Pickleball may be one of the greatest sports ever invented. If you’ve never played, think miniature tennis with wooden rackets, a plastic ball, a shorter court, a lower net…ok this doesn’t sound like tennis at all; think giant ping pong. But less nerdy as there’s actually enough physical movement to get winded and sweat profusely.
Speaking of which, ping pong is also a pretty groovy sport, especially in the winter as it provides an opportunity for concentrated power of will and skill while drinking beer indoors with heat and light. But watch out, ping pong tends to bring out the worst in people, especially the owner of the table who’s undoubtedly logged more (recent) playing time than you, so even though you have pretty good hand/eye coordination you’re going to get absolutely smoked by this fool, who will also have no qualms letting you know how much you’re getting smoked, as you’re getting smoked. In his big fancy house. Which you resent. Obviously.
This is why I made a drastic change mid-career and left the drunken, broken-paddled world of Nobody Cares, Amateur Ping Pong at My Friend’s House and entered the American National Pickleball Circuit of America (ANPCA) as the number one unranked amateur of 1993.
This little-known circuit spans the states of Washington, Oregon, Ohio, New York, and to a lesser degree Arkansas. It’s the precursor to the now extremely popular and scandal-laden Pro Pickleball Association (PPA), United States of America Pickleball Association (USAPA), and Sexaholics Anonymous.
Just like modern day NFL players look back in awe at the lunatics who ran into goal posts with leather helmets in the 1940’s, modern day pickleball players (upon learning I was in ANPCA in the 90’s) often stop me at strip malls and ask for my autograph, and insist I have a bite of their sandwich. Which I decline, as I have class (the bite, not the autograph).
This respect exists because today’s pros (who we founders find soft, spoiled and generally ripe with over-scented deodorant – we used Pine-Sol in our pits in the 90’s) know some of the best athletes in the world participated in the ANPCA at one time or another, typically at the beginning of their careers, including Joseph Watterson, Sarah Johanson, Craig T. Nelson and Conor McGregor (heir to the MacGregor Golf empire). I can tell you a hum-dinger of a story about playing doubles with Craig T. Nelson but I’ll save that for another time.
I entered the pro circuit at the age of 19, and contrary to modern professional sports that encourage training and specialization starting at the age of about 6, was considered somewhat of a phenom as Pickleball requires a level of maturity and mental sharpness typically found in 27-year-old post doctorate students at Emory University. What can I say? I had it together upstairs. And the rest of me…well, my footwork was “impeccable” according to Tony Roche, I already told you about my hand/eye coordination (were you listening?), and my paddlehead speed generated a new form of spin on the whiffle…ah, pickleball itself, which came to be known as “lots of pickling.”
Training consisted of working with various coaches we’d meet on tour, many of whom lacked credentials and were simply neighborhood eccentrics, but they nonetheless pushed us Professional Pickleballers to an athletic level typically reserved for highly profitable yet unpaid Division 1 football players or disc golf enthusiasts. Days began at 6:00 a.m. sharp in the weight room, focusing entirely on bicep curls and neck extensions. Then we’d hit serves for an hour outside no matter the weather (back then the ANPCA lacked any indoor facilities, us veterans scoff at the kids these days playing indoors what with their forced air heating/cooling and practical athletic shoes that offer both comfort, support and style…they probably wear lacy gloves too…I think hitting pickleballs in the snow made me the champion I was and a better father and husband today.)
Unfortunately life on the circuit was pretty rough. With no large corporate sponsors (my understanding is the league was financed entirely by regional banks that found themselves in desperate circumstances with additional funding provided by the trainers’ proclivity for placing winning “show” bets at the track), no private jets were available so we in the league were forced to attend tournaments via Amtrack, or in really bad years Greyhound buses. Naturally, being forced to take slow, American public transportation led to large outbreaks of sexually transmitted diseases and rampant drug abuse, including tobacco, Valium and malt liquor. Typically all at once.
I remember being so confused after a 37-hour bus ride to Akron that I actually went on Center Court and played my guitar until the sobbing tournament organizers were able to convince the Head Landscaper to use his pressure washer to crowd control me off the premises.
Most of us were able to pull it together though, thanks to the help of our fellow circuit-member Lorenzo Giustino, a disgraced psychotherapist who joined the league as part of his sentencing requirement. Lorenzo got us off the substance abuse and sex addiction through a series of cognitive exercises that focused on creating self-worth only though our ability (or lack thereof) to make it to the 1993 US Open Pickleball Championship in Brockport, New York.
Many people ask me about my Magnum Opus. Was it creating a Fortune 500 company? The birth of my son? Can childbirth be a Mangum Opus? What does the term actually mean? No, my Magnum was that 1993 US Open Pickleball Championship in Rockport. Which is a nice town you should visit, bring the family and everything.
By this time I was household name as far as Pickleball fans were concerned. As I swaggered onto the court, fresh off drugs and high on life, I grew concerned the grandstand would collapse due to the throngs of topless fans, most of whom unfortunately were truck drivers, jumping up and down, screaming my name, eating gas station microwave burritos and throwing back delicious beer after beer I so desperately wanted. I remember thinking, “No, keep your beer to yourselves, you cornerstones of our nation’s commercial infrastructure, this premier athlete only drinks adrenaline and an occasional Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler. Don’t tell Lorenzo.”
For the first time in my career my opponent was from outside the ANPCA, a clever Serbian by the name of Milica Johnson. “Johnson?”, I asked him, “Milica Johnson? What kind of a Serbian name is that?” Which was a huge mistake as my standard effort to conduct psychological warfare by making fun of things people have no control over backfired when he replied that he was going to kill me. I was so scared.
The 1993 US Open Pickleball Championship lasted a grueling 4.5 hours – still a record to this day (most matches take about 22 minutes, which is why Pickleball is a favorite among those suffering from short attention spans. Or sex addiction). I still have photos snapped by paparazzi of my rugged, glistening, stripped-to-the-waist form on my living room wall, much to chagrin of our houseguests (which are somehow rare) – that’s how hot it was on the court…in fact, to this day June 21st, 1993 is the hottest day every recorded in Rockport.
Milica and I battled it out to the last second. He’ll claim he won based on skill, his incredibility ability to focus thanks to having a father who pioneered modern sports psychology (who Pete Carroll studied under at one point, or so I hear), and the overall score. But I know he won thanks to some shady calls and the fact that my Pickleball racket had a teeny splinter coming out of the bottom of the handle that affected my pickling ability.
But it’s still my Magnum Opus. At the awards ceremony I made sure to bombard Milica with boisterous, hilarious, and profane catcalls because I’m a terrible sport and I hate him for winning. Eventually I was chased off by that pressure washer-wielding landscaper. I have no idea how he found me.
If you’ve never tried it, you should give it a go. Pickelball is a sport of the ages, designed for all ages, and can lead to great things, as I have duly attested. Besides, realistically, do you have anything better to do right now?