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Arts, Sports & Culture

Pickleball, the game with a funny name, is taking over Pittsburgh

pickleball players
Maria Anto
90.5 WESA
Laurie Lawrence and her dad, Dick Lawrence, play at Thomas Presbyterian Church in Eighty Four, Pa.

At Thomas Presbyterian Church in Washington County, 12 people dash around three courts. Heels bouncing, they rush to whack a small, holed ball with soft, square paddles. Four players chat on the sidelines — waiting for their turn to hop into the mix. This is the 3D Pickleball Group, one of the 13 pickleball clubs that use the church’s gym each week.

After an intense volley, one player dances across the court. “I haven’t skipped since I was 12!”

At another court, a match just ended. All four players walk up to the net and tap paddles to say, “good game!”

One of those players is Laurie Lawrence. She’s here with her 87-year-old dad – Dick Lawrence. After 40 years of playing golf and tennis, Dick gave up everything once he caught the “pickleball bug.” He recommended the sport to Laurie after she was in a car accident. Pickleball has been shown to improve physical and cognitive health, and it can be particularly beneficial for patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

Pickleball has gotten really popular in recent years, especially in Pittsburgh. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association’s 2022 Topline Participation Report, pickleball is the “fastest-growing sport in America.” Because pickleball is less physically demanding than other sports, people of all ages and abilities can participate. Unlike the strenuous overhand serve of tennis, pickleball players serve underhand. Additionally, pickleball requires less running; the courts are about one-fourth the size of a tennis court.

Bob Unetich of Upper St. Clair is an ambassador for USA Pickleball, a certified referee, and founder of The Pickleball School. He said that the sport is a great way for him to bond with his grandchildren.

“Here I'm in my 70s. I'm playing a sport aggressively against 13-year-olds, 15-year-olds. Sometimes they win. Sometimes I win,” Unetich said, “I feel safe on the court. They're having a great time. They're sort of astounded that I could beat them at a sport. What other sport could I do that in?”

Unetich first played the sport in 2013 when he bought a condominium in Bonita Springs, Florida, with his wife. They started playing pickleball six days a week and eventually began traveling the country to play in tournaments.

Pickleball was invented in 1965 by two families vacationing on Bainbridge Island, Washington. Looking for a way to entertain both kids and adults, they combined a variety of sports equipment — ping pong paddles, a badminton net and a whiffle ball — to create a new game. Some say that this mix reminded the creators of pickleball boats, made from rowers picked last in a competition. Others say that the name came from the family’s dog, Pickle.

Snowbirds like Unetich helped bring the sport to Pittsburgh from warm weather states.

pickleball serve player
Maria Anto
90.5 WESA
Because pickleball is less physically demanding than other sports, people of all ages and abilities can participate. Unlike the strenuous overhand serve of tennis, pickleball players serve underhand.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the sport gained even more popularity.

Pickleball courts helped Unetich and his wife feel connected to others while still staying safe. “Typically, they'd be on the other side of the court, 30 feet away. We hit the ball back and forth. We wouldn't touch their paddle. We wouldn't even touch the ball with their hands, and we felt pretty safe,” Unetich said.

However, with the new interest in pickleball, players struggle to find open courts. Pittsburgh suburbs are trying to keep up with demand. Grant funding will go toward new pickleball courts in communities including West Deer and Peters townships.

The GAMMA Pickleball Classic will be held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center this August.

To find public pickleball courts around the region, check out this list compiled by Citiparks, and this list that's updated regularly by the group Sideaht Pickleball. For private courts, see this list.

Updated: March 21, 2022 at 10:56 AM EDT
Updated to include more pickleball courts around the region.
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