Clara “Lulu” Gamble competes in the 90-plus age division for pickleball. © 2018 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Despite its name, this ‘addictive’ sport is scoring with locals

When someone new walks onto the pickleball court at the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo’s Portage branch, they are met with waves, smiles and greetings of “Hey, you here to play?” There are even hugs from 92-year-old Minnie LaPoint and 89-year-old Clara “LuLu” Gamble — doubles partners who are set to play pickleball in the 2019 National Senior Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Amid a background of rhythmic pip, pop, pip, pop sounds of plastic Wiffle-like balls bouncing off paddles, Gamble leans toward the newcomer with a twinkle in her eye and whispers, “It’s addictive!”

Pickleball is a combination of tennis, badminton and pingpong. Fifty-two years after it began in a backyard on Bainbridge Island in Washington State, pickleball has become one of the fastest-growing games in the country, according to an April 2014 report by NBC News.

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association reports that pickleball had 2.5 million players in 2016. That same year, the USA Pickleball Association’s membership increased by nearly 540 members per month. The number of places to play pickleball has more than doubled in recent years, and clubs are forming worldwide. The 2016 USAPA Nationals in Casa Grande, Arizona, drew 858 players from 36 states and two Canadian provinces. The 2017 U.S. Open Pickleball Championships in Naples, Florida, attracted 1,300 participants from 42 states and 15 countries.

Even in Southwest Michigan, people are succumbing to pickleball fever. When Kalamazoo resident Jim Hackenberg, a USAPA Nationals Pickleball Tournament repeat gold medalist, is asked how often he and his wife, Yvonne — also a repeat gold medalist — play pickleball, he responds, “How many days are there in a week?”

All joking aside, his answer isn’t far from the truth. The Hackenbergs play pickleball five or six times per week, and they aren’t alone. Recognizing the sport’s popularity, the city of Portage added eight dedicated pickleball courts — four at Ramona Park and four at Lakeview Park. And those are still not enough to keep up with demand, Hackenberg says.

So, what’s so great about pickleball?

It’s easy to learn, it’s a game for all ages and it’s composed of elements that make for a fun game, Hackenberg says. But there’s something even greater, he says — it’s a social game.

“My wife and I have been playing tournaments for nine years,” Hackenberg says. “You go out there and you want to beat your opponents — and beat them soundly. But at the end, you’re the best of friends. When we come out here to Utah and Arizona, we’re hooking up again with friends we’ve made through the game. The social aspect is probably one of the key reasons the game has exploded.”

Born from bored kids

According to the USAPA, pickleball was started in 1965 by three fathers — Joel Pritchard, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum — who sought to pacify their bored children. Pritchard and Bell grabbed a Wiffle ball and pingpong paddles and lowered a net on an old badminton court in Pritchard’s backyard. The following weekend McCallum came on board and the men created rules. Not only did the kids love it, so did the adults.

Now for the burning question: Why is it called pickleball?

Pritchard’s wife, Joan, says that, because the game combined sports, it was named for a “pickle boat,” which has a rowing crew made up of leftover oarsmen from other boats and is usually the slowest boat.

When Hackenberg first heard about pickleball in 1999 from an aunt and uncle who suggested he and Yvonne would like it, he dismissed it, partly due to its “silly-sounding name,” he says.

“Unfortunately, the name is one reason people kind of pooh-pooh it initially,” he says.

He got over the name eventually, and the Hackenbergs participated in an introductory pickleball session at the YMCA’s Maple Street branch, where they met USAPA ambassadors for Kalamazoo and Portage, Bob Northrop and Melissa Muha.

“They were very welcoming and showed us the nuances of the game,” Hackenberg says, “and we never stopped playing.”

Soaring popularity

In 2008, the YMCA’s Portage branch jumped on the pickleball bandwagon, adding the sport to its schedule. “There was an interest, and we had the courts available,” says John Howson, Portage branch health and wellness director. They utilized basketball courts that they re-lined for pickleball boundary rules. The court is now used for both basketball and pickleball at different times throughout the week.

Howson attributes the low equipment investment needed for the game — just a ball and a paddle — along with its minimal body impact and less running around the court than tennis as the reasons pickleball’s popularity has skyrocketed. In 2010, the YMCA’s Portage Branch added a beginner’s pickleball class to its roster.

“It’s been popular,” Howson says. “People don’t want to look silly out there playing, so they get some instruction.”

Locally, the number of places to play pickleball keeps growing, from churches to gyms to parks. “The game has just exploded over the last four, five years, and I mean exploded,” Hackenberg says.

To get an idea of just how popular the sport has become, Hackenberg asked gate attendants at Ramona Park to track pickleball players versus tennis players using the courts over a six-week period.
“We came out with some outrageous numbers,” Hackenberg says. “Something like 500-and-some player hours for pickleball versus 50 for tennis.”

