'It's changed people's lives': Why pickleball has gotten so popular, even with that funny name
John Cusack (not that John Cusack) remembers the first time he was introduced to pickleball about 10 years ago while on vacation in Palm Desert, California.
"I heard some people playing something behind a windscreen and they were laughing," he said. "I knew it wasn't tennis because people don't laugh in tennis."
Cusack, of Hoffman Estates, peeked around the windscreen to check it out. And in what he would learn is classic pickleball etiquette, he was immediately invited to try it out. He's been playing ever since.
"I love it and I've met so many people," said Cusack, who at 79 plays four days a week at The Centre of Elgin. "It's a very social game."
Invented in 1965 in Washington state, the game combines elements of tennis, badminton and pingpong. It's played with paddles and a plastic ball with holes on a court similar to but smaller than a tennis court.
The sport has exploded in popularity the past few years and now has multiple professional leagues, with team owners that include LeBron James and Tom Brady.
The Sports & Fitness Industry Association puts pickleball participation at more than 4.8 million people nationwide, with 39.3% growth over the last two years. That makes it the fastest-growing sport in America for the second year, according to an association report released in February.
And before you ask, it has nothing to do with pickles. In fact, it's hard to write about pickleball without addressing the elephant, or pickle, in the room -- the name.
Would a quick-paced, accessible-to-almost-anyone sport that brings people together be even more popular with a different name?
"Abso-freakin-lutely," said Bill Graba of Hoffman Estates. "If they had changed the name, it would be in the Olympics right now."
Bill and Linda Graba of Hoffman Estates are widely considered to be the godparents of pickleball in the Northwest suburbs. They picked up the game after retiring to The Villages in central Florida, where they spend their winters.
"We were the pioneers up here," Bill Graba said. "It's such a great game, and it's gotten so big, so fast."
Graba said he and his wife started promoting the game locally in about 2009. They helped get indoor courts at what was then known as the Prairie Stone Sports & Wellness Center in Hoffman Estates and outdoor courts at Fabbrini Park in Hoffman Estates. For the past 10 years, they've organized a six-county tournament that brings in about 200 participants.
Graba said public outdoor courts are popping up throughout the suburbs, including Palatine, Schaumburg, Streamwood, Hanover Park and St. Charles.
"It's basically all over every suburb," Graba said. "If they haven't had them in the past, people are asking and they will have them soon."
Graba said one of the main draws is the socialization factor.
"At this stage in our lives, basically all of our friends come from pickleball," Graba said. "It's extremely social, and it's changed people's lives."
Graba said more than one player has told him that pickleball helped pull them out of a deep depression.
"Once you're on the court one time, you've made friends all over the place," he said. "Seniors especially can sometimes get isolated. This gets them out of the house, gets their heart pumping and gives them a social life that is just so huge."
Roger Eads has been promoting the game in Elgin since a friend introduced it to him in 2014.
"I played one day and I was hooked," Eads said. "It's so much fun and it's easy to learn."
He spearheaded an effort to get the Elgin Parks and Recreation department to put pickleball lines on their basketball courts at The Centre. Initially they lined one basketball court for three pickleball courts. They've tripled it since because of the demand.
"When I started pushing for it in 2018 or '19, there were about 10 of us who played regularly," he said. "Now I have 75 players just on my own contact list, so it's just exploded."
This summer he brought a contingent of about a dozen pickleballers to the Elgin Parks and Recreation department master plan public meeting to push for dedicated outdoor courts.
He said the pickleball scene in Elgin, as it is everywhere, is starting to skew younger. Through his elginpickleball.com website, he recently organized a picnic for local players and said there were a number of people in their 20s, 30s and 40s.
"It's not just an old people's game anymore, not at all," he said.
Graba agreed and said the small court allows people of all ages to play against each other.
"One of our favorite things is to play against our grandsons," he said. "We're in our 70s and they're in their teens, and we can hold our own with them because of the dimensions of the court."
While the outdoor season is about over, a recent sunny day found four used-to-be strangers but now pickleball pals on a court at Fabbrini Park.
"It's a fun sport and you make a lot of friends," said Diana Palmer of Arlington Heights. "Different ages, different abilities, it doesn't matter. It's great."