A stroke nearly knocked Bob Lutz out of the game of life. He says a Wiffle ball and paddle saved him.
Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in America. A 2018 survey by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association reported that pickleball had 3.1 million players in the United States, and the sport is growing quickly. Between 2013 and 2019, membership in USA Pickleball Association increased by 650% to just more than 30,000 people.
Southern Arizonans like Lutz and his wife, Cindy, are quick to proselytize about the benefits.
“You don’t have to be in top physical condition to play it,” Bob Lutz said. “I’ve taught it to a gentleman with Parkinson’s. I’ve had a heart attack and a stroke, and came back.”
Bob and Cindy Lutz have been playing pickleball for nearly a decade, with Cindy, 68, taking up the sport about a year before her husband did. Pickleball quickly became a passion for both the Lutzes, and the couple now serve as Tucson Ambassadors for the USAPA. A former softball and little league coach, Bob Lutz, 69, teaches pickleball classes for Tucson Parks and Recreation.
The Lutzes are also founding members of the Tucson Area Pickleball, a nonprofit group established in 2018 with the primary goal of getting free, outdoor, public pickleball courts built in Tucson. New pickleball courts are going up on an almost regular basis, from Green Valley to Oro Valley.
Step inside their house
The Lutzes’ home is easy to spot: It’s the one with the turquoise and gold pickleball-playing Kokopelli statue leading visitors into the driveway. A few steps outside their back door sits a regulation-size pickleball court, complete with LED lighting.
Following his stroke in 2016, Bob Lutz used that court as a milestone to track his recovery. He was unable to leave the house at first, but soon was strong enough to make it outside using a wheelchair, from which he would watch his wife and friends play the game he loved. As time passed, the wheelchair became a walker and the walker became a cane. Eventually, Bob Lutz was back on the court.
“That was his motivator. When he had the stroke, he’d already been playing in pickleball tournaments,” Cindy Lutz said. “He kept telling the nurse he just wanted to get back to pickleball.”
Bob Lutz hasn’t returned to tournament play just yet, but he’s working his way back with the help of his wife and a group of women that he’d introduced to pickleball. The women have been there throughout Bob Lutz’s recovery, Cindy Lutz said.
“Those women were so supportive, because he was the one that was helping them originally and I think they probably gave twice as much back to him, getting him motivated and giving him the will to get back on the court,” she said.
The Lutzes believe that pickleball is a sport anyone can play — and that everyone will love. It’s because of this that they’ve been involved in a four-year endeavor to get officials to open up public, outdoor courts in Tucson. While Pima County eventually came around, completing construction late last month on 20 outdoor lighted courts at the Kino Sports Complex, the City of Tucson’s Parks and Recreation department only offers indoor facilities at the moment.
“Our goal is to provide kind of a centralized complex for the public,” Cindy Lutz said.
The newly opened Kino Sports South Complex is a welcome addition, but the Lutzes and other members of TAP have still been working to get city officials to open outdoor courts in a more central part of town. There are dozens of unused tennis courts scattered across city parks that could be easily converted for pickleball, Cindy Lutz said.
“It’s valuable real estate and they’re not using it anymore,” said Tom Starrs, 69, a USAPA Southern Arizona Ambassador and founding member of TAP. “It would be nice to repurpose some of those into pickleball courts. You can take one tennis court and turn it into four pickleball courts.”
A central location would help increase the likelihood of quality, organized play. It would also help during winter months, when courts fill up due to the influx of snowbirds, and the wait time to play can often be up to an hour.
TAP’s dream could be a reality by the end of the year. In November 2018, Tucson voters approved a $225 million bond package for capital improvements to the city’s parks. That included converting several tennis courts at Fort Lowell Park to pickleball courts. The plan has since changed, and Udall Park will be the site for the new courts, said Greg Jackson, Deputy Director of the Tucson Parks and Recreation Department.
The bond oversight committee will meet Monday to make recommendations, including changing the location of the proposed outdoor pickleball courts. Jackson said he doesn’t expect any pushback, with the department having been in communication with people from both the pickleball and tennis communities.
The courts will likely be up and running this fall.
The department is also looking to re-line some of the city’s tennis complexes to include lines for pickleball.
“We’re trying to create more places where people can try it, play it and not have to go to one of the bigger parks,” Jackson said.
The Lutzes and TAP are also trying to introduce pickleball to the younger generation, acknowledging that its largely perceived as a sport for seniors. They’ve visited area schools to demonstrate the sport, and have taught a kids’ pickleball camp at a rec center.
“It’s a multigeneration sport. I like the fact that it’s a healthy sport for young kids that may not be very active,” Cindy Lutz said. “It definitely would give (kids) an avenue of someplace where they could go and have fun and enjoy themselves, and not even realize they’re getting good exercise.”
