Playing Pickleball Helped Me Feel Like a Real New Jerseyan

Putting down roots on local pickleball courts gives a new resident a fresh view of—and extra fondness for—the Garden State.

Illustration of a man playing pickleball

Illustration: Daniel Guidera

The day New Jersey started to feel like home was the day a 75-year-old woman named Phyllis shouted at me for a half-hour straight. She told me I was standing in the wrong place, and not moving fast enough, but also moving way too much. I was at my first pickleball round-robin at Brookdale Park. I showed up out of the blue to learn a new game and get smoked by people of all ages. It was tough love from Phyllis. She was direct in a way that felt familiar to me as a longtime New Yorker. And yet there was also a neighborly aspect to her: She took the time to give me some pointers, and was patient and friendly enough to show me just how badly I was doing. I came home that morning and told my wife, “I think I might like it here.”

Three months later I lunged for a ball and felt a pop! in my calf. I crumbled to the ground, howling. Way too dramatically, in retrospect. But in New Jersey, it seems, you just might be lucky enough to have a physical-therapist-slash-standup-comedian playing on the next court. Dr. Rob helped me to my feet, walked me to my car, and told me if I came to his office the next day he’d get me back on the court in two weeks. Sure enough, two weeks later, I’m back in action and someone shouts at me from across the courts, “Hey, Calf Boy! How ya feelin’?” I shout back, “Feelin’ great, Doc!” I had two thoughts. One: It’s a good thing he’s not a urologist. Two: …I think I might really like it here.

I’m not sure what feels so New Jersey about pickleball, or what feels so pickleball about New Jersey, but the two are completely fused in my mind. I started playing when I moved to the state two years ago with my wife and daughter. Between work relocation and the pandemic, we had lived in three states in just over two years and wanted to finally settle in somewhere. We took a chance on New Jersey, having spent a total of maybe five days in the state previously. It seemed like a great place for our daughter to grow up in. But would it be great for a middle-aged writer to grow up in? I didn’t want the view of my new state to be my laptop screen and home office wall. I wanted to meet real people, breathe fresh air, and see what made the Garden State so…gardeny.

[RELATED: How the Pandemic Got Me Into a Garden State of Mind]

Enter pickleball. Within months, my phone contacts expanded. There were Josie Pickleball and Scott Pickleball and Julia Pickleball—dozens of new local friends, all with the same last name! We played at 3 pm on 90-degree days and at 7 am on 30-degree days. We toweled off wet courts, swept up leafy courts and shoveled snowy courts. The feel of the games has always been relaxed, friendly, loose. At times a bit boisterous, at others more focused, but never too serious. So is that more New Jersey, or more pickleball? Would playing, say, polo in New Jersey feel the same way? I kind of doubt it. Or what about playing pickleball in Peoria or Tampa or Greenwich? I have a hunch that the vibe just wouldn’t be the same.

Recently there was a major disruption to my pickleball life. The courts in Brookdale Park were temporarily shut down so they could be moved to a spot in the park where the piercing noise won’t ruin the lives of surrounding residents. So my people, the pickleballers of Brookdale Park, scattered to courts in Clifton, Bloomfield, Roseland and beyond.

[RELATED: New Jersey Embraces Pickleball Craze With Biggest Club in Northeast]

Turns out it’s been a good thing, widening my view of my new(ish) state. One day I drove to a town where I don’t know a soul. I ambled onto the courts and somebody said, “Beginners play over there—this area is for advanced players.” I said, “I think I can hang here,” which I regretted immediately as I saw balls flying back and forth, fast and furious. I was paired with a very athletic and tall young fellow who must have sensed my unease. He kept saying things like, “This side serves,” and, “We play to eleven.” I expected him to also say, “This round yellow thing is the ball.”

I started out playing very tight. But after falling behind 6-3, something flashed through my mind. It was Phyllis, from that first day, shouting at me to stop moving so much. I’ve been here before, I thought. I belong on this court! I’m a New Jersey pickleball player, damn it! So I planted my feet, settled in, and we came back to win the game. Afterwards, my partner and I exchanged numbers. Add Utkarsh Pickleball to the ever-widening list of contacts.

As I walked through the park back to my car, it occurred to me that Phyllis’s sage advice was even wiser than I had realized: Stop moving so much! You’re right, Phyllis. We should stick around for a while. New Jersey is home now, and I think I might kind of love it here.

When not working on his third-shot drop, Adam Peltzman writes and produces children’s television shows such as Wallykazam!, Odd Squad and Go, Dog. Go!

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