Pickleball — fast, competitive and social — isn’t a hard game to sell to new players.
But Tim Losavio, an avid 26-year-old pickleballer, wishes it had been called something else.
“I don’t tell my friends the name,” Losavio said during a break in the game at Baton Rouge’s Cedar Ridge Park. “I tell them I’m playing indoor tennis.”
Created in the 1960s, pickleball is similar to tennis but is played on a smaller court with a shorter net, a whiffle ball and a solid paddle made of plastic or wood. Taught in some middle and high schools for a few decades now, the game is one of America’s fastest-growing sports, especially among the retiree set. Membership in the USA Pickleball Association has tripled to 150,000 since 2010, and most players don’t join the organization. There are 22 places to play in Louisiana, according to the association, with about 700 players regularly meeting at the courts.
“It’s just a lot of fun to play,” said Tom Burkhart, 69, one of the game’s top promoters in Baton Rouge.
Burkhart learned the game as a physical education coach at Baker Middle School in the 1980s. The coaches found a box of pickleball equipment and an explanation of the rules. They played it the next day and included it in their curriculum.
“It was fun,” Burkhart said. “And it was relatively easy to learn and the middle school kids could handle it.”
Burkhart taught the game for 17 years before be became a school administrator, usually challenging each class’ winning team to a match. He promised a good grade to the person who beat him. No one ever did.
After he retired, Burkhart saw a newspaper ad seeking “seniors” to play pickleball at the BREC Cedar Ridge Park near his house. He started attending the games and now works part time for the parks and recreation department, setting up the games four days a week. He has won several tournaments with the National Senior Games Association and is the organization’s pickleball director. He is in the midst of planning next month’s National Senior Games tournament in Minnesota, where he expects 650 players.
Burkhart serves as the regional director for the USA Pickleball Association, and he is being honored by the Humana insurance company as a Humana Game Changer for promoting a healthy lifestyle through pickleball.
Pickleball’s name has two different origin stories, and neither has anything to do with gherkins or dills. The most interesting of the two involved a dog named Pickles who kept stealing the ball during the game’s formative years.
Even with the goofy name, the game still provides a good workout, Burkhart said.
“When you’re doing something fun like that, you’re getting exercise without even knowing it,” he said.
Players can hit the ball off the bounce or in the air, but there is a 7-foot area on either side of the net where players can’t hit a ball in the air.
“When you get 14 feet apart and you’re banging the baseball-sized whiffle ball and you’re banging it back and forth, it gets pretty fast and furious,” Burkhart said.
During last Tuesday’s regular pickup games at the Cedar Ridge gymnasium, 20 to 30 players would break into pairs, play for 15 to 20 minutes and then break for water. Everyone played several games before leaving, switching partners each match.
The game is a good addition to an active lifestyle, said Dana Lewczyk, who said the game is “addictive” during a quick break in action.
“You go home sweaty,” said Lewczyk, 62. “Not quite as aerobic as running, but it’s so good for your hand and eye, that type of coordination.”
When Losavio first started playing when his girlfriend’s father brought him to a game, he left sore.
“It is challenging,” he said. “I just enjoyed it. The exercise is great, the camaraderie is great, and then you have the competitive nature in it. It’s competitive but also fun.”
The crowd at Cedar Ridge is friendly, but they don’t spend too much time talking. There’s always another game to start.
“It makes you feel like a kid again,” Lewczyk said, “like you’re out in the backyard playing a sport.”