During his long career as a professor of psychology at Cal State East Bay in Hayward, Arnold Stoper was known for his research into visual perception. Now, the professor emeritus is known for something else: his underspin.
Stoper, who lives in Oakland, plays pickleball at least three times a week at Bushrod Park, the center of the city’s pickleball scene. For the 85-year-old, it’s the perfect sport: He can play with a missing rotator cuff. And while he can’t run for the ball like he used to, much of pickleball—a tennis-like sport played with hollow plastic balls and paddles instead of rackets—is played close to the net.
Known as Arnie, Stoper is considered an old-timer, in that he’s been playing the game at least seven years. “Now there are all these young, whippersnapper beginners,” Stoper joked. “It’s more fun than tennis ever was,” the former tennis player added. “You get way more hits in, and don’t spend as much time chasing the ball onto the other court.”
While some younger players bemoan that its popularity translates to longer wait times in between games at Bushrod, where “open play” happens numerous times a week, Stoper likes that he has time to rest and can sit down between games. “Pickleball has become a big part of my retirement,” Stoper said. “It’s my main source of exercise.”
Pickleball is just as popular in Oakland as it is nationwide. One need only drop by Bushrod Park’s tennis courts—which are easily transformed into pickleball courts—or Montclair Park’s dedicated pickleball courts or West Oakland’s DeFremery Park to see (and hear) players of all ages whacking plastic balls back and forth across the nets. The sport is also widely played in Piedmont, Berkeley, Albany, Walnut Creek, and throughout the rest of the Bay Area.
It’s been described as a hybrid of all the racquet sports, taking attributes from ping-pong, badminton, squash, and racquetball, in addition to tennis.
And as this relatively new, generally not-so-athletic player can attest, it’s easy to learn, fun, and addictive; I saw myself improve quickly. Both for that reason, and its welcoming community, I couldn’t wait to return shortly after I began. I got my husband into it, too, and it’s possible he loves it more than I do (maybe, perhaps, because he also happens to be better at it).
According to the USA Pickleball Association’s website, April is National Pickleball Month. Pickleball was founded by some bored men on Bainbridge Island, Washington, in 1965, who initially based it on badminton. (The name apparently came from a term used in crew racing.) After quietly growing for decades, it was not-so-quietly designated “the fastest-growing sport in America” by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association in 2021, 2022, and 2023. (It’s also not so quietly played; just ask anyone who lives next to a court.)
Oakland’s pickleball ambassador
Stoper, who hosts one intermediate open play session at Bushrod Park, is one of the few there who wasn’t introduced to the sport by Darlene Vendegna; he first met her when he began playing at the East Bay Badminton Association in Emeryville. “She’s gotten a lot better since then,” he cracked.
In fact, most who have started playing pickleball in Oakland in the past few years were introduced to the sport by Vendegna, the official pickleball ambassador for Oakland, as designated by the USA Pickleball Association. Most of the new player orientations are either led by Vendegna, 66, who is known as “Dar” for short, or by those who were taught the game by her.
It’s a role she takes seriously.
“I’m amazed at how many hours she devotes to pickleball,” said Marie Chun, 71, a retired IT professional who hosts two open play sessions weekly at Bushrod. “She lives and breathes it.”
While Vendegna, who lives in Redwood Heights, is now retired from her job as an accountant, pickleball has become her retirement job. She doesn’t get paid for her ambassador duties beyond a discount on equipment, but she earns income from giving private lessons.
The path from first lesson to pickleball evangelist didn’t take long. Growing up in Chicago in the pre-Title IX era (the historic 1972 law that paved the way for full participation of women in sports), she was always “the girl with the ball,” she said.
In 2017, when a visiting friend told her about pickleball, she attended a meet-up to play at Albany High School.
“Five minutes in, I was a ‘yes,’” Vendegna said. “I bought a paddle the next day, and a month later, I bought my own net.”
Since she was already teaching spin classes at the Berkeley YMCA, she began teaching pickleball there, too. Very quickly, she saw its popular appeal.
“It became my mission,” she said. Why? “It’s a game for all ages, it gets people out of the house. So many people tell me it saved their retirement, it brought them out of depression, it helped them expand their social life and it gave them something they can do with their kids during the pandemic.”
Last month, Vendegna was inducted into the Alameda County Women’s Hall of Fame for her efforts. “Vendegna’s sports leadership has provided mental, emotional, and physical support to countless residents of Alameda County and beyond,” her nomination read. Laura Lloyd, a member of the Women’s Hall of Fame planning committee, said she received nominations from over 20 current and former pickleball players who Vendegna coached or organized with in the past.
