree in the Pritchard’s yard made it necessary for one side to serve with one foot inside the court. To keep the game fair, both sides were allowed to have one foot across the baseline when serving. The tree is no longer part of every pickleball game, but this unique service rule is.
Double-Bounce Rule: In the early days (literally, the first two days pickleball was played), the server had a huge advantage. The player receiving the serve would have to wait for the ball to bounce. The server, meanwhile, could be in position for a quick return off the volley. The three founding fathers added the double-bounce rule to negate this advantage. Now, the receiving team and the server must both hit their first shots off the bounce. After that, the ball can be volleyed.
No-Volley Zone: To make pickleball a game of finesse and strategy rather than just raw power, the founding fathers instituted a no-volley zone in the seven feet on either side of the net. Within this zone, the ball must bounce before it is hit.
The Friends and Family Plan
Pickleball spread through the Bell, Pritchard and McCallum networks of family and friends. In 1967, Pritchard built the first official pickleball court on the site where the game was invented two summers earlier. Other courts were soon built in the Seattle area. Official courts are nice, but not necessary to the game. Pickleball can be played indoors on basketball or volleyball courts and outdoors on just about any hard surface.
The game caught on quickly because it could be played by all ages, required minimal equipment and costs, and was easy to learn. Young children who had never played a racquet sport could enjoy pickleball. Seniors who had hung up their tennis or badminton racquets came out of retirement to play pickleball.
By 1972, interest in the game had grown to the point that Pritchard, McCallum and Bell decided to copyright the rules and form the USA Pickleball Association. Pickleball, the game that had a mascot before it had a rulebook, was now a real sport.
Though pickleball is played by all ages, it has found its niche in public school physical education programs and senior retirement centers.
The first national tournament was held in at a retirement community in Florida that has 36 courts. Pickleball has found its way into senior games competitions in several states.
In 1984, the USA Pickleball Association became the governing body of the sport and published its first official rulebook. The organization has 15,000 members and 30 registered courts in 12 states. The game is most popular in the state