December 8, 2022
The Bainbridge Island Expeditions
A voyage to pickleball’s holy land—and what we bring back from it.
By Chris Koentges
In the quiet hours before dawn, a group set out from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on an unusual pilgrimage. They were in search of the origins of pickleball. They were in search of holy ground and living legends. Like all picklenauts, they were also in search of fellow travelers. And like every picklenaut, they were inventing their own mythology too.
It was a Saturday morning. The moon was still full, the air thick with wildfire smoke. By 8 a.m., the group’s first members had reached Shoreline Park, nine miles north of Seattle. At 5:50 p.m. that evening, Riley Newman would throw out the first pitch at the Seattle Mariners game in front of more than 45,000 people. Earlier that spring, Washington’s governor declared pickleball the state sport, and now the Mariners had decreed an official “Pickleball Night.” The game’s origin story grew larger by the month.
As word spread through the Seattle Metro pickleball community that a group of Canadians had traveled down for Pickleball Night, invitations arose. That Saturday morning at Shoreline, the group played games with the intelligentsia of Seattle pickleball. Pickleball Hall of Famer Fran Myer showed up to play with and against the Canadians. Gordon Sata and Theresa Haynie and Mitsu Clark told vivid stories about playing with game founder Joel Pritchard and players like Wes Gabrielsen and Tim Nelson (a.k.a. “the puppet master”). They would help arrange an elusive invitation to Court 1 the next morning—and matches later with Bainbridge Island players on the Founders Courts.
Sata had done some research the night before and was likewise fascinated by the unusual origin story of his Canadian visitors. They referred to themselves as The Jericho Hill Pickleball School (JHPS). In Vancouver, there were tales of backyard courts that existed in the late 1960s. There are old photos of pickleball played on the rooftops of office towers, mountains in the background. The JHPS had effectively invented a background story, which linked their school to the rise and fall of those mysterious Canadian players from the 1960s:
“They practiced pickleball not on traditional courts, but on surface parking lots and forgotten alleyways; atop the roofs of downtown office towers; in the rust and weeds of neglected neighborhoods. At the same moment Guy Debord’s Situationist International movement had come to define unitary urbanism before the Paris riots, pickleball came to represent a radical expression of Pacific Northwest psychogeography.”
We can debate whether baseball is still America’s pastime. And we can debate the functional relevance of Washington adopting pickleball as its state sport this past spring. But the resonance of the weekend was undeniable. A Washington kid-turned-national-pickleball-superstar took center stage before a Major League Baseball game. You can’t help but wonder, “When will the state sport of Washington next become ‘Cascadia’s Pastime?’” And ultimately the new North American pastime?
On Court 1 on Bainbridge Island, the lines are faded. Douglas fir roots grow up through asphalt. Clay Roberts, who is USA Pickleball’s ambassador to Bainbridge Island, refers to the site as “mecca.” When we travel—really travel—we try to connect the dots. To viscerally understand other people and places. Where a culture has come from and where it’s headed. And to make new friends too. As the Bainbridge Island players waved goodbye to the JHPS, they hastily formed a WhatsApp group, planning out a reverse voyage next summer to trace the origins of the JHPS. •
Read more about the Bainbridge Island Expeditions at jerichohillpickleball.com.
Chris Koentges has written about true underdogs and sports subculture for The Atlantic, ESPN The Magazine, and Bleacher Report. Recently, he helped revive the fabled Jericho Hill Pickleball School (jerichohillpickleball.com).