By Mike Powers
News-Bulletin sports editor
Shortly after visiting the Belen Community Center in Eagle Park to learn more about the sport of pickleball, it was learned that NBA superstar LeBron James was part of a group buying a Major League Pickleball franchise. .
Yes, it’s a real thing, and breaking news: Tom Brady and a host of other sports legends are also investing.
While no one at Eagle Park seemed ready for the pros, it was competitive and fun. This loosely organized group meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, with around 20 regulars. Three courts are set up on the gymnasium floor with players moving in and out.
Judy Culp, of Los Chavez, inherited the role of organizer.
“We’ve used this space for years,” Culp said. “We collect $1 from each player and donate it to the recreation center.”
Pinkleball has been called the fastest growing sport in America. National governing body USA Pickleball says popularity has taken off during the pandemic with nearly five million Americans picking up the ball.
That includes Belen resident and Los Lunas native Leonard Perea.
“I just enjoy the company, the players,” Perea explained. “Every game you learn something. You take something from other players. This is very fun.”
Fun but competitive. Perea and several others participate in tournaments. There was sometimes kicking the ground or slapping the thigh with the paddle after a missed shot. One woman’s T-shirt proclaimed “Dink, Dink, Smash,” referring to how a point can go from long rallies to a quick end.
Pickleball seems perfect for seniors.
“It’s easy to learn. If you’ve ever played tennis, badminton, table tennis, racquetball, it helps with pickleball,” Culp said.
It’s also less stressful on the body with the terrain and rules designed to minimize running and power hits. A mature player can be competitive with someone much younger.
Yvonne Montoya, with the Valencia County Senior Olympics, is experiencing a surge in the popularity of pickleball.
“New Mexico is going really strong,” Montoya said. “It’s really gaining momentum across the state.”
At Belen Community Center, players usually bring their own paddles, larger than those used in ping pong. They also provide the balls, which are similar to Wiffle balls. The nets were donated by one of the players.
Last week, the Valencia County Senior Olympics approved funding for two new nets and two dozen balls. Montoya says the equipment will be used at the Belen Community Center, which would be the county’s only public pickleball facility.
That could change. Montoya says VCSO is reaching out to the Village of Los Lunas to see if courts could be made available at Daniel Fernandez Gym.
Meanwhile, the Eagle Park courts are ready for anyone who wants to dink and smash.