Kathy Kamel returns a volley as teammate George Jones backs her up during a pickleball game at the Everett YMCA on in February, 2020 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Kathy Kamel returns a volley as teammate George Jones backs her up during a pickleball game at the Everett YMCA on in February, 2020 in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald file photo)

Editorial: In defense of pickleball, its birthplace and its ‘Pwock!’

A national writer mocks the state’s official sport as a dull and less-elegant imitation of tennis.

By The Herald Editorial Board

There are times when it is necessary for a newspaper editorial board to speak out in defense of its home state, challenging aspersions cast against its people, its pastimes, its economic well-being and the state itself.

We are, of course, speaking of a recent attack lobbed against pickleball, which in March celebrated its first anniversary as the official sport of Washington state. A smackdown on pickleball? Who could manage criticism more sour than grandma’s home-canned gherkins?

Washington Post contributing columnist Rick Reilly, sportswriter and formerly the back-page columnist for Sports Illustrated; that’s who.

Writing earlier this week in the Post, Reilly, 65, points to his prickly pique at pals who pester him to pick up a paddle and play a pastime now popular with patriarchs. (Luckily, we have exhausted our list of p-words, and have wiped down our monitor.) Specifically, Reilly says:

“Look, I tried it. I didn’t like it. Not as fun as ping-pong. Not as elegant as tennis. Not as pretty as golf. It has a lot of people who hadn’t played a sport in 30 years suddenly thinking they’re athletes. ‘Man, three hours of pickleball today,’ my buddy will say. ‘It was epic.’”

Reilly goes on to say there is nothing “epic” about napping, crochet or pickleball. He then disparages the game’s origins, here in the Puget Sound:

“This is what comes of something dreamed up by a rich Seattle Republican politician (Joel Pritchard), who invented it decades ago with a couple of friends for their bored families on stuffy Bainbridge Island when — I’m not kidding here — they couldn’t find a shuttlecock for badminton. The catamaran must have been in the shop.”

OK, he’s got Bainbridge Island’s stodginess dead to rights. But remind us, Rick, how long did it take James Naismith to hit upon the idea of cutting out the bottoms of his peach baskets while working out the finer points of basketball?

Pickleball was indeed invented by the late lieutenant governor and friends at his Bainbridge Island home in 1965, the same home at which Gov. Jay Inslee last year signed the law naming pickleball as the official state sport. But the game’s simplicity, its use of existing court facilities and affordable sports equipment are among its advantages, as is its accessibility to players regardless of age.

The game is played on a court similar but smaller than a tennis court, using the same net but paddles and a plastic wiffle ball. Games can be played by singles or doubles.

Serves are delivered underhand and across the court diagonally, with contact with the ball initiating at waist level or lower. After the ball is served, the opposing players must let the ball bounce once before hitting a return shot, then the serving player does the same before both players are allowed to volley, hitting the ball in the air. Volleys are not allowed within 7 feet of the net.

Points are scored only by the serving player or team, and games can be played to 11, but won by at least two points. In tournaments, games frequently are played to 15 or 21 points.

The game has quickly grown in popularity, accounting for about 36.5 million participants in the U.S., behind only cycling at 51.4 million and running at 49 million, but ahead of basketball at 27 million and golf at 25.1 million, according to a 2022 report from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

The campaign to name pickleball as the state sport is credited to state Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, and a pickleball-playing friend, Chuck Wright, who suggested the legislation to Lovick during a walk. Lovick, an avid player himself, talks up the game often enough, he said last year, that when he once typed in “pick up items” into his phone, it auto-corrected to pickleball.

In backing it as the state sport, proponents tout the activity’s benefits for physical and mental health and see an opportunity for the state, as its birthplace, to develop as a hub for pickleball players and tournaments.

Hold your serve, says Reilly. Pickleball actually isn’t that strenuous an activity, pointing to a study in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity that found it provided only a moderate workout for middle-aged and older adults. Players of those ages would have to play 4.5 hours a week, the study found, to meet recommended exercise guidelines and would get double the steps in by simply walking instead.

Easy fix. Walk to the court.

Then, said Reilly, there’s the displacement that pickleball is supposedly causing to players of tennis. Again, this is a problem because? Considering that we’re talking a difference of stripes of paint on a common court, it shouldn’t matter whether a dozen people waiting for court time are holding tennis rackets or pickleball paddles. Sign up for your time and play on.

But what about the incessant sound of wiffle ball against paddle? “Pwock! Pwock! Pwock! All day and, sometimes, even past the 4:30 dinner hour,” Reilly writes.

Frankly, we’ll take “Pwock!” over the grunts of ancient tennis players.

In the end, Reilly allows that those who enjoy the game should carry on. Without him.

Fair enough. With forecasts for 80-plus degrees and sunny skies this Mother’s Day weekend, who’s up for a pickle?

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