Pickleball at Glendale YMCA

Eighty-seven year old Maxine Johnson of Eagle Rock, right, plays pickleball with her doubles partner Janelle Morton, 59, of Pasadena, at the Glendale YMCA on Thursday, March 13, 2014. (Raul Roa / Staff Photographer / March 13, 2014)

Ken Robin remembers walking his dog in Los Feliz about four years ago when a stranger came up to him and asked if he plays tennis and Ping-Pong.

When he said he did, the man, Marshall Pura, replied: "Then I've got the game for you."

Robin, who was living in the Bay Area at the time, was just in Los Feliz for vacation, but Pura still picked him up the next day and drove him to the Glendale YMCA to play a game of pickleball.

"I didn't know what pickleball was. I didn't even know what Glendale was," Robin, a retired attorney who has since moved to Los Angeles, said this week after finishing up a game of the sport that's been around since the 1960s, but has been increasing in popularity over the past decade.

Between March 2010 and last month, the number of pickleball sites across North America has nearly tripled to 2,236, according to the USA Pickleball Assn. Last year was the first time the National Senior Games Assn., which acts like the Olympics for seniors, included the game, which was invented by a Washington state congressman and his friends to entertain their bored kids during the summer.

"The way that we consider what sports are held at the national level are based on demand by various state members and the board of directors," Senior Games spokesman Del Moon said. "You have to rise to a very high standard to have the National Senior Games change the roster of offered sports."

Before Pura, who is now an ambassador with the Pickleball Assn., met Robin walking the streets of Los Feliz, the retired marriage and family therapist had read an article about pickleball and its popularity among seniors due to its low-impact nature in AARP Magazine. Soon after, he vacationed in Ruidoso, Mexico and saw a group of people playing the game that looked like Ping-Pong mashed with tennis and played on with a Wiffle Ball on a court similar to the size of one used for badminton.

Pura was hooked after playing one game in Mexico. When he returned from vacation, he searched for a local court. He reached out to parks and recreation officials in Los Angeles, but to no avail. On a whim, he decided to call the YMCA in Glendale. Turns out there was an abandoned paddle tennis court on the roof, but it hadn't been used in years and was in a state of disarray. Paddle tennis is played on a smaller court than tennis, like pickleball. A YMCA official asked Pura if he wanted to use the broken-down court.

"It took me 15 seconds to decide," said Pura, who revamped the court with a new coat of paint, lighting and equipment. He also turned a basketball court on the roof into another pickleball court.

While pickleball communities are popping up around the world, they tend to thrive if there's a point person willing to put in the time to grow the community, Pura said.

"I was the mother of this," he said. "You need someone to mother."

Four years ago it would be hard to get a handful of people to play in Glendale, but now about 20 play on the two courts for about two and a half hours twice a week. The players, who range in age from 20s to 80s, with most on the older side of the spectrum, come from Glendale, Los Angeles and even out of state.

On Thursday morning Eric Block, a physical education teacher from North Carolina, was playing a game with Kibibi Mack-Shelton, a history professor from Maryland. Both play in Glendale while visiting family in the area.

"I fell in love with pickleball the first time I played," Mack-Shelton said, adding that she can't find a pickleball court near her hometown. "My family now believes I'm not coming here to visit them. They think I come to play pickleball."

For many of the senior players, pickleball games have increased their activity levels and their social circle.

Lynette Straley said the game was beloved by her husband, who recently died.

"It gave him more joy in his life," said the Glendale resident.

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Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ and on Twitter: @brittanylevine.

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