By Amy-Xiaoshi DePaula
Pickleball player Michael Chen grew up the black sheep of his family.
“My dream was to be a professional sports player,” recalled Chen, who played baseball, wrestling, basketball, golf and platform tennis growing up.
He went on to become a media mogul—credits include executive positions at NBC News, The Weather Channel and GE Capital—but found his way back to his passion during the COVID-19 pandemic when pickleball was booming at a time when a lot of indoor sports shuttered, and has continued rocketing as the fastest growing sport in America.
By 2021, Chen was playing in amateur tournaments in Florida, then a year later, decided to give the pros a shot. From there, he met fellow players who wanted to create a league of their own for players ages 50 and up.
Come December 2022, Chen, Beth Bellamy, Rick Witsken and Tom DeCaprio launched the National Pickleball League’s Champions Pros—or NPL—division, which quickly grew. The six teams include the Austin Ignite, the Boca Raton Picklers, the Denver Iconics, the Indy Drivers, the Naples JBB United and the Oklahoma City Punishers.
The league selected its 108 players through a series of tryouts in March and April last year—including Chen, who currently plays for the Boca Raton Picklers—and began its regular seasons in June. The teams play in Chicken N Pickle facilities in Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arizona and Kansas, all of which are live-streamed on YouTube. This year, the matches have had over 100,000 tuning in, according to Chen.
That includes Alka Strippoli’s family, who’ve been supportive before she stepped foot onto the court. As first-generation Indian immigrants, they introduced Strippoli to tennis back in the 1970s.
“I think my parents were very revolutionary in that way, especially with me being a girl,” said Strippoli, who plays for the Indy Drivers. “My dad will still ask when my games are and tune into NPL to watch.”
Also from the Indy Drivers, Tao Thongvahn has gotten his whole family–-originally tennis players—hooked on the sport, noting that his older brother actually had been the one to introduce him to pickleball—which he ignored until a stranger invited him to play during a business trip in Bengal.
“I just dropped my golf bag and went for it,” Thongvahn recalled.
While not on the court, the players juggle work, family and other commitments—all while encouraging others to pick up a paddle themselves. For instance, Tien Nguyen, who plays for the Oklahoma City Punishers alongside his wife, is a communications engineer for the U.S. Air Forces but also teaches pickleball in his spare time, even during vacation in his homeland of Vietnam.
One of the fun parts of pickleball is that it never stays quite the same, from the paddles to the rules, according to Thongvahn, who has been a pickleball instructor for seven years. For example, he said, a spin-serve had been allowed before being banned just a year later.
Vinay Bahugana, who plays for Naples JBB United, predicts that pickleball will keep growing, especially in Asian countries, where there are many badminton courts that can be converted, along with a lot of table tennis champions.
“I won’t be surprised if you start seeing a lot of high-level players making an impact on the highest level,” he said.
Many of the players have a bit of an edge with their backgrounds in badminton, squash, tennis and other racquet sports—for instance, Thongvahn was a professional table tennis player in France—but pickleball is easy for anyone to get the hang of within 20 minutes.
“It’s not all about power and speed, more about hand-eye coordination—like ping-pong on a tennis court,” Chen explained.
He added that pickleball is also accessible—the equipment is inexpensive, you don’t have to belong to a club to participate, and you can play with people of all ages and genders.
“Pickleball can be played by anybody, no matter how old you are,” Strippoli said. “It transcends generations; a grandfather, father and son can all play together. Where are you going to be able to find that in any sport?”
The social aspect is a big factor for many, who have been able to connect with folks all over the world—including Singapore and Australia—united by a common passion.
For instance, Aye Unnoppet of Naples JBB United has played tennis since she was 12 years old, including on her local Juniors Circuit, snagging a full scholarship at Tulane University. She said that she remembers things were “more cliquey” in tennis, but in pickleball, everyone just wants to have fun together.
“I feel like pickleball makes me feel like anyone else,” Unnoppet said. She was introduced to pickleball while helping a friend get through chemotherapy, and as a functional medicine physician, sings praises about the sport’s health benefits.
Nguyen agrees, adding that pickleball is easier on the body than other sports, which is important when you’re older. He, along with the others, are hoping to return next season as the NPL expands the number of teams to 12—though Nguyen will miss his old team if he gets redrafted to a different one.
“It’s just like a new family,” Nguyen said.
Bahugana agreed. “I’ve made a lot of friendships,” he said, saying that the team gets together for parties, sometimes with trivia contests, on Fridays. “I’ll be sad when it ends.”
For the 2023 season, Chen said he’s expecting 300 to 400 people to try out—and he already has his hands full with running the business side of NPL, playing on the court and as the CEO of Chen & Associates. As the teams increase, he said he looks forward to the day when there’s an AAPI pickleball league owner.
For now, players have an eye on their next tournament in San Antonio, Texas—the penultimate game before the championship tournament in October at the Plaza in Glendale, Arizona.
“As a team, we’re feeling good,” Nguyen said. “We should win the regular season coming into the finale.”
The other teams, though, ask to not count them out just yet.
“Our team is in third place, and anything can happen,” Strippoli said. “That’s the beauty of it.”
The NPL livestreams their matches through YouTube. You can watch them here.
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