Roger BelAir hits the ball during a friendly game of pickleball at Yost Park in Edmonds. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Roger BelAir hits the ball during a friendly game of pickleball at Yost Park in Edmonds. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Purchase Photo

Mr. Pickleball takes his sport to parks and prisons

Roger BelAir teaches the art of the game with the funny name to inmates and at courts in Edmonds.

EDMONDS — Finance guru Roger BelAir never intended to spend time behind bars.

An addiction of sorts landed him in jails nationwide.

It stems from pickleball, his sport of choice.

What’s up with that?

He takes pickleball to prisoners.

BelAir, 72, a regular on the courts at Yost Park in Edmonds, got the idea in 2017 while watching a “60 Minutes” segment about Chicago’s crime issues.

“I thought to myself, ‘Pickleball is such a great sport. Here would be an opportunity that the guys could get exercise and life skills, like learning from mistakes and thinking about consequences,’” he said.

BelAir contacted the Cook County sheriff … and things started happening. He took paddles, wiffle balls and nets to the Chicago jail. In the gym, he used painter’s tape to make mini tennis-like courts.

“At first it was unsettling. Everybody has been charged with a crime,” he said.

The game is a mashup of ping pong, tennis and badminton.

Roger BelAir prepares to hit the ball during a game of pickleball at Yost Park in Edmonds. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Roger BelAir prepares to hit the ball during a game of pickleball at Yost Park in Edmonds. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald) Purchase Photo

“As soon as they stepped on the court, they loved it. After they got out on the court all you think about is hitting this ball over the net,” BelAir said.

“One of the inmates said to me, ‘Roger, look out at that court. You have guys playing together, laughing together. At one time they wouldn’t even talk to each other.’”

That was just the start.

“After the games, I said, ‘Group hug.’ Some were in opposite gangs.”

They hugged by high-fiving with paddles.

BelAir received national media attention for his Cook County Jail visits — there have been three, so far.

After Chicago, he was invited to Rikers Island and the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla to teach pickleball.

“They’re all the same but they’re all different, a little bit like churches,” he said of prisons.

His mission is to spread the game.

“At Rikers I trained about 25 staff members and 50 inmates,” he said. “One of the benefits is that it opens the lines of communication not just between each other but also between them and the staff.”

He said an inmate later told another, “I’d beat the hell out of you, but if I did I couldn’t play pickleball.”

The trips are self-funded by BelAir, a former banker, book writer, public speaker and investment company owner.

“It comes out of my checking account,” he said.

BelAir soon is heading to California to teach substance abuse offenders. He hopes to add San Quentin and Folsom state prisons to his game plan.

Typically, BelAir can be found playing pickleball around Edmonds with mostly non-felons.

Games last about 12 minutes. Score is to 11.

BelAir traded tennis for pickleball in 2011.

“It’s easier on the joints. It’s very popular with people over 50,” he said. “Yesterday I played with a 90-year-old.”

Mrs. Pickleball often joins Mr. Pickleball on the courts. Otherwise, she might never see him.

“We were looking for a sport to do together. This is it,” said his wife, Candace, who does swimming and yoga.

Roger BelAir touches pickleball paddles after a game at Yost Park. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Roger BelAir touches pickleball paddles after a game at Yost Park. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald) Purchase Photo

It takes about an hour to learn the rules, and that includes playing several games.

“It’s not a sport for the mighty,” Laurel Ehrlich said after a lesson from BelAir at Harbor Square Athletic Club. “Women can play, and with finesse.”

According to a Sports & Fitness Industry Association 2018 report, pickleball had 3.1 million players in the U.S., an increase of 12 percent over the previous year.

“In 2003, there were 39 public places nationwide. Now there’s over 7,000. A hundred are added every month,” BelAir said.

It is played in elementary schools, community centers and country clubs. BelAir teaches clinics at Frances Anderson Center and Harbor Square. He sprinkles history and humor into the lesson. Those public speaking skills shine through.

There’s talk of pickleball becoming an Olympic sport someday.

Pickleball doesn’t have an official uniform but has a clothing line and many gear options. Fifty bucks can get you in the game.

“It’s like women’s shoes. How much do you want to spend? There are so many paddles out there,” BelAir said. “It’s what’s behind the paddle.”

Roger BelAir plays doubles at Yost Park in Edmonds. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Roger BelAir plays doubles at Yost Park in Edmonds. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald) Purchase Photo

This sport with the funny name was created on Bainbridge Island during the summer of 1965 at the home of former state Rep. Joel Pritchard, who later was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and as lieutenant governor of Washington.

The kids were bored one afternoon so he and a few friends set up the badminton net, but couldn’t find a birdie. No problem. They used a wiffle ball, lowered the net and made paddles of plywood. Game on.

The origin of the name depends on who you ask.

BelAir is of the camp that says it is from a dog named Pickles. He says that he heard it first-hand from a reliable source, Pritchard’s pal Barney McCallum, who was there when the game was invented.

BelAir said McCallum told him the name idea came up during a happy hour. “Someone said, ‘How about tennis pong or rally ball?’ And someone else said, ‘That dog Pickles grabs the ball and runs into the bushes and we have to go get it. It’s actually Pickle’s ball, let’s call it pickleball.’”

The other account says it was named after a rowing crew racing boat known as a pickle boat, and that Pickles the dog came later and was named after the game.

Despite — or maybe because of — the name, the game took decades to catch on.

Now it’s played everywhere.

Coming soon to a rec center or jail near you.

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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