The Arizona Traditions active adult community is not the birthplace of pickleball. That would be Bainbridge Island near Seattle — all the way back in 1965.
It is not where the game began in Arizona, or even in Surprise. Neighboring Happy Trails had a small core group of players by the mid 1980s.
But the spark for the game’s explosive growth was lit by a small group of pickleball pioneers in this gated community in the northwest corner of the Northwest Valley.
“Now I see decals (for pickleball) on their cars and RVs. You know right away. There were two guys making paddles way back when. There’s over 50 now,” Arizona Traditions resident Ed Hamer said. “It put Surprise on the map. It’s the pickleball capital for the nation. It’s been fun to be a part of that.”
Why Arizona Traditions, instead of any of the thousands of other active adult communities in America? It’s largely thanks to the efforts of Earl Hill and a small group of residents he attracted to the game.
When Mr. Hill and his wife, Gladys, arrived at Arizona Traditions in the late 1990s, Happy Trails had just added three courts to what was the original court in Arizona.
Mr. Hill learned how to play in his native Pacific Northwest, where the game grew slowly but steadily for three decades. Washington congressman Joel Pritchard and businessman Bill Bell needed to find something for the whole family to do and developed a game they named after Pitchard’s dog, Pickles — the source of many delays in the early years.
Players use a paddle to hit a baseball-sized whiffle ball with a ping pong paddle over a net on a badminton-sized court. The sport was a Puget Sound only phenomenon in 1985 when Mr. Hill first tried it out in a Tacoma gym.
After a decade of play he had become quite adept and made pickleball a consideration when picking a home in the desert Other than in and around Seattle, the early decades of pickleball were the most robust in the Thousand Trails Campground system at RV parks across the western United States. Special, larger composite paddles were now being introduced.
Mr. Hill played at Happy Trails, but got the word out among his new neighbors. He said games in the then-very new Arizona Traditions started among himself and six or eight friends.
“I just got a hold of a few people way back then and asked them to bring some friends over,” Mr. Hill said.
By 2000, about 30 residents played on four courts — really a tennis court with tape marking the pickle ball boundaries. Tennis players would remove the tape, starting a tug of war between the two sports that remains today.
One of the early converts, Norm Davis, became one of pickleball’s prime evangelists. Mr. Hamer heard about the group from Mr. Davis, who led training sessions for the sport for more than a decade.
“This guy right here (Hill), he got it moving,” Mr. Hamer said. “I came over here one day and Agnes (Weber?) showed me how to serve.”
While the Arizona Traditions group grew steadily, all the pioneers credited the 2001 tournament at the Arizona Senior Olympics as the impetus for the local pickleball boom.
Gladys Hill played golf in the senior Olympics, which led to her husband pushing for the inclusion of his favorite sport.
“This was just barely starting over here with all new players. Some of those players (at Happy Trails) were pretty adept at it,” Mr. Hill said. ”Since we had four courts we decided it might not be a bad idea to have a tournament. I checked in to the Arizona Senior Olympics. They didn’t have pickleball. They didn’t know what it was.”
Senior Olympics organizers went ahead with the idea, provided the pickleballers could wrangle up 15 players. More than 100 participated in the 2001 tournament.
It was bigger than any tournament Mr. Hill played at in Washington. And it was only the beginning.
“So the word got back to the Northwest — Seattle area, Portland and where all the snowbird are. They said ‘hey, they’ve got this game going in Surprise. They’ve got dedicated courts and this huge tournament out here,” Mr. Davis said.
Happy Trails hosted the first three tournaments. Mr. Hill envisioned a bigger tournament on newer courts at Arizona Traditions.
Soon after the senior olympics, things began to move on that front.
“One day a couple of guys in dark suits came over. I knew one of them was the business manager here for D.R. Horton. The other guy was the sales manager. They came over here to see what all these people were doing and having so much fun. He could see dollar signs, that this would help sell lots,” Mr. Hill said.
Mr. Hamer’s construction background came in handy in putting together the courts, which have not cracked in more than a decade of use. When lighting proved too expensive, Mr. Hamer found some surplus tennis lights at a salvage yard for $700, DIY welder four extra inches to each light standard and up they went.
D.R. Horton built six courts in the community by 2004 and the Senior Olympics tournament moved in for the next five years.
Even two years into that arrangement, the 500-plus person tournament field had outgrown six courts so Sun City Grand chipped in to host half the matches. The much larger neighboring active adult community took to pickleball after residents Bill and Jan Booth joined the players at Arizona Traditions.
Other West Valley retirement communities caught after that.
“It was Happy Trails and Traditions. Then (Sun City) Grand caught on, then the Sun Cities and Pebble Creek,” Mr. Davis said.
By 2005 Mr. Hill and Mr. Davis were among the cornerstones in the formation of the national USAPA organization. Mark Friedenberg — a former playing partner of Mr. Davis’ in Washington — was the first president.
A national tournament began in 2009. It and all subsequent editions have been in Arizona, with the first several years set at Sun City Festival.
At that first tournament, organizers honored Mr. Hill. He received a silver bowl with an inscription that reads “Earl Hill – One-Of-A Kind Pickleball Pioneer and Founder of the USAPA Ambassador Program.”
While the groups tied to the Surprise senior communities and USAPA were still the heart of pickleball, by then the game had grown beyond senior communities and tournament players into the all ages activity its inventors originally imagined.
“It was a unique experience. The rules of the game are designed to create hits. The whole idea from the people that started it was the more hits, the more fun. People get into it and people that don’t know one another end up having conversations. It becomes a highly social game,” Mr. Davis said.
Arizona Traditions still boasts 240-300 players in its pickleball club.
Less than 10 of the original players are still active in the game. On a melancholy note, a couple recently passed away.
“It’s not a real taxing sport. But at our ages, some of us are bone on bone. It’s a great sport. I just think we were worn out before we started it.” Mr. Hamer said.
The game is no longer dependent on Arizona Traditions, the senior Olympics, or even seniors — for that matter. More than 150,000 players have 10,000 courts to choose from.
Pickleball has taken off in Canada and has small groups of players in places like Belgium, Iraq and Singapore.
Some top players stateside are converted tennis players in their 20s, Mr. Hill said.
In late October, Mr. Davis led a seminar for 15 Dysart Unified School District middle and high teachers to pass on the game to students, with a goal set for a district-wide tournament in April.
“I was a little surprised at how fast it grew. But the truth of the matter is, it appealed to a lot of people. It is so easy to learn an you don’t have to be terribly athletic.” Mr. Hill said. “That’s the reason for the growth. It’s not the tournaments at all. Of all the tournaments we have, only about 10 percent of the players ever play in one. Most of the players do it for exercise, fun and sociability.”