“She’s got all this energy, it’s crazy,” said Robin Eig, 61, who owns two musical instrument stores, Rockin’ Robbie’s in Concord and El Cerrito. She initially learned the game from Vendegna as well.
“I see her at Bushrod, and she’s taping off the second tennis court so people can learn (only two tennis courts there have permanent pickleball lines). I see her giving lessons in Piedmont and Montclair. I see her all over the place. The reason it’s a such super-fast growing sport in the East Bay is because of her.”
Vendegna’s patience and enthusiasm for the sport come through whether she’s teaching a new mom’s group, special needs kids, former athletes, or those with little aptitude for the game.
“I credit Darlene with just exploding the sport in the East Bay,” said Eig. “Dar makes us feel like anyone can do it and enjoy it, and that’s what I love about it.”
Vendegna estimates there are at least 4,000 people who play pickleball in Oakland. Bushrod’s open play sessions draw around 60 people each, including some players who travel from nearby Berkeley and beyond. Whenever Vendegna notices someone new on the court, she gets their information for her email group, which she’s named “In a pickle.” She also makes notes on her phone about them, like which friend of theirs introduced them to the game, or who their partner is.
While Vendegna is happy to talk about her love of the game, part of her mission is also advocating for more courts to play on, both indoor and outdoor—something she feels is needed to keep members of the growing pickleball community engaged. Stoper, for example, stopped going to open play on Sundays because the wait times between games have become too long.
“The city is aware of the need, but they have a lot of other stuff to worry about,” Vendegna said. “There are plenty of under-utilized courts,” she added, referring to tennis courts that could double as pickleball courts.
At Bushrod, the pickleball community has paid for the lockbox there; the hosts and a few others know the combination, so the first ones who show up can put up the nets. While the neighboring tennis courts are often reserved, once they’re free, pickleball players will put down tape to quickly convert them, and remove the tape, and nets, when they leave.
“I’m starting to do guerilla taping at Mosswood,” she said.
While private clubs are slowly adding lines to make their tennis courts pickleball-friendly as well, no developer has come in—yet—to open a dedicated pickleball club. (They exist in many other places; when I visited my in-laws recently in Spokane, Washington, and we wanted to teach them the game, we easily found a facility that had nothing but indoor and outdoor pickleball courts.)
“The thing about it is, you don’t need a lot of space,” Vendegna said. “Whenever I see an empty lot or rooftop, I think, ‘You could put some pickleball courts there.’”
Attracting a diverse community of players in Oakland
Pickleball draws a diverse crowd to Bushrod. On any given day, there are people of different races and ethnicities, queer and straight. Stoper commented that unlike when he first started playing, now, it’s often a majority of women on the court. It’s also taken hold in the queer community in a big way.
Both Vendegna and Eig spoke about the role softball used to play in the lesbian community; it was a go-to for queer women to meet each other.
“Queer women don’t have the bars and bookstores we used to,” Vendegna said. “When I first came out, I joined a whole bunch of teams to meet other women, and it turned out that someone I met playing softball introduced me to my wife. It’s a great way for younger women to meet other women in the COVID era, in a safe, alcohol-free space, with no other expectations other than to hit a ball.”
Vendegna recalled a young, queer couple who had just moved to the area and showed up at pickleball; they had no idea how to meet other queer couples; Vendegna introduced them to others, and now they have a whole community. She has a reputation for doing the same for others, and one player referred to her as “a pickleball yenta.”
A “lavender” East Bay pickleball Google group for queer women, maintained by Vendenga, has over 300 members and draws nearly 60 queer women to a weekly open play slot at Bushrod on Sundays. There are also a few other monthly open plays designated just for queer women. (Plenty of queer men play as well, but they don’t have their own designated time).
Vendegna shared that in the ‘70s, back in Chicago, she told her then-boyfriend that she was thinking of becoming a P.E. teacher. He discouraged her, both because there were a lot of people going into teaching then, and because, he said, “people will think you’re a lesbian.”
At the time, she didn’t know what that meant. “His words turned out to be prophetic,” she laughed. “Forty to 50 years later I’m a P.E. teacher and I’m a lesbian.”
A few years ago, Eig, of Oakland, started noticing the prevalence of the sport’s mentions in her Facebook feed, and that it was being played by people from different parts of her life who didn’t know each other.
“This is a very diverse group of my friends, some athletic, some not, and all are playing this thing called pickleball,” she said. “I’m always looking for a sport to play, but my knees and ankles are funky now.”
Only a few days later, a woman came into her El Cerrito store to buy an amp for her electric bass.
