Wright On: It’s fun, it’s simple, it’s ageless … it’s pickleball

  • BART WRIGHT photos Connie and Don Besse are the first family of pickleball in East Hawaii, while Connie Yoshiyama, right, is still going strong after picking up the game about 10 years ago.

Innocent curiosity drew Keith Knell’s attention that day when he parked his truck across from the Hilo Armory, got out and heard that peculiar sound.

“I wondered what it was,” said Knell, retired from the Fire Department and living in Pepeekeo, “because it didn’t sound like a tennis ball, it was different, it made me wonder.”

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It’s a distinctive thwack when the paddle hits the hard plastic ball, not the softer thump of a tennis ball on a stringed racquet or the near silence of a badminton shuttle. Knell poked his head into the Armory and there it was, an odd game he had never seen but soon fell into, all the way. Now, he feels like this is his game.

Pickleball can now officially be considered a thing here, with its own USA Pickleball Association ambassador, Don Besse, and wife Connie who have been spread the good word about pickleball in recent years and their efforts are bearing fruit.

The Armory was filled with players Saturday afternoon following a planned gathering at the converted tennis courts at Hoolulu Park that was rained out in the morning.

At the Armory, it wasn’t just the noticeable sound of the wiffle ball being struck by a paddle or smacking the floor that made this a different gathering.

“People are having fun,” said Connie Yoshiyama, taking a break after playing a game of doubles. “She grasped a visitor’s forearm and said, “ Just listen … hear that?”

She was right.

You couldn’t help but notice the laughter, and lighthearted banter from all three courts, whether it was beginners or the more accomplished, people were laughing out loud, encouraging opponents, encouraging teammates.

“It’s a game that seems to cut through a lot of boundaries,” said Besse. “We have tennis players who have had their knees and legs beaten up from decades of playing on concrete, and they try this and it’s like a new lease on life for them.

“It’s easy to play,” he said, “you can learn it in an hour or two, but after that, how much better you get is like anything else, what you put into it, you will get back at the other end.”

As the story goes, the game was invented in the mid 1950s in Washington State by two guys who, for some reason, lowered a badminton net just a bit and paddled a tennis ball back and forth.

It was different, but unsatisfying. The tennis ball was too lively for a reasonable game, but when they found a wiffle ball it all began to work. In 2000, a national group was formed, there were official weights and sizes for pickleballs, regulations on paddles, the height of the net, the size of the court, and just like that, it was all official.

“That’s when it really started to grow,” said Besse, “and it seems to be catching on here, for sure.”

For verification on that you can ask Connie Yoshiyama, one of the Hilo veterans of this game. She first heard about it 10 years or so ago.

“There was a place on Railroad Avenue where they had a court,” Yoshiyama said, “and one day a friend told me about it and said, ‘I’ll pick you up and we’ll try it,’ and I did.

“Ever since that first day, I’ve been playing this game,” she said, “and it’s getting better all the time. We used to have to look all over to find a court but that’s changing.”

One day she got a game up at Panaewa Gym and realized it was a county facility, a place to play regularly, perhaps. The Armory had availabilities, and these days, newcomers and veterans can play at the Armory from noon-2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and anytime at the three courts at Ainaloa or at Hoolulu, both on a first come, first serve basis.

“When we started it, seemed like I might have known everyone here that played,” Yoshiyama said, “but just the other day, we counted up about 300 players, probably 50 or 60 who play regularly.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” she said, “but it was fun right away and I realized the more I played the more fun I had. I like to play a lot, but I’m 78 so I have my limits, I guess.

“There are some people who are really addicted to this, I mean, they can’t get enough, they are out daily playing pickleball.”

Confession from the columnist — these people are correct. Having never held a pickleball paddle or whacked an official pickle ball over a net (two inches lower than a tennis net), it can be stated here that this is a simple game and, simply fun.

You aren’t running from one end of the court to another, you are on one side, essentially moving around in a 10-foot wide box, keeping the ball going back and forth as much as possible. It’s not hard, but it’s quick, and be advised you might need an extra shirt.

June Knell, a retired nurse, related the story of her husband coming home that day after taking a look inside the Armory at that unusual sound and telling her about this crazy game he saw. There was a net, a paddle and a ball, but it wasn’t so much like tennis after all, she thought. She was interested.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,’ June said, “I didn’t do sports much, but this was so much fun, you kind of fall right into it. The first day, I felt like I could figure it out enough to play.

“Honestly, it might have been three months before I felt some actual confidence in competing, but before that it was still fun,” she said. “Since then, it has become a regular thing, on an average week we probably play at least two times, sometimes more.

“It’s been about a year and-a-half,” she said, “and it’s always worth doing, always fun. But plan to use the clothes washer — you work up a sweat fast; I’ve changed shirts four times when it’s warm, but then, you just keep playing.”

More venues are popping up or being converted from tennis and badminton courts to pickleball courts and this is a game with virtually no age limits.

“When people ask, I always say, ‘From 8-to-80,’ said Besse, “but in fact, we’ve had 5 year-olds play and we were at a tournament a week ago in Kona where we saw a 91 year-old woman play and let me tell you — she can beat you.”

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Want to laugh and sweat without breaking yourself into little pieces? It might be worth checking out. For further information, email hilohipb@gmail.com.

[italics] Questions? Comments? Whistleblower tips? Contact Bart at barttribuneherald@gmail.com [end italics]

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