Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh pickleball tournament attracts more than 400 players while raising money for Parkinson Foundation

Cardiovascular exercise, like pickleball, has been shown to slow the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and promote mobility

Billy Ludt Jun 28, 2017 6:00 AM
CP photo by Billy Ludt
A player returns a serve during a recent pickleball tournament Downtown.

For many people, pickleball was a game that your P.E. teacher likely taught you one day in your middle-school gym class. In fact, gym class was filled with ridiculous games with names like parachute, four square, lighthouse and red rover. But unlike those games that remain in the schoolyard, pickleball is a sport that’s breaching the mainstream.

The GAMMA Pickleball Classic tournament, held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, saw 413 players from 17 states and Canada, take to the hardcourt. Tournament co-director Lou Sherfinski said that this second year of pickleball competition in Pittsburgh has doubled in size from the first. 

Organizers turned the ground-floor convention space into a 27-court arena filled with players ranging from grade-school age to septuagenarians. Even Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Pittsburgh City Councilor Corey O’Connor played a round.

“You saw the mayor and the councilman playing before,” Sherfinski says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they got the bug.”

CP photo by Billy Ludt
Pittsburgh City Councilor Corey O’Conner (left) and Mayor Bill Peduto (center) played some pickleball.

Pickleball is a cross between badminton, ping pong and tennis. The game can be played one-on-one or two-on-two. Players volley a plastic ball with holes (think wiffle ball) back and forth over a net with a paddle that’s larger than a ping-pong paddle, but similar in design. Scoring is similar to tennis, but games require a two-point gap to win, and only the serving team can score.

“In tennis, the edge always goes to the server,” Sherfinski says. “The rules in pickleball take that advantage away.”

In tennis, a ball is typically served overhand and at a high velocity. In pickleball, the ball is always served underhand. The holes in the plastic ball slow its speed when struck, which evens the play between the serving and returning teams. The slower speed of the ball makes it a much lower impact sport than tennis and opens the game up for people of different ages and abilities. 

This year, the Pickleball Classic raised about $22,000 for the Parkinson Foundation of Western Pennsylvania. In fact, some players competing in the tournament had Parkinson’s themselves. While studies aren’t available publicly describing the benefits of pickleball in Parkinson’s patients, cardiovascular exercise, such as boxing and biking, has been shown to slow the disease’s symptoms and promote mobility. Pickleball falls under that umbrella.

Pickleball player and Parkinson’s patient Andy Leighton can attest to the sport’s benefits.

“I love the closeness of it,” Leighton says. “You’re closer to your opponents than you are in tennis, and that fosters a social relationship that you won’t get in tennis or most other sports.”

Leighton was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about six years ago. Off the court, his symptoms will flare and his body will shake. But once he has a pickleball paddle in his hand, everything changes.

“My wife took me to a tournament — entered us in a tournament — didn’t tell me a thing about the sport, and I’m a tennis player,” Leighton says. “When I tried to apply my tennis skills, you can only do so much of that, so I suffered a little bit. And then I caught on. Now I’m a monster.”