“This woman told me, ‘During the pandemic, I learned how to play the bass and pickleball.’” Eig asked how she could learn. The woman emailed an introduction between her and Dar on the spot, and the very next day, Eig was at Bushrod in a newcomer’s orientation with Dar.
Eig later introduced the game to her friend group, and got them all playing, too.
“Now my entire friend group all plays and all of us learned from Dar and now we go on pickleball vacations together and I credit the entire thing to Dar,” Eig said.
Kimberly Jackman 41, a glass fabricator from Oakland, and her wife only started playing in February of this year, and they’ve taken to it “hook, line, and sinker,” Jackman said. Which is a bit surprising, she said, since when her wife ruptured her Achilles playing tennis years ago, she thought she’d never again be able to play a racquet sport.
Given the uncertainty that the pandemic caused in everyone’s lives, Jackman likes to joke with her friends that pickleball is “a lot cheaper than therapy.” And living just a stone’s throw from Bushrod Park, Jackman said the couple’s new motto is “don’t lose your job,” as “every free minute we have, we feel we gotta go to pickleball, it’s that fun.”
In addition to the sport itself, it’s the community and friendships they’ve made that keep them coming back.
“Pickleball draws the best people,” Jackman said. “They already feel like family to me. I don’t know why we didn’t start playing sooner.”
Ahmad Anderson, 63, lives in Richmond. He’s the director of people and culture for the gardens of Golden Gate Park. Formerly a college athlete—he played football at Cal—Anderson liked that he found a sport he could play with his bad knees and hip replacement. “It came relatively naturally to me,” he said.
The pandemic gave him the opportunity to play a lot, he said, since everyone was working from home. After getting his partner hooked on it too, Anderson, who has long been involved in civic affairs, began wondering how he could bring the sport to Richmond, at Booker T. Anderson Park, specifically, which is named after his father.
He became a “junior ambassador” of sorts, he said, introducing the game to the Richmond Recreation and Parks Department. Now there are two permanent pickleball courts at Booker T. Anderson Park.
While there are African-American players at Bushrod, Anderson said he’d like to see more people of color and Richmond residents playing in Richmond, as those using the courts there are often white players coming from other areas.
“The cost of being able to play and buy the equipment is far less than if you involve your kids in baseball or tennis,” he said, noting that economically-disadvantaged kids who play sports in school are often priced out due to expensive equipment and travel.
Anderson hopes that when people come from other parts of the East Bay to play in Richmond, “They’ll see the value and beauty, and spend their money to eat, shop and do things in another part of the community they’d never go to or be exposed to.”
Arthur Johnson, 52, of Oakland, is an executive at a tech company. Johnson noticed a lot of his friends starting to talk about pickleball, attended an orientation at Bushrod and then took a few lessons from Dar.
“I got hooked fast,” he said. “I became a level 4 tournament player in six months.” (Level 5 is the highest). He plays with a regular group of friends he’s made through the game, at three different locations.
Calling himself “a competitive guy,” Johnson said it was a great outlet for him, as he has good hand-eye coordination and had played a number of racquet sports already, as well as college baseball.
“Making progress toward a goal is a great way to be fulfilled,” he said. “Socially, I have new pickleball friends. Also, I’m learning more about the community. I went to my first Piedmont City Hall meeting to advocate for more courts. I’m getting to know how that whole process works.”
Chun, who lives near Bushrod Park, started playing at the end of 2021. “My husband says I’m a joiner, someone said today I’m an organizer, I just step into it,” she said. “I live really close and it’s just really fun to get a group of people together.”
Chun decided to start hosting open play on Monday and Friday mornings, which means booking the courts in advance and collecting the money from players who come. Everything she’s learned about hosting, she said, she’s learned from watching Vendegna.
“A lot of women and older people are tentative at first, They say, ‘I can’t do it,’ or apologize for not hitting the ball right,” said Chun. “I pull them over and say, ‘Everyone has to start somewhere. If you don’t hit the ball right, don’t apologize for it. If you run across people who don’t want to play with you, let me know and I’ll have a talk with them and move you onto people who aren’t trying out for the pickleball Olympics.’”
Chun is often in the mix of players on Mondays and Fridays. “The thing that’s really interesting to me is you don’t have to be Serena Williams,” she said. “Just figure out your strategy and how to hold your paddle, and how much energy you need in pushing or flicking of your wrist.”
Chun said she played with a woman who had Parkinson’s disease recently, who told her that there was a group of players with the disease. You never know who will show up to open play, and that’s part of the fun of it, said Chun. Quoting poet Mary Oliver, she said, “With my one wild and precious life, I want to surround myself with people who are nice and that I can interact with and who I feel genuinely are compassionate. I feel like I’ve found that in this community.”