The local lure of pickleball, which has become extremely popular in West Hartford, isn’t just about getting a workout.
By Tracey Weiss
Believe it or not, there’s a new club in West Hartford where you can meet people and have a great time without adult beverages. If you’re game, then you are more than welcome to join the town’s popular world of pickleball.
Pickleball is a mash-up of badminton, ping pong, and tennis, and it’s addictive.
Liz Keenan started playing last fall. “It’s fun, like when we were kids, and we just went out and played.”
Jessica Cabanillas agrees. She joined an early morning clinic held at the courts on Cornerstone Drive in the Buena Vista neighborhood. “It’s like playing ping pong in real life. We live near the courts and we picked it up during the pandemic.”
Clinics are run by Jason Hill. He is a USA Pickleball Ambassador and certified by the International Pickleball Teaching Professional Association. He loves the sport and the interaction.
“Playing pickleball, I’ve made more friends and met more people,” he said. “And I don’t even know the people who live three houses down from me. Once you meet someone playing, you become best friends after three games.”
Jason’s wife, Barbara Hill, also plays pickleball and she loves playing, too. “It’s a very social sport. We’ve met a lot of people.”
A really big dill
Playing pickleball in West Hartford goes back many years, but according to Hill, the West Hartford Pickleball Club formally organized last summer. It already has a large membership.
Hill has been a music teacher in the North Shore School District on Long Island, NY, for two decades. He commutes during the school year, since he and his family have lived in town for six years.
Even though he was introduced to the game on Long Island through a community education program, he didn’t know that it had caught on in West Hartford. “I didn’t realize that people were playing in town until one day I was walking by the courts at Buena Vista and met a group of seniors playing there,” he said. “In true PB fashion they invited me to join them and over time also introduced me to more players.
“The seniors really helped grow and advocate for the sport in WeHa. One of those original seniors that I met (Gloria Reddy) is our club’s first VP.”
Ben Reder, who is president of the club, traded in squash for pickleball. “I’m a third-generation West Hartford resident and prior to the pandemic I was a fairly avid squash player,” he said. “With the courts shutting down, I was in search of a sport that would be easy to learn and fun to play, and I found pickleball (along with a large number of fellow squash players in town).”
In addition to the courts on Cornerstone, which are tennis courts that have been lined for pickleball and turn into courts with portable nets, there are now six dedicated pickleball courts at Wolcott Park with lights for evening play.
“We knew pickleball was very popular at the senior centers,” said Marc Blanchard, manager of the Town of West Hartford’s Leisure Services Department. “We painted lines for the court at Fernridge Park at the basketball courts, but when we redesigned Wolcott Park, we decided to renovate one of the tennis courts. It’s been a great addition to what we have. The turnout is great.
“We’re happy to say the town is a little unique with the pickleball courts. It’s great we have the courts and that people are enjoying them.”
Indeed, the courts at Wolcott Park are usually packed on weekend mornings with people who want to play.
“There’s a real social aspect to the game because it happens close to the net,” Hill said. “You’re only 14 feet way from each other, so even if you lose the game, it’s a fun way to lose. And because of the [small] size of the court, the game is the great equalizer. I’ve played 80-year-olds who beat me.”
Another advantage is the way the game, with its oversized paddles, shorter net, and smaller court, is much easier on the body. “There’s not as much running,” Hill added, “which make sit appealing to older players.”
With the club taking off, it gives its leaders and members a chance to make good on its mission, which is not only to provide the opportunity to play the sport, but to organize more play through tournaments and have access to clinics and coaches.
“The goal is to increase our partnership with the town and with other towns,” Hill said. “We have tournaments proposed this summer that will benefit charitable causes and we want to do special events and start a youth program.” Hill is also the youth program provider in town.
Reder is excited about the club’s future too. “As president, I work closely with the town to ensure that we do as much as we can to promote fair and equitable play and access to the game for players of all abilities. We also work with our network of top-notch talent to bring in teaching pros for clinics and other events that are open to all members of the community.
“With a triple-digit membership base, I am excited to see how popular the sport is in town and I look forward to being able to continue to bring as much value and opportunity as possible to the West Hartford pickleball community through our club events and partnerships.”
Membership to the club is $20 for a single player (resident) and $30 for a single player (non-resident); $30 for a couple (resident) and $45 for a couple (non-resident); and $50 for a family (resident) family and $60 for a family (non-resident).
Other club benefits include access to equipment, discounts on social events, tournament play, and drill and skill sessions, and discount on merchandise purchased at affiliated stores and websites: Racquet Koop in town, Gammasports.com, corepickleballusa.com, and pickleballcentral.com.
The popularity of pickleball is not an anomaly in town. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, in 2018, there was a total of 3.1 million players and 20,933 pickleball courts in the U.S. In 2020, they reported a 21.3% growth and a total of 4.2 million players.
How the pickle met the ball
Versions of the story vary, but essentially, the game of pickleball was created more than 60 years ago by a trio of dads, according to usapickleball.org:
“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.
“Pickleball has a very interesting name, especially since no pickles are used. Accounts of how the name originated differ. According to Joel Pritchard’s wife [Joan], she started calling the game pickleball because ‘the combination of different sports reminded me of the pickle boat in crew where oarsmen were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.’
“According to Barney McCallum, the game was officially named after the Pritchards’ dog Pickles, who would chase the ball and run off with it. According to McCallum, ‘The Pritchards had a dog named Pickles, and you’re having fun at a party, right? So anyways, what the hell, let’s just call it pickleball.’
“Others claim both accounts may actually be true. In the early years, no official name was assigned to the game. However, a year or two after the game was invented, the Pritchards purchased a cocker spaniel and named it Pickles. As the game progressed, an official name was needed and ‘pickleball’ was it.”
Regardless of the name, it doesn’t look like pickleball is going anywhere, either, and if anyone knows that, it’s Hill. “People are passionate,” he said. “Once you play, you get hooked.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the July issue of West Hartford LIFE.
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