EDMONDS — Roger BelAir bounces from prison yards to suburban gyms.
What’s up with that?
BelAir believes in the power of pickleball for people on the inside and out.
This year, so far, he taught the booming sport to inmates at San Quentin and Folsom state prisons in California, four prisons in Florida and a Washington correctional center.
“I’m not reimbursed. It’s my way of giving back to society,” said BelAir, 76, a former bank executive and investment broker. “The money would go to charities when I’m gone, but I’d rather spend it this way. At my age, I don’t buy green bananas.”
On this day, he was instructing a group of mostly retirees at the Frances Anderson Center in Edmonds in a 90-minute pickleball clinic for beginners.
BelAir weaves deadpan humor through the lessons in storyteller fashion to all audiences.
“I have the same corny lines,” he said. “I walk people through the history of the game, the basic rules and how to keep score.”
He ends the game with a “group hug,” even in prison.
Who does he prefer to teach, prisoners or seniors?
“My real passion is going inside,” he said. “Pickleball is popular on the outside, but on the inside, we really need it.”
The game promotes teamwork. And it’s good exercise, he said.
“It’s something they can do inside and when they get out they need a community activity,” BelAir said. “This is the most social sport ever created.”
BelAir got hooked on pickleball in 2011. It was easier on his joints than tennis.
His background is finance, not criminal justice. He’d never been in the pen, or fancied going, until one night at his Edmonds home in 2017 he saw a “60 Minutes” segment about violence and other issues in Chicago jails. He told his wife.
“They ought to be playing pickleball.”
BelAir contacted Cook County Corrections and offered his services at no cost. Three months later, he found himself in a jail gym with a bunch of guys twice his size.
“At Cook County Jail, I was teaching about 20 men in for murder or attempted murder,” he said. “Initially, they rolled their eyes. You have this old guy who comes in and starts talking about pickleball, they had no interest. Within 10 minutes they loved it, like everybody does. They were soon laughing like third-graders.”
The session ended with a communal tapping of paddles.
“The first time I said ‘group hug,’ everybody froze,” he said. “I walked up to the net and put my paddle up and said, ‘This is a group hug.’ On the outside, people just say, ‘Good game.’ I like to promote hugs. The world would be better off with less violence and more hugs.”
The pandemic halted his prison visits for several years.
Now, he’s back behind bars every chance he gets. A return trip to Rikers Island in New York City is planned for November.
He also is training others to teach inside prisons.
“Roger is my mentor,” said Joanne Kennedy, of Seattle. “I like his style and simplicity.”
In July, he joined her to help teach the game at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Gig Harbor.
“I don’t see them as prisoners,” she said. “They are women having fun learning a new game.”
Kennedy returned to the facility a third time last week with a group of volunteers she organized. She hopes to take the game to juvenile halls.
The number of pickleball players vary broadly by source, but all agree that it’s a rapidly growing sport.
The game was invented on Bainbridge Island in the summer of 1965 as a makeshift way for three desperate dads, Barney McCallum, Bill Bell and Washington politician Joel Pritchard, to entertain their bored kids.
It became the state sport in 2022 and approved for a license plate this year.
BelAir’s classes fill up fast. He teaches in rec centers around here until the end of October, then he and Candace, his wife, head to their home in California until the rain stops.
For many students, it’s their first time playing.
“I needed a new exercise,” said Mary Jane Goss, who took his recent class at the Frances Anderson Center.
“Mine was a prescription, by my therapist, who is addicted to pickleball,” classmate Julie Caruso said. “She thinks for community and socializing and if you are having the blues this is the way.”
The intro session went by quickly. Both women were ready to keep playing.
“When talking to beginners about the game, I tell them frequently at the courts you’ll hear people say, ‘OMG, OMG!’” BelAir said.
It stands for “One More Game.”