Go see Gator

When someone wants to learn to play pickleball in the Kalamazoo area, it’s a good bet they start with one man: Larry “Gator” Allgaier, 67, of Portage. On Wednesday mornings, he teaches the beginner’s pickleball class at the YMCA’s Portage branch. Allgaier picked up the nickname “Gator” as a youngster because of the similarity of his last name to the word “alligator.” The name stuck, and now he is known at pickleball competitions across the country as “Gator.”

“There’s people that know me in Florida and Arizona as Gator,” Allgaier says. “They don’t have any idea what my first name is. I show up and they’re like, “Hi, Gator!”

Allgaier calls the Hackenbergs “pickleball royalty,” but his skills aren’t too shabby either — he placed sixth in mixed doubles at the 2016 National Senior Games.

“I do OK, ” he admits.

Allgaier knows paddle and racquet sports, having played racquetball, handball and paddleball. While stationed in Okinawa, Japan, with the U.S. Army, he was the 1971 Okinawan Island Pingpong Champion of the U.S. Armed Forces. He competed in paddleball tournaments on the national level, he says, until one fateful Sunday in 2010. Allgaier and his paddleball partner had just finished practice at the Portage YMCA when a nearby pickleball match caught his attention.

“I hadn’t even heard of pickleball at that time,” Allgaier recalls. “I just meandered down there and was standing by the court. Lucky for me, our national champions (the Hackenbergs) happened to be playing that day.”

Yvonne Hackenberg handed him a paddle to try. “I walked onto the court and learned how to fly!” he says with a chuckle. “The first day I played pickleball was the last day I played paddleball.”

Allgaier proudly calls himself a “pickleball nut” who has trained more than 100 other “pickleball nuts.”

“And they just keep coming,” he says.

When playing or instructing, Allgaier is dressed in his signature color of orange. Many competitive pickleballers have a certain color or other designation on their clothing for which they are known, he explains, and he chose orange because of his Dutch ancestry (the Dutch royal family hails from the House of Orange, and the Dutch wear orange in the Olympics).

All that’s needed to play the sport is a Wiffle-like ball and a paddle. The paddle is made of a composite material and is a cross between a pingpong paddle and a paddleball paddle, Allgaier says.
“The pingpong paddle is smaller and lighter,” he says. “The paddleball paddle is bigger and heavier.”

Pickleball is played on a 20-by-44-foot court. The net stretches across the court, as it does in tennis, and the non-volley zone, or the “kitchen,” is seven feet back from the net.

Allgaier jumps right onto the court to play with his students, providing encouragement while still pointing out mistakes. One of the biggest errors: stepping into the “kitchen.”

“You can’t run up to the net and volley the ball,” Allgaier explains. “You have to be behind that line.”

Although some players have paddle and racquet sports backgrounds, the game’s creators designed it to be simple enough for everyone to play, according to the USAPA.

“It doesn’t take particular skills to play,” Allgaier says. “I play at the 4.0/5.0 level, which is one step underneath top level. Jim and Yvonne are both 5.0-level players. We have several 5.0 players in our club (Pickleball Outreach, on Facebook known as Kalamazoo Pickleball). But you can match up with people of your own ability, just go out and have a fun game.” A person does not have to be a member of Pickleball Outreach to play pickleball in the area locales.

Getting hooked

For the Hackenbergs, pickleball has been “life-changing,” says Jim. It propelled the couple to winter in Arizona because it is the top state in the nation for pickleball players, followed by Florida and Michigan, according to Allgaier.

After getting hooked on pickleball, the Hackenbergs played at the Michigan Senior Olympics, performed well, and then learned about the USAPA Nationals Pickleball Tournament.

“So, it was ‘Hey, let’s go to the nationals!’” Hackenberg says. “That’s what brought us out to Arizona — and the rest is history.”

In nine years of playing at the USAPA National Pickleball Tournament, Jim and Yvonne have won a combined total of 30 gold medals. Partners for the mixed 65-69 doubles, they took home gold in November from the 2017 USAPA National Pickleball Tournament, where Jim also won gold in the men’s 65-69 singles and a bronze in the men’s 65-69 doubles and Yvonne took the silver medal in the women’s 65-69 doubles. They also participate and have medaled in the USAPA U.S. Open Pickleball Championships held each year. Both tournaments are so popular, he says, that players have to be online at midnight when registration opens to sign up.

“Within five to seven minutes the entire field is filled,” Hackenberg says.

Considering their athletic backgrounds, the Hackenbergs’ pickleball success is not surprising. Jim ran marathons and Yvonne was a tennis professional before eventually switching to platform tennis, a game played on an aluminum deck that is one-third the size of a tennis court and surrounded by a 12-foot chicken wire fence. Yvonne won five national platform tennis tournaments, including three consecutive titles with Hilary (Hilton) Marold. In 1998, Yvonne and Marold were inducted into the Platform Tennis Museum and Hall of Fame.