New courts arrive on the south side
Beginning Feb. 2, the new Kino Sports South Complex will offer free pickleball play during select hours as part of a grand opening promotion. Through the end of the month, and with the exception of a few scheduled tournaments, drop-in hours will be available five days a week so that people can check out the courts and staff can gauge the demand for open play. With slots in the mornings, evenings and at midday, Kino officials are trying to offer something for everyone.
“We’re really excited about pickleball; it’s a brand-new thing for us out here,” said Reenie Ochoa, the Pima County Stadium District director. “Any time we can get a new event or new sport out here, it’s really exciting for myself and the staff to go through that experience with them.”
Kino’s new courts will be the site of the Senior Olympic Festival’s pickleball tournament next week, as well as TAP’s second annual Give Back Classic, a round-robin tournament scheduled for mid-February.
“From there, we’ll just start booking the facility,” Ochoa said. “I’ve already gotten a couple requests for leagues, tournaments and special events.”
Ochoa said the promotional hours and free play might last into early March, as she and Pima County officials work to determine hours and cost for open play. Drop-in prices throughout Tucson typically range from $1-$5.
Cindy Lutz said she’s “loving” the new facility. She attended a VIP opening earlier this month alongside many TAP board members; they brought extra paddles with them for curious passers-by who wanted to join in.
Emily Briggs, 33, is the youngest member of the TAP board, but she’s just as into the sport as her older counterparts. Briggs said the other board members recruited her to represent the younger crowd.
Briggs started playing pickleball about five months ago at the Liggins Center, after her husband tricked her into coming out to play. Briggs said that her husband was involved in a league at the Tucson Racquet Club, and had been pestering her to give it a try.
Briggs fell in love with the sport that night, and now wants to help spread the word.
Briggs is a full-time student and stay-at-home mom, and her schedule allows her to play pickleball during the day. She understands that doesn’t work for most working people: Her role on the TAP board is to help advocate for more open-play and league hours, including evening hours that could help draw a younger crowd.
A league of her own
Kris Kaskawal agreed that the biggest barrier for younger pickleball players is the predominantly daytime hours in which courts and league play are available. Kaskawal, 49, founded and has been running the league at Tucson Racquet and Fitness Club for the past two years.
Kaskawal, who goes by “KK,” comes from a racquetball background, running leagues for LA Fitness for years. After joining the Racquet Club and noticing the beat-up pickleball courts, she helped raise money to resurface them.
She asked the club if she could start and run a pickleball league. Kaskawal spread the word, and soon 60 players signed up for the league’s first 12-week cycle. The league’s latest roster is 120 players deep. League play is available for several hours in the late-morning two days a week, based on the player’s skill level and USAPA rating.
“I took this in as my baby,” she said with a laugh.
The Racquet Club also offers open play, which is free for members. Non-members can purchase a 10-session punch card for $60. League play costs $20 per cycle for members and $40 for non-members. Players who aren’t USAPA ranked and want to join the league can set up an appointment for a skills test with the club’s pickleball pro, who also runs clinics.
During the summers, Kaskawal runs an evening league, which she said draws “all sorts of young people” coming from work or school.
“My son is 23 and he plays. He just got a medal,” Kaskawal said. “Young kids are playing the game; we just have to teach them. It’s in some of the schools, but let’s get it in all the schools.”
The Racquet Club offers private lessons for beginners, and Kaskawal teaches classes out of her home.
“If you have a racket skill behind you, this is an easy game to pick up. And that’s what’s so great about it,” she said.
An oasis in Oro Valley
The demand for pickleball in Oro Valley has grown exponentially in just a few years.
Sherry Circle, 64, has been running a league at the Oro Valley Community Center for the past six months. She said that when she first started playing in Oro Valley, there were barely enough players in the morning for doubles play. Now, it can be hard to get space at the community center’s six courts — two of which are new additions.
In addition to running the center’s 75-person league, Circle teaches group lessons to beginners.
Circle wants Oro Valley to become an oasis for pickleball in Southern Arizona.
“There’s an increasing demand for organized play,” Circle said. “Pickleball is addictive.”
She would like Oro Valley to build 20 pickleball courts at Naranja Park, and has been meeting with local officials to help make that happen.
“I think we could be a destination for pickleball,” Circle said. “This means that our hotels in Oro Valley are going to generate revenue, our restaurants are going to build and it will bring value to the businesses and regular people in Oro Valley by bringing tournaments.”
The Oro Valley Community Center offers lessons for beginners, which are free for members and $5 for everyone else. Circle typically gets between 15 and 30 people in those Monday classes.
Circle is also hoping to launch Southern Arizona’s first teen league out of the community center, saying that she’s tested it out in three-week cycles, which drew 16 participants. The community center offers a pickleball week during its summer camps and hosts paddle days, where representatives from equipment companies let players try out their products.
“Everybody’s welcome,” she said of pickleball. “People are meeting friends and doing all kind of stuff now. It’s a great community.”
Contact reporter Caitlin Schmidt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4191. On Twitter @caitlincschmidt.