It’s good to be king — of the court, specifically.
Barney McCallum was greeted like a rock star as he signed autographs and posed for photos with players and fans of pickleball, the sport he invented some 50 years ago right here on Bainbridge, while seated on the sidelines at the inaugural Bainbridge Island Founders Tournament at the high school tennis courts on Friday, Aug. 23.
A chorus of thwacks and swooshes sounded, along with alternating cries of exaltation and anguish, inside the fenced arena, where a new temporary paint job had changed the quadrangles from six tennis courts into 18 pickleball courts.
About 265 players converged for the historic competition, proof of the sport’s oft-touted, off-island popularity.
Regularly billed as “one of America’s most popular growing sports among all ages,” pickleball, for those who may not know, is a paddle sport (very similar to a racket sport) that combines elements of badminton, tennis, and table tennis.
From Wikipedia: “Two or four players use solid paddles made of wood or composite materials to hit a perforated polymer ball, similar to a Wiffle Ball, over a net.
“The sport shares features of other racket sports, the dimensions and layout of a badminton court, and a net and rules somewhat similar to tennis, with several modifications.”
The special multi-day tournament went through the weekend, organized and hosted by the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum as one of their major fundraisers for 2019. And it drew participants from far and wide.
At least half of the tournament’s participants came from at least 50 miles away, said Brianna Kosowitz, the historical museum’s executive director.
Early registration gave event officials a pretty good idea of the size of the crowd that was coming, but even so, Kosowitz said, the weekend was a pleasant surprise.
“We had a pretty good idea of how many people we’d be expecting,” she said, “but I think overall we were really pleased and excited by the level of interest that players took in the tournament for the first year, since it had never been done before.
“We’ve been hearing positive feedback from them, [that] they had a great time and that the tournament was really well run,” she added. “So hopefully they’ll go back to their local clubs around the country and tell their friends and [other] players that this a must-do tournament next summer.”
And there will most certainly be a next summer. Mark your calendars, pickelball players, and plan to do it again next August.
And, hopefully, the one after that.
And the one after that.
Because, just like the sport itself, Kosowitz said the museum intends to make the tournament a part of island history and tradition.
Pickleball was first created by islanders McCallum, Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell in 1965. Though his co-creators have since passed away, McCallum said they surely would have been as surprised as he was that the fun little game they came up with so many years ago has since become an institution.
“I’m thrilled with it,” he said. “The main thing is the health issue. People who play pickleball, if they’ve heart trouble it will help get rid of it because their blood is moving. Once they start, they don’t quit.”
McCallum said the average age of pickleball players is 60, though many younger athletes competed in the tournament, too.
“I’ll tell you one thing, I never had anybody ever say this is lousy,” McCallum said.
Still, he added, the rapid growth and evolution of the sport was a great surprise.
“There was some disappointments, and then also some damn good luck,” he said. “I had an envelope factory in Seattle, and so the pickleball thing was in a carton on the side. It didn’t put the braces on any kids’ teeth.”
It was definitely a hobby, he said, “but a very interesting hobby.”
“I played a lot.”
Kosowitz said the chance to meet and talk with McCallum was obviously equally rewarding for both the players and him.
“Back when he started the game it wasn’t necessarily as popular as it is today, so people weren’t as receptive to him when this game was just getting going,” she said. “I think for him it’s really special to see it decades later, having blossomed into this huge success across the country.”
As for its place in island history, Kosowitz said the museum was the perfect ambassador for the sport because its birth is indicative of the kind of imagination and enthusiasm that marks the best of Bainbridge.
“Bainbridge as a location, the fact that it’s an island and it was a bedroom community for Seattle back in the ‘60s, it was kind of this perfect situation where the sport was born out of ingenuity,” she said. “Because there was nothing to do and the island was kind of remote and all that, it just sort of makes sense that it happened here and I think now we’re trying to call attention to it because it’s part of what makes Bainbridge as a place really special.”
Fundraising-wise, Kosowitz said the event met expectations, but, maybe even more importantly, gave many new visitors a chance to check out the museum.
“I think more than anything we got a lot of visitors for the first time, who had never been to Bainbridge Island, stopping by the museum to learn more about the origin story and then also, in doing that, were exposed to the broader history of Bainbridge Island,” she said. “I think people were really impressed by that.”
It was, she said, the chance to engage a new, different audience.
“I think the group or the crew that we’re touching with the pickleball tournament, they’re very different from our normal members,” she said. “So they’re meeting us and learning about us for the very first time, which is really exciting.”