When Jim and Yvonne attended their first national pickleball competition, Yvonne looked at him and said, “You know who would be good at this game?” Jim immediately knew: Marold. They called Marold, and even though she had never played the game before, she arrived the day before the tournament began and Yvonne taught her to play.

“The very first tournament they titled,” Jim Hackenberg says, “and the next year they won the national championship.”

A game for all ages

Clara “LuLu” Gamble has played pickleball for seven years. Before that, the retired Western Michigan University dance and kinesiology professor played tennis and badminton. As with Allgaier, it was a pickleball competition that caught her eye.

“I got captured,” she admits. “That’s what happens to a lot of people. You start (playing) and before you know it … ”

Four years ago, Gamble’s partner, Minnie LaPoint, was introduced to pickleball by her daughter Yvonne Hackenberg. LaPoint, still a professional seamstress, learned to play tennis at age 52 and played tennis five days a week. She finds that pickleball provides a good workout, she says, without the pressure of a tennis match.

Gamble and LaPoint became teammates last spring, when Yvonne Hackenberg introduced the pair. They practice together every Wednesday.

“I couldn’t have a better partner in the world,” LaPoint says.

“She likes me because I’m vicious,” Gamble teases, with a cat-like grin.

The doubles partners raise their paddles to display the crowns and their names, Minnie and LuLu, emblazoned on them. The pair, who will compete in the 90-plus bracket, say they think they have a chance for success in the 2019 National Senior Games.

“If they give us a couple of 5.0 players, we’re toast,” LaPoint admits. “If they give us some neophytes, we’ll do pretty well.”

Gamble and LaPoint qualified for the 2017 National Senior Games, but an injury sidelined Gamble. LaPoint picked up a different partner and, at the urging of others, went on to play in a singles match.

She “came back with these big medals,” Gamble says.

But pickleball isn’t just popular with the gray-haired set. Across the country people of all ages are rapidly catching onto the game. Take Kyle Yates, a 22-year-old from Fort Myers, Florida, and his 24-year-old sister, Sarah Yates, for example, who teamed up to win gold in the 2017 U.S. Open Pickleball Championships. Kyle has racked up more than a dozen pickleball titles and earned sponsorships, including one from paddle maker Paddletek. He is one of only 265 men rated 5.0 by the USAPA and has been featured in USA Today. His matches can be seen online, as can his online video, “Pickleball Isn’t Just for Old Folks.”

Or take a look at 37-year-old Naples, Florida, resident Simone Jardin, who left a job coaching tennis at Michigan State University to become head instructor at the U.S. Open Pickleball Academy in East Naples. Jardin was the 2017 U.S. Open Pickleball Women’s Pro Single Champion. The USAPA even has junior men’s and women’s brackets for those 18 years and younger.

“You’re seeing many younger players come in, and a lot of them are former tennis players,” says Hackenberg. “Their hand speed and quickness and athleticism has taken the game to a new level altogether.”

The Hackenbergs know this firsthand. Their daughter Kristy Lingerfelt, 47, plays the sport and even built a pickleball court in the yard of her North Carolina home. Lingerfelt’s daughters Tyler, 18, and Riley, 16, and her son J.R., 14, all play pickleball.

“If they’re not playing baseball or softball, my daughter usually has friends over on the weekend and they play (pickleball) out there,” Hackenberg says.

A Field of Dreams thing’

In May 2014, the first annual Pickleball Fever in the Zoo Bob Northrop Memorial Tournament was held at Wings West Ice Arena in Texas Township. It was held in honor of Northrop, who died in 2012 from complications of diabetes. It has since been renamed the USAPA Great Lakes Regional, and the 2017 tournament, held in July, drew 470 players. Hackenberg says, if space allowed, that number would likely increase. Wings West has room for only 14 courts, so the number of participants has to be limited, Hackenberg explains.

“This year we did our mixed doubles at seven in the morning, and we weren’t done until almost midnight,” Hackenberg says. “We (aren’t) going to do that again. Mixed doubles will be two days. We’ve added on another day of the tournament so we can try to get done at a reasonable hour every day.”

The tournament draws people from across the country and Canada. Event planners have entertained the idea of renting Wings Events Center, Hackenberg says, but the rental fee is out of their price range — unless a wealthy sponsor steps up.

Allgaier has an even bigger dream. “My dream is to find a nice, big donor and have our own building here in Portage where we’d have enough courts to run our own tournament,” Allgaier says. “You could just come and play pickleball anytime you wanted. And I see that coming down the road someday.”

Maybe Allgaier is onto something. As Hackenberg says, “It’s a Field of Dreams kind of thing: If you build it they will come.”

Lisa Mackinder

Lisa’s work has previously appeared in various Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Animal Wellness, Dog World, Michigan Meetings and Events Magazine, MiBiz, and other publications. Though having covered a wide-range of topics, Lisa most enjoys composing people-centric pieces, as well as those featuring nature and animals. She lives in Portage with her husband, and when not at her Mac, participates in outdoor activities, including fly fishing, gardening and hiking.

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