By Mike Powers
News-Bulletin Sports Writer
Shortly after paying a visit to the Belen Community Center at Eagle Park to learn more about the sport of pickleball, word came that NBA superstar LeBron James is part of a group buying a franchise in Major League Pickleball.
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While no one at Eagle Park seemed ready for the pros, it was competitive and fun. This loosely-organized group meets each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning, with about 20 regulars. Three courts are set up on the gym floor with players rotating 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 every player and turn it over to the recreation center.”
Pinkleball has been called the fastest growing sport in America. The national governing body, USA Pickleball, says the popularity took off during the pandemic with nearly five million Americans taking it up.
That includes Belen resident and Los Lunas native, Leonard Perea.
“I’m just enjoying it, the company, the players,” Perea explained. “Every game you learn something. You pick something up from the other players. It’s a lot of fun.”
Fun but competitive. Perea and several others enter tournaments. There was the occasional stomping the floor or a slap on the thigh with the paddle after a missed shot. One woman’s T-shirt proclaimed, “Dink, Dink, Smash,” referencing 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 court and rules designed to minimize running and power strokes. A mature player can be competitive with someone much younger.
Yvonne Montoya, with the Valencia County Senior Olympics, is seeing a surge of pickleball popularity.
“New Mexico is really going strong,” Montoya said. “It’s really picking up across the state.”
At the Belen Community Center, players generally bring their own paddles, which are larger than those used in ping-pong. They also supply the balls, which are similar to Wiffle balls. The nets were donated by one of the players.
Last week, 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 is believed to be the only public pickleball facility in the county.
That could change. Montoya says VCSO is reaching out to the village of Los Lunas to see if courts could be made available at the Daniel Fernandez gym.
Meanwhile, the Eagle Park courts are ready for anyone who wants to dink and smash.
Mike Powers spent more than 40 years as a television news and sports anchor, mostly in the Albuquerque market. He has won numerous awards including New Mexico Sportscaster of the Year. He covers a wide range of sports, including the Valencia County prep scene.