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Pickleball Players. Don't Forget Your Roots.

March 01, 2024 5 min read 1 Comment

Pickleball Players. Don't Forget Your Roots.

Joyce Jones, 93, was taught pickleball by Joel Pritchard, one of the game's inventors. She saw the early days of the craze and wants the competitors to remember the game's neighborhood roots.

By Ray Glier

The game was tennis and badminton reimagined. Fifty years ago it was counterculture fun with its dimpled ball and oversized paddles and distinctive noise of ‘thwock!’ when the paddle met the ball.

But what gave pickleball legs to be a phenomenon, said Joyce Jones, was its neighborhood tang. She saw the rollicking behavior of a crowd in a 1984 pickleball tournament in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle and was swept up by it. It required skills, but she was also sucked in by the crowd's reaction to pickleball.

This gathering of 50-60 people was stomping on the aluminum bleachers in the small park in the northwest of the city and making a racket. It was middle-age men and women having a community blast. The pace of the game on the smallish court enamored the crowd, like tennis and badminton could not.

The crowd was cheering on its neighborhood hero, Joel Pritchard, who wasn’t just any neighborhood hero.

In 1965, Pritchard was one of the inventors of pickleball.

On the other side of the net from Pritchard was Don Jones, a boyhood friend of Pritchard. They went back and forth at each other in a three-game match and the crowd grew still louder.

In the rollicking pageant of noise for this undiscovered behemoth of a game, Jones had a solitary fan, his wife, Joyce.

“Good shot, honey,” she shouted in the quiet when Don won a point.

When Don made the crowd go mute by hitting a winner, he showed the hijinks that was present in the game 40 years ago. He put his hands on his hips and said to the crowd, “Now, don’t you think that was a pretty good shot?” The crowd yielded. They laughed and then they clapped for Jones and Pritchard the rest of the match. That just doesn't happen in tennis, but it happened in pickleball and that was one of the ingredients in the success of the game.

It was a neighborhood sensitivity and it is missing in many high-profile tournaments these days. Joyce, 93, is a little sad about that. Baseball, football, and basketball started out as homespun, too, and they were swallowed by growth. It happens. She gets that.

But this is not a yearning for the good old days, Joyce says. This is a yearning for the crowd and players to relax and cool the fire.

**

Don won the match with Pritchard those 40 years ago and it energized Joyce. Joel had taught the Jones’s the game a couple of years earlier and now she was a full-on ambassador. 

From that small tournament in Seattle, Joyce Jones helped build the momentum for the game to go national. Finally, in 2010, Joyce began a three-year quest with Nancy and David Jordan to get pickleball included in the National Senior Games. They finally succeeded in 2013 and the inclusion in the National Senior Games helped spark pickleball euphoria in the U.S.

You know the rest of the story. In 2023, almost nine million people played the game in the U.S.

Last summer, Joyce, was still center stage in pickleball by winning three gold medals at the National Senior Games in Pittsburgh (singles, doubles, mixed doubles, W90-94). Here is a You Tube of Joyce playing and talking the game in Pittsburgh.

“I am just so happy that I'm still healthy enough to be able to keep doing this,” said Jones, who turns 94 in April. “I don't know how much longer I’ll last, but I'm just enjoying it while I can. It's really, really fun. I've been a competitor all my life. So, I just love the competition and I get to see friends.”

Joyce has played badminton since she was a teenager and is in the Badminton Senior Hall of Fame. She started playing tennis when she was 46 and pickleball when she was 48. That she is still able to play pickleball in her 90s shows the allure of the game for millions around the world.

Joyce says she has modified her pickleball game as she has gotten older, but only so far as the pace of her shots. “I place the ball more these days,” she said.

As far as the competitiveness, there is no modification. Joyce raced toward the net in a recent tournament and lunged to return a shot and pulled a hamstring. She has been in physical therapy for several weeks trying to heal in time for a qualifying tournament in Sacramento for the 2024 Biofreeze National Championships next November.

“It was a practically impossible shot, but I went for it anyway,” she said.

Going for it was how she approached getting pickleball on a national stage with her friends, David and Nancy Jordan

Pritchard, one of the founders, had tried for years to take the game to the next level. He introduced it to his friends in Washington, D.C., when he served in Congress and many of the pols played in their private gyms in D.C.. Yet they wouldn't push it hard back in their home districts, Joyce said.

It wasn’t until the Jordans and Jones held an exhibition for officials of the National Senior Games that the NSGA realized the potential. Joyce also said she surveyed state officials in the Senior Games movement and they confirmed interest was building and more and more people were playing.

When the 2013 Games arrived in Cleveland, pickleball arrived, too. If you want to trace the game's meteoric growth, include that moment. 

Joyce Jones just wants us to remember those neighborhood moments where the game came from.

“It used to be the better players played with the weak players, or beginners or intermediate players, just to help them out,” Joyce said. “There weren't that many of us in the neighborhood and so we just played with each other and that’s how you improved and got good players into the game.

“It’s a real business with all the prize money, and I guess it's good for the sport as far as building it and trying to get into the Olympics. But I feel like it is losing some of its hometown atmosphere. We need to try and keep some of that.”

Geezer Jock ® is FREE. Please consider supporting me because there is value in storytelling. I have been telling stories for 48 years for newspapers and magazines and websites worldwide. I'm finally halfway decent at it. As always, "If you're not buying what I'm selling, it's my fault not yours." 

 


1 Response

Richard Soller
Richard Soller

March 03, 2024

Another terrific story by you Ray. Not being a pickleball player, this is certainly a motivational

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