A crowd of passionate pickleball players descended on Shelby Friday morning for the “End of Summer Slam” tournament. The tournament, held at the J.L. Suttle pickleball and tennis complex on Marion Street, attracted 134 total competitors from Cleveland County, surrounding areas and even out of state. The sport, which has attracted a nearly cult following spread like wildfire during COVID and is growing in the local community. Talk to a pickleball player, and the first thing they’ll ask you is if you’ve ever played before.
Then they’ll warn you it’s addictive. Portland Reed, who came from Huntersville to play, is originally from Seattle, Washington, and said she’s been playing since the 1980s. “I’m so happy when I’m here,” Reed said, shouting greetings to fellow players, challenging her competitors and making jokes.
“I am pickleball.” She said if it were as popular back then as it is now, she would have gone pro. A former tennis player, she said the game originated in Seattle 60 years ago and when she picked up a pickleball paddle for the first time more than 30 years ago, she was hooked. “It took all these years,” Reed said. She said although there are all levels of skills, it’s an easy game to pick up. “That’s what the magic is,” she said.
“You just got to play.”Reed said it also attracts the nicest people in the Carolinas, and she particularly enjoys playing in Shelby, sometimes driving an hour and a half just to catch a game. “I drive an hour plus to play here,” she said “I love the culture.” Sue Owensby and her friend Malinda Smith, both from Belmont, said they too love playing in Shelby because of the community of players and welcoming atmosphere. “We’re COVID picklers,” said Owensby.
“We picked it up during COVID.” Neither had played tennis before, unlike many other competitors, but said that disadvantage hasn’t stopped the fun. “All you need to do is play it once and you’ll be addicted,” Owensby said. “It’s so passionate too.” The duo typically play five days a week, unless rainy weather intervenes. The End of Summer Slam tournament started at 8 a.m.
Friday and ended sometime on Sunday. Brian Weatherford, tournament director, said they are only 16 players away from being considered a major tournament this year, which requires at least 150 players. “We’ve had four or five (tournaments), but this is by far the largest,” he said. “We’re near major.” Pam Helms, member of Pickleball Association Cleveland County, or PACC, said they partnered with Cleveland County Schools two years ago and asked if they could convert the dilapidated tennis courts on Marion Street, known as the Suttle Courts, into pickleball courts.
The school system, which owns the property, gave their permission. “Our partnership is good because they provide bathrooms and lights,” Helms said. The group of players formed PACC, raised money and applied for grants to come up with the necessary $80,000. “This is our first big tournament.
It’s going really well,” Helms said. Money raised from the tournament will go toward maintaining the courts, which will soon be resurfaced. Helms said they have people playing from across the Carolinas, Georgia and even some from Florida. She said volunteers help make the event happen ,and they have a food truck and Firebeard Coffee on site. “Pickleball is growing in Cleveland County,” Helms said. She said the courts are open to everyone, seven days a week with groups playing all day long.
Players use an app called TeamReach to send out messages, create calendars and find out who is playing when. “We welcome everybody,” Helms said. “Everybody plays with everybody. That’s the goal.” Charlotte Teague, a retired teacher and competitor, helped make the pickleball courts a reality. Teague spoke before the board of education for permission to use the former tennis courts and after board members voted to approve, she started writing grants for the funds.
She said they held an internal fundraiser among players as well. Teague, who began playing after her friend, Beth Cameron, told her about it while snowmobiling out west, said it introduces people to a whole new community. “It’s not just a community but a close group of friends,” she said. “It’s great after retirement.
“It’s helped our community healthwise, and it’s helped the local economy.” She said the game has attracted all ages and all people. “My kids and grandkids play,” Teague said. “Nothing makes me happier than seeing these courts full of people enjoying life and making new friends.” Teague said for those interested in playing pickleball in Cleveland County, they can download the app, Team Reach, and use the code 30231. Reporter Rebecca Sitzes at firstname.lastname@example.org.