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LUMBERTON — A friendly, fit and recently-retired man wears a shirt that states “Pickleball is like duct tape — it fixes everything.” As people come in the gym, he welcomes them and makes sure they have what they need — not just to play, but to have a good time.
Throughout the afternoon, a dozen people of various ages, races and genders will whack wiffle balls back and forth over a short net, recreationally playing a game that is now the fastest growing sport in America, and is starting to catch on here, too.
It’s time to play pickleball in Lumberton.
From 2 to 4 p.m. each Friday afternoon, this group meets at Bill Sapp Recreation Center in Lumberton. The gym is available for pickleball play at other times, as are courts in Pembroke, but this is the time that the most people are able to come out and play.
“It’s a combination of ping-pong, badminton and tennis, played on a court that looks like a tennis court on a smaller scale,” said Stevie Flowers, who helps organize the group’s Friday outings. “I basically tell people it’s a paddle or racket sport hitting a wiffle ball back and forth across a net that’s two inches lower than a tennis net.”
Flowers, who has lived nearly all his life in Lumberton, was introduced to pickleball by friends and began playing in Cumberland County, which has a thriving pickleball scene. He began trying to promote the game in Robeson County, and initially got approval from Lumberton recreation officials for one court at Bill Sapp; they now have three courts, with tape down for boundary lines, which between them take up the entire gym floor, and the gym is also available for pickleball play from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Thursday. Tennis courts at UNC Pembroke and the Pembroke Recreation Center can also be used for pickleball, Flowers said.
After starting just last September, a typical Friday now sees about 12 people come to the gym to play, with as many as 16 showing up. A woman visiting town during the holidays played with the group for several weeks in a row, Flowers said, and a recent Friday outing included a visitor from New Jersey, playing with her local cousin.
“It’s big everywhere else — so we want it to be big here,” said Melinda Cook-Brayboy, who plays on Friday afternoons. “Especially as the spring comes, it would be fun to be outdoors. I’ve been up to Fayetteville and played on the outdoor courts and it is so much better than being on the (hardwood).”
While pickleball is being introduced to many Americans in recent years, the game has been around since its invention in 1965 in Bainbridge Island, Washington. The game “exploded” during the COVID-19 pandemic, Flowers said, as people looked for something to do outdoors. About 5 million Americans now play the sport, which now has professional-level matches and athletes like Tom Brady and LeBron James investing in professional teams.
While professional-level players are younger and fitter, the average pickleball player is 38 years old and the game is played by all ages, including senior citizens.
“What sport do you know that you can have a 20-year-old playing with a 50-year-old, and it’s fairly even?” said Shane Irons, who has just picked up the game in recent weeks. “It’s the perfect all-inclusive sport where anybody can pick up a racket and play immediately, and it doesn’t take long to learn.”
While ease of play is a plus, Flowers believes there are several other positives that pickleball brings to the community, including exercise, social interaction, and even increased diversity.
“I’m trying to present some of it just on (a health and wellness) basis, just with the obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, lack of exercise — that’s huge,” Flowers said. “But it’s also a great (thing for), people talk about having trouble meeting people; I’ve met 20 people in the little bit of time that we’ve been doing this. … We have a lot of diversity here, and that can be a good thing. It’s an opportunity for us to play together and do something that we enjoy together, have fun, laugh together and get some exercise at the same time.”
An additional advantage to the sport is its low cost; paddles and balls are inexpensive, and are also provided at Bill Sapp for anyone who doesn’t have them.
A pickleball group in Fayetteville which Flowers plays with has grown from 170 players last April to 415 as of early February— and he anticipates that kind of growth is also possible in the coming years in Robeson County.
As pickleball continues its local growth, Lumberton and Pembroke are both looking to potentially rework existing tennis courts to become pickleball courts. Lumberton could also consider future tournaments if the growth continues, which would be a possible revenue-generator for the city.
“If more participation came, we could look at either doing tournaments, or we are pursuing the possibility of maybe an outdoor court at Luther Britt Park or Parkview Activities Center,” said Tim Clark, athletics supervisor for the Lumberton Recreation Department. “We have a tennis court over there, and a lot of areas they are utilizing tennis courts and adding pickleball courts to them also.”
“I live in Pinehurst, and it’s booming in Pinehurst,” said Phil Harper, Pembroke’s parks and recreation director. “It’s only going to spread; it’s definitely the fastest-growing sport around, no question about it. Everybody plays pickleball, everybody is interested in pickleball. If there’s an opportunity where tennis courts are not being used, people are putting pickleball courts on them, so it’s definitely a growing thing.”
But as it waits for that growth to happen, for now the group that plays each Friday afternoon remains a tight-knit bunch.
“Now it’s a community,” Cook-Brayboy said. “Pretty much, we’re all friends now — and we look forward to Fridays.”
Sports editor Chris Stiles can be reached at 910-816-1977 or by email at [email protected]. You can follow him on Twitter at @StilesOnSports.