Skip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
featured

‘A little pickleball family’

  • Updated
  • 0
The Cloud Peak Pickleball league is open to all ages

The Cloud Peak Pickleball league is open to all ages and plays throughout the entire year on Wednesday morning in the Bomber Mountain Civic Center in Buffalo. In the winter, attendees change out of snowy, winter boots and into gym shoes to play in the warm gym for a few hours.

A cop, a banker, a CPA and a rancher (all retired) walked onto a pickleball court on a winter morning, paddles at the ready and eyes on the ball.

It wasn’t an unusual scene. On most winter mornings, the sound of paddle on ball emanates from the Bomber Mountain gym, where as many as 15 pickleballers at a time gather to play. On this particular morning, all the attention was on these four pickleballers, who traded shots and jibes from the center court.

Pickleball, similar to tennis but played on a smaller court and with a plastic ball and paddles instead of a rubber ball and rackets, has developed something of a cult following in the United States. Like tennis, the ball can only bounce once on either side of the court, and it must stay in bounds, but the game’s supporters say it’s more about manipulating your opponent’s position than physically outperforming them.

Often, a solid point culminates in what they call a shootout, in which the players keep the ball low, just inches above the net, and creep closer to the midline, increasing the speed and intensity of their volleys until the rat-a-tat-tat of the game sounds more like a semiautomatic than 60-somethings playing pickleball.

Craig Plante (the cop) ended one such shootout with a whip of a forehand that flew past Bill Dooley (the CPA) and landed just in bounds, leaving Dooley frozen in motion.

Joyce Gammon steps into the court as she returns the ball

Joyce Gammon steps into the court as she returns the ball during a game of pickle ball on Wednesday morning in the Bomber Mountain Civic Center in Buffalo. The Cloud Peak Pickleball club practices and plays in Bomber Mountain during the colder winter months when the outdoor courts aren’t cleared for play.

As usual, the players complimented Plante on the shot, chagrined and shaking their heads, before readying for the next serve.

Later, while watching Plante play from the sidelines, Joyce Gammon (the banker) turned to Lester Drake (the rancher) and observed, “Nobody hits anything to Craig.”

“You gotta be crazy to do that,” Drake said.

“We love it when he shows up,” Gammon said about Plante in an interview. “But really — the level of players in Buffalo — I mean, he’s exceeded our level of play.”

Plante is addicted to pickleball, playing hours upon hours almost every day of the week. Everyone knows it’s an addiction, even him. But just 18 months ago, he didn’t know what pickleball was. He thought it was for old people. He thought the name was weird. Now, if he doesn’t play, he gets the shakes, he said.

He isn’t alone. Pickleball — just 57 years old — is the fastest-growing sport in America, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. From 2019 to 2021, pickleball grew almost 40%, with 4.8 million Americans playing in 2021, according to the SFIA.

In Buffalo, Cloud Peak Pickleball formed about two years ago and has 35 members, Gammon, who is also the vice president of the club, said. Sheridan also has a club, and there are courts as far afield as Big Horn and Dayton.

“This is like a little hotbed of some great players,” Plante said.

And Cloud Peak Pickleball is hoping to grow. This year, Gammon said, they’ve upped their online presence, joined the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce and spread the word: pickleball players welcome.

Karla Peterson laughs as she dives forward to return a short ball

Karla Peterson laughs as she dives forward to return a short ball on Wednesday morning in the Bomber Mountain Civic Center in Buffalo. The games fluctuated between joking and serious as they players moved between course and in and out of full games.

The pickleball club of Buffalo joins together several days

The pickleball club of Buffalo joins together several days throughout the week to play together as well as offering two training sessions each week for attendees new and old.

If all goes according to plan, the club will transform the Washington Park tennis courts into dual-use pickleball courts this summer, transitioning from the cracked courts built behind the Johnson County YMCA. In February, the Buffalo City Council voted to support the plan, and the association will request permission from the Buffalo Recreation Board to move forward.

Plante told City Council members that the association would request money from the city — about $1,000 — to fund the transition, but they’d use their own money if the city didn’t want to participate.

