Playing sports is a positive activity, right? Good for the body, good for the mind. Gathering together for backyard volleyball, touch football or a rousing game of horseshoes also builds friendships by shoring up feelings of camaraderie through fair play and goodwill, no matter the outcome of the competition. As the old adage goes, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.
Right. Tell that to Lance Armstrong. To Tanya Harding. Mike Tyson. Granted, these athletes had risen light years above the level of, say, a neighborhood pickup basketball game by the time their need to win led them to engage in such ruthless behavior (and ultimately topple them into infamy). Yet even on the neighborhood playing field, competitive sports often bring out the worst in a person.
John and I used to play racquetball and I remember well how combative people could be, especially in the local leagues. The way some of them behaved, you’d have thought there was real live money stashed inside those chintzy plastic trophies. Of course, there never was. (What did you say? Oh…how did I know the trophies were empty? Um, heh heh. Somebody told me.)
It’s been years since we’ve partaken in organized sports. Well, besides John’s brief tenure in a regional basketball league. They played at nearby Leander High whose school song was “Meander in Leander,” an inspiring ode to mediocrity if there ever was one. No matter the motto, however, those games were brutal, as are pretty much all team sports whether professional or amateur. It’s human nature, I suppose.
So it should have come as no surprise when we were first exposed to the phenomenon at the neighborhood pickleball court. But surprise us, it did. I mean, we’re talking about a doubles game where each side whacks a whiffle ball back and forth with racquets only slightly larger than pingpong paddles. One where the rules, when written down, could fit on a cocktail napkin. Don’t get me wrong; John and I love the game. It’s just, you know, pickleball.
Consequently, we were taken aback when the ugly side of sports showed up at the court one day. Another pickleballer (sounds like the latest kitchen gadget, doesn’t it?) had made arrangements for that afternoon’s game, and we didn’t know exactly who all would be joining us. As we drove into the parking lot, there was only one other person there — a woman we’d pickled with once or twice before. We waved from inside the car. She stared back in what appeared to be disbelief, as if we’d just pulled up in a tiny Volkswagen and many clowns would soon pile out. Evil clowns.
“It’s you!” she exclaimed, horrified, despite the dearth of murderous clowns. We were struck temporarily speechless.
“I was expecting someone else,” she continued, her disappointment palpable. A little shaken, we stuttered the names of a couple others soon to join us. She turned to leave.
Yes, leave. Although she’d come to the court ready to pickle, when faced with the options of doing so with us or heading back home, she was choosing home. Just then our fellow picklers arrived and, confused by her hasty retreat, they attempted in vain to persuade her to stay for at least one game. Obviously, in her eyes, our motley crew was far too inferior for her to bother even stepping onto the court.
Okay, admittedly I’m no pro. I’ve noticed, in fact, that I’m probably on the losing side 85% of the time no matter who’s unfortunate enough to play as my partner. A telling statistic. But John is quite good — he takes to sports like a puppy takes to a new chew toy — as are the other two players who showed up that day. Miss Snooty Pants (I pride myself on maintaining the utmost maturity in all situations) would have had ample competition, picklewise.
Regardless, we’re not talking Wimbledon here. No one is playing for a silver guilt cup or sterling silver platter. John and I attended the latest neighborhood pickleballers potluck and awards ceremony, and thus had the opportunity to take a peek at the Grand Prize: a bouquet of brightly painted whiffle balls stuck into a pot to resemble a flower arrangement. It was as stunning as you might imagine, yet I’m thinking it might not bring quite as much at the corner pawn shop as that silver platter.
In today’s spirit of everyone deserves a trophy, all the neighborhood pickle players were surprised this holiday season with a beautifully handcrafted ornament, no matter their ball pickling skill level. Our resident pickleball instructor stealthily left the tissue-wrapped gifts at each pickler’s door.
And that’s what I call good sportsmanship.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to run downstairs to grab a hammer and break into this thing in case there’s any cash inside.