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Article and photos courtesy of ThurstonTalk.
On a lazy summer day in 1965, Bainbridge Island became the birthplace of a new pastime: pickleball. Now the fastest growing sport for senior citizens in the United States, Panorama in Lacey recently welcomed a pickleball court of their own at a July 26 dedication ceremony, attended by the Pritchard and the Bell families, the original creators of pickleball.
The sport of pickleball infuses elements of tennis, ping pong and badminton. Pickleball can be played as singles or doubles and utilizes paddles to hit a whiffle-like ball over the center net. The sport was originally invented in 1965 on Bainbridge Island by then United States Congressman, Joel Pritchard and his friends Bill Bell and Barney McCallum.
The sport came about when Joel Pritchard’s son, Frank, who was 13-years-old at the time, lamented to his father that he and his friends had nothing to do. “My father said, ‘when we were kids on Bainbridge, we would go make games up,’” says Frank Pritchard, son of pickleball inventor Joel Pritchard. “And I said, ‘oh, why don’t you go make a game up?’ And here we are.”
Taking on his son’s challenge, Joel Pritchard lowered the net on his backyard badminton court and started to play around with McCallum and Bell, fine tuning the rules as time went on. “I think the joke was always, ‘We’ll make this game for the kids,’” recounts Pritchard. “Well, we never played because the adults were always playing.”
Over the years, the etymology of pickleball’s name has fallen to urban legends. There are many origin stories that claim how the sport got its name, the most popular being that it was named after the family dog, but Pritchard confessed that it was actually his mother, Joan Pritchard, who created the title.
“The University of Washington rowing team had an ‘A boat’ a ‘B boat’ and then kind of the rest of them are just thrown into the ‘pickle boat,’” recalls Pritchard. “So, she thought this game was throwing all these different games like tennis, badminton and ping pong together, so she thought pickleball would be the right name. The dog came a year later.”
As the game of pickleball developed and the rules became more sophisticated, Joel Pritchard and Bill Bell grew more serious in promoting the sport. As a Naval Intelligence Officer, Bell traveled the world on business and would recruit new agencies and hotels to set up a court wherever he would travel, including American and Canadian consulates.
In addition to Bell’s international promotion of the sport, pickleball was also introduced to schoolyards around the country and exploded in popularity in the 1970s.
“The thing about it is you can play it on essentially any hard surface,” says Pritchard. “You can play it on a parking lot, a gymnasium floor, anything.”
As a sport, pickleball is also simple to pick up, so a wide range of people can learn the rules in a short time. “The other thing is that the game is really easy to play,” says Joel Bell, son of pickleball inventor, Bill Bell. “And so, there is marketing and selling, but there’s also this other aspect where anybody was exposed to it liked it instantly. So, it wasn’t a sales job, people really enjoyed playing.”
As Joel Bell and Frank Pritchard grew up, they were amazed to see how pickleball had evolved from the family game created at their childhood summer vacation home, into a legitimate sport with a national professional circuit and an international league.
“We had a little gap in our pickleball education, and we weren’t following it quite as closely as other people were,” explains Pritchard. “And I know I went to the first national tournament and it was mind boggling how many people were there. There were 1,400 people signed up to play at the tournament. We had 28 courts going and CBS Sports was there filming. There were all these vendors around.”
Bill Bell, Joel Bell, Frank Pritchard and Ralph Munro at the dedication ceremony.
As one of the fastest growing sports for senior citizens in the United States and as a featured sport at the Washington State Senior Games, a pickleball court at Panorama is a welcome addition. The new court was officially christened by the Pritchard and Bell families on July 26 at Panorama’s dedication ceremony.
“There were many requests here from our residents who wanted one,” says former Secretary of State for the State of Washington and Panorama Board Member, Ralph Munro. “And we’ll probably end up building more because it gets popular fast.”
With dozens of active participants within Panorama and an abundance of additional interest from beginner players, pickleball is once again capturing the hearts of a new community.
“It’s very heartwarming to know this game, this silly little game that was invented on Bainbridge Island has given so much pleasure to so many people and that’s the best part of all,” says Pritchard.