The cult of the fastest-growing sport in America

Before you ask, no, I don’t want to play pickleball. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. First, I’m only 70, so I’m way too young to play pickleball. Second, I still play tennis on a regular basis, so why would I want to play a crappier version thereof? (It’s like saying that you can go see the Rolling Stones in concert, but you opt for Def Leppard instead.) Third, the PC kinda scares me. PC used to mean politically correct, but now it’s pickleball cult.

I have a friend named Tony. For years, he and I used to referee basketball games together. Then, one time, he texted and said that he couldn’t make it because he was going to a pickleball tournament. I thought, “Oh, that’s nice. His great-grandfather must be playing, and Tony wants to show up and support him before great-gramps shuffles off this mortal coil.”

But then I found out that it was Tony who was playing. I wondered if I had done a Rip Van Winkle and somehow jumped 20 years ahead in time. When I saw him the next week, he was gushing. He apparently had had the time of his life, and good for him. But back in high school, he had been a baller. Now he’s not even a shot-caller.

He went on and on about how he had done in his matches, and he raved about the people in the top tier of the tournament. It was a national tournament and some of the top pickleballers on Earth were there. He rattled off about 10 names, like I was supposed to recognize them. But I did learn that the stars of the sport are all named either Brad, Lance or Bud.

When I was a young (and ridiculously smug) college athlete, I remember joking with someone that the age progression for an athlete was that you played basketball until your body no longer allowed you to do so. Then you took up tennis, followed in 20 years by golf, and then death. It was quite facetious of me since I had been playing tennis since middle school. (I had three older sisters and they forced me to learn the game and tag along with them so we could play doubles. I never thanked them.)

Anyway, that old age progression is out the window. Now, it’s “I used to play some sport. Then I took 20 years off and got really lazy and out of shape. Now I’m a pickleballer!” Or, “I’ve never played a sport in my life. I’ve always had terrible footwork and zero hand-eye coordination. But now I’m a pickleballer!”

Even the name is stupid. The only thing it has to do with pickles is that dill pickles have no calories while playing pickleball expends no calories.

In all seriousness, I’m glad that people are out there doing stuff. The pandemic took a lot out of us. If people want to try out a new sport or try sports for the first time in their lives, good for them. Just don’t preach to me. Pickleball proselytizers are even more annoying than people who take dogs into grocery stores — and those people are all going straight to hell when they die.

Also, it’s important to know that, under risk of a severe penalty, you are never supposed to mention pickleball without using its full name, like it’s some kind of royalty. The official name is pickleball: the fastest-growing sport in America. I’ve only heard that phrase a few thousand times. However, since we have a word count limit for this column, I ask that every time you hear the name of the sport, you complete the phrase in your head. Please. They’re watching.

Oh yeah, the aforementioned penalty is that you will be strapped in a chair and have your eyelids propped open like Alex DeLarge and forced to watch an entire pickleball tournament — played by 50-year-old first-timers.

Finally, there is the noise. After hearing a paddle hit the large whiffle ball three or four times, you will swear that you would rather listen to Tom Waits and Bjork team up to sing the entire Rick Astley songbook. The sound is causing neighbors to sue each other and even get in AARP-sanctioned fistfights. Cities are having to pass pickleball curfews and noise ordinances, most of which are being ignored by the obsessive zombies who sneak onto courts after hours, perchance to work up a drop of sweat.

So, no thanks, I’ll pass. I’m reminded of when Steve Martin was a stand-up comedian. He did this bit about how the door would slam shut in his head whenever somebody said, “Hey, let’s try this new thing!” Martin is now 77 years old. I wonder what he’ll do when he gets to be old enough to play pickleball.

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