Pickleball explosion

Local enthusiasts look forward to four new courts for the sport, a combination of tennis, badminton and ping-pong

At 87 years old, Tom Russo is the oldest member of the Chico Pickleball Club. With a small court size, he’s able to easily maneuver to hit the ball.

At 87 years old, Tom Russo is the oldest member of the Chico Pickleball Club. With a small court size, he’s able to easily maneuver to hit the ball.

Photo by Vic Cantu

Get into the game:
For those interested in joining the Chico Pickleball Club, find it on Facebook under “Chico Pickleball - 20th St. Tennis Courts” or email organizer Mike Kunkis at micysler@sbcglobal.net.

While many people may never have even heard of pickleball, the sport is fast becoming a popular Chico pastime. That was evident at an October meeting of the Chico Area Recreation and Park District board, where about 90 members and supporters of the Chico Pickleball Club showed their love of it by donning their blue club shirts and proposing the conversion of a second tennis court at Community Park into four pickleball courts.

Financially, the idea makes sense, said Chico Pickleball Club organizer Mike Kunkis.

“Constructing an entire new, four-court pickleball area would cost $60,000 to $75,000, whereas converting an existing tennis court will be about $15,000, which is what the last conversion cost,” he said, referring to the existing playing area at Community Park, aka 20th Street Park, which was converted two years ago.

The proposal won easily, with not a single person speaking in opposition.

One woman had submitted a petition with about 20 names opposing the transition several weeks before, but she did not attend the meeting, said CARD General Manager Ann Willmann.

The large number of supporters at the CARD meeting reflects pickleball’s exploding popularity locally. Kunkis, 65, says club membership has more than tripled in the two years he’s helped run it, from 40 to 140. The club’s second tournament was held the weekend of Nov. 18-19, and attracted 95 players from as far away as San Francisco and Eureka.

Pickleball was invented in 1965 and resembles tennis, badminton and ping-pong. It’s usually played on tennis courts condensed to about half the size of a regular one—from the back line to the net is only 22 feet—with similar lines, and a net 2 inches lower than a tennis net. Singles or doubles hit a whiffle ball with a wooden paddle twice the size of a ping-pong paddle, scoring 1 point at a time. The first one to 11 wins.

Membership in the Chico Pickleball Club has grown swiftly for several reasons. One is that the game is easy to take up. Another is that the club is open to everyone, of all ages and skill levels, and will even teach newbies the rules of the game.

“It’s super easy,” Kunkis said. “If you have played any paddle sports, we can show you the basic strokes and have you playing within an hour. We’re happy to teach people for free.”

Jennifer Wallace, another club organizer, says newcomers are loaned paddles and advised not to buy one (they run from $60 to $120) before consulting with pickle-ball regulars. New players are encouraged to come by the courts between 11-11:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday.

Chico Junior High physical education instructor Corina Peruzzi says she has taught the sport for 15 years to students at Pleasant Valley, Chico Junior, Bidwell Junior and Marsh Junior high schools.

“Kids love it and want to play it all the time,” Peruzzi said. “It’s easier to understand than tennis, and the paddle is closer to your hand than a tennis racket.”

While all ages enjoy the sport, Kunkis says he’s noticed that seniors are especially attracted to it. Two-thirds of the club’s active members are over 60, with the oldest member clocking in at 87. Many have retired and lost their social group from work, Kunkis explained, and pickleball provides an instant replacement community of people with shared interests.

One of those interests is staying in shape, Wallace said.

“It keeps your mind really engaged and you don’t realize you’re exercising,” she said.

Kunkis concurred: “I have a pacemaker and it doesn’t affect my play. In fact, it probably helps,” he said, laughing.

Tom Russo, the 87-year-old, played briskly at the Community Park court, then revealed he has two artificial knees and two artificial hips.

“I’ve been playing 3 1/2 years, and I love the game,” Russo said. “I played tennis for decades, but I lost all my partners when they died or went to retirement homes.”

After the new court conversion is complete, Kunkis says the club wants to start leagues similar to bowling or softball leagues.

“Chico is such a great place,” he said. “I would love it if we became Northern California’s destination for pickleball.”