Pickleball has an outsized presence in Buffalo, and it generates an outsized obsession among its players, one that they don’t shy away from.

Dooley used to play five days a week before cutting back to three in order to spend more time with his grandchildren and have a life outside of pickleball, he said.

Gammon normally plays six days a week, she said, but if she misses a few days or goes on vacation, she starts to miss playing.

Plante plays in cities and towns across northeastern Wyoming, wherever there’s a court. And when he goes on vacation, he takes his paddle with him, which even he is a little incredulous about.

“I mean, who does that?” he asked.

Even in Buffalo, it isn’t uncommon, Plante said, in the summer, for stray pickleball players just driving through to stop for a game.

“You get new blood in and it’s just exciting, and so, everyone’s welcoming, and it’s weird how newcomers are really wanted and accepted,” he said.

Despite embracing their love of pickleball, the players can’t quite explain why they love it. Yes, it offers health benefits, it’s easy to learn and it isn’t very expensive, but those advantages seem almost incidental to the pickleballers.

Brenda Foster laughs as she recovers a shanked ball

Brenda Foster laughs as she recovers a shanked ball during one of the morning matches held on Wednesday morning in the Bomber Mountain Civic Center in Buffalo. The nets were set up on the court allowing for two games to be played at a time. By mid-morning a full eight players had arrived allowing for two complete games to be played at once.

Pam Snyder swats the ball back across the net

Pam Snyder swats the ball back across the net on Wednesday morning in the Bomber Mountain Civic Center in Buffalo. The league plays games in with teams of two and rotates on and off course based on game winners.

Pickleball does offer a tantalizing chance at glory that is unrestricted by skill level or age, unlike other sports. The national championships offer brackets for almost every rank (pickleballers’ skill level is rated from 1.0 to 5.5, with 5.5 being the highest) and for every age; there’s even an 80+ division.

Plante, who generally plays in the 60+ division and rates between a 4.0 and a 4.5, placed second in the men’s doubles 4.0 60+ division at the Rocky Mountain Championships last year.

“You could still go and compete on the biggest stage at your level, which is so cool,” Plante said. It’d be as though casual golf players were offered the opportunity to compete at the Masters with other casual players, he said. “Are you kidding? I’d be on the golf course all day.”

And yet winning isn’t top of mind for the pickleballers either. They often lose track of the score while playing, and even Plante can’t remember what games he’s won or lost after practice, he said. He gets lost in the minutiae of the game, trying to advance his play.

Gammon said the pickleballers don’t just play, they spend time doing drills, practicing shots and learning new techniques. She noted, though, that “usually, in the heat of the battle, it all goes out the window anyway.”

Bill Dooley steps forward to receive a ball during a game

Bill Dooley steps forward to receive a ball during a game on Wednesday morning in the Bomber Mountain Civic Center in Buffalo. The attendees rotate between different teams as time allows and as they move on and off courts.

Despite their intensity, the players find time in between games to chat, not just about the latest model of pickleball paddle but also about their families, politics, the economy or whatever else is on their mind.

“A lot of the activities that I do are solo activities,” Gammon said. “And this is something that you can do and you can be with other people and not get so involved in yourself.”

The friendliness of pickleball is one of its unique traits. Pickleball is as much a social activity as it is a physical one, Gammon said. During games, players toss tips from the sidelines and critique each other’s technique. They compliment each other’s shots and tease each other when they make mistakes. They laugh, whether they win or lose.

After a game, they step to the net and knock their paddles together, the sign of a game well played and well enjoyed.

“We’re like a little pickleball family,” Plante said.

The pickleball league plays all year round

While the club plays outside on courts below the YMCA in the summer, they refuse to stop playing in the winter, creating their own courts inside the Bomber Mountain Civic Center in Buffalo. Some weeks, the league has games daily, other time they meet just a few times per week. Attendees come when they can and for as long as they can, coming and going with their own schedules.

Photojournalist

Jessi Dodge joined the Bulletin as a photojournalist and a Report for America corp member in 2020. If you have ideas or comments, reach out at jessi@buffalobulletin.com.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.