A former addict says playing pickleball saved his life. Now he wonders: Why is there only 1 spot in Chicago dedicated to the wildly popular game?
“Chicago is just light-years behind the rest of the world in the development of pickleball,” one enthusiast said.
Pickleball saved Leroy Archibald’s life.
The retired mail carrier was struggling to get over a decadeslong drug and alcohol addiction when he stumbled onto the game at a South Side rec center.
“I went to treatment two years ago, and when I got out I needed something to do. I’m talking about 25 years of addiction. And I started playing pickleball when I got out of treatment and never looked back or had the desire or urge to go back,” said Archibald, 66.
“I got addicted to it. That’s my drug now,” Archibald, of Pullman, said. “I’ll get in my car with my wife, Angela, and we go all over the city and suburbs to play.”
Attention to the sport — often pegged as the nation’s fastest growing — seems to have hit a fever pitch this summer.
It combines elements of tennis, badminton and pingpong and is played with a ball that resembles a whiffle ball that rapidly decelerates after being struck, making it easier to chase down and hit. It was popularized in retirement communities but has spread across the country at a rapid clip in recent years.
Everyone is welcome
On Wednesday, Archibald joined a group at the tennis courts at Mandrake Park in Bronzeville. A bluetooth speaker one of the players brought from home played R&B jams that were punctuated by the distinctive hollow thwacking sound of pickleball.
Picklers came from all over the city — Pullman, Hyde Park, Streeterville, Lincoln Park, Auburn Gresham — to play.
Anyone and everyone is welcome, they said of the drop-in nature of the game.
“It’s inclusive like that. It’s like a family. A brotherhood. You can come, even if you’re a beginner, and find people to play with. They’ll show you how. Anyone and everyone is welcome. It’s beautiful. If only pickleball rackets could replace guns,” Archibald said.
One of the main things that holds the sport back from the growth it’s seen in other parts of Illinois and places all over the country is a lack of dedicated courts designed and built for only pickleball.
Most pickleball is played on tennis courts that also have pickleball lines painted on them. One tennis court can hold four pickleball courts. But the space is still shared, and the arrangement has left many pickleballers wanting a space of their own.
“Chicago is just light-years behind the rest of the world in the development of pickleball,” said Steven DeMar, the administrator of the Chicago Pickleball Facebook page.
“We have one location in the entire city that’s a dedicated pickleball location and that’s at Gwendolyn Brooks Park in Kenwood, and there’s only four courts there,” he said.
The city’s pickleball community note, with a sigh, that a pro pickleball tournament dubbed the “Chicago Open” was actually being held this week at dedicated courts in north suburban Highland Park — with a purse of $50,000 to be split among the top finishers.
Players look to Grant Park
DeMar, 68, and a group of other advocates have been working with the park district to build dedicated pickleball courts at a worn out tennis spot in Grant Park that’s regularly used for truck parking during summer festivals.
A spokeswoman said the park district was committed to growing the game and making pickleball available at Grant Park and other new locations around Chicago. The park district provides nets at some locations. And courts are also available indoors at many park district field houses.
DeMar, who’s in the online casino business and lives in River North, said he understands expanding pickleball infrastructure is not the easiest expense to justify. “We have so many pressing issues, people are dying in the street,” he said of the city’s gun violence crisis.
But the demand is there. The game is growing and drawing younger participants. The real difference maker is a lack of support and will, he said.
“We’re not loud. The biggest difference is we don’t have the correct advocates as part of our community. If anyone from the city or who was politically connected were actively involved in our community they would point us in the right way and we’d have giant infrastructure for the game like every other city, but we don’t have that lynch pin,” he said.
“Sooner or later we’ll find a champion,” he said, noting Bill Gates’ and Drew Brees’ support in growing the game of pickleball. “Someone will come along who has the brand power to get it done.”
Pickle heads from out of town scratch their heads when they come to Chicago and learn the size of the game’s footprint here.
Jamon Ford, 27, a mechanical engineer who was in town over the weekend from Detroit for a jam band concert, dropped in Monday for a game at Maggie Daley Park, which, along with Horner Park, are two of the biggest pickle destinations in the city.
“That’s wild,” he said after learning there was only one dedicated court in Chicago. “We’ve got a lot in Detroit and we’re not nearly as big as Chicago.”
‘People get along’
John Rosauer, 56, is in the process of moving to Edgewater from Rockford, where he said there are also more dedicated courts.
“It was definitely surprising to find there’s more pickleball infrastructure in Rockford,” he said.
Archibald has met so many people from different walks at welcoming pickleball courts in the city and suburbs.
He hopes others have the same experience.
“We might be the only Blacks at some of these courts and people are just so friendly. I’ve never seen that anywhere but pickleball. The way people get along. Asians. Hispanics. You name it,” he said.
“And the game saved my life too, how many others could it save?”