SAN JOSE -- After three surgeries, Bill Jackson can't play tennis or racquetball anymore and he was falling out of shape, a demoralizing state of affairs for a proud, athletic guy.
"I had been sitting on my tail for a while," the tall, 66-year-old real estate agent said Wednesday at the Evergreen Community Center southeast of downtown San Jose. "Then some friends introduced me to pickleball."
On gimpy knees, Jackson can't run as fast as before, jump as high or hit as hard, but he really doesn't have to in this game to enjoy it. No matter who's playing, pickleball requires much less power and speed than other racket sports. More often than not, Jackson got to the ball and hit it back with grace and accuracy, just like in his glory days.
"This is more my speed now," he said.
Pickleball debuted this week at two San Jose community centers, where city officials will measure its popularity for a few months. The other site is the Seven Trees Community Center in East San Jose.
However, the game has already taken off around the country. The Rossmoor/Walnut Creek Pickle Ball Club has grown rapidly since its inception about five years ago, and in May hosted the first regional tournament during the Bay Area Senior Games, drawing players from Napa to Santa Cruz. The club has drawn visiting players from Canada, Texas and the East Coast and is asking the city to dedicate a couple of tennis courts to the sport: Just one will fit four pickleball courts.
"It's very popular," said Dick Hildebrand, the club's president and a player himself. "It's addictive."
According to the USA Pickleball Association in Arizona, it's aging baby boomers like Jackson leading the way. The group counts 150,000 active members, almost triple the number in 2010, and probably a lot more it can't track.
The game is a hybrid of racket sports. The court dimensions come from badminton, the low nets from tennis. The paddles are adapted from ping-pong and the ball is a modified whiffle ball.
In general, the rules make pickleball easier to play and follow. For example, the ball is served underhand, not overhand as in tennis, and it must bounce once on the return and not be volleyed in midair. Scoring is simple: The first to 11 points wins the game.
"It's not so rigorous and it's not a power game either," said Steve Ryan, the community center's recreation supervisor. "You can still work up a sweat even though it looks like there's not that much work involved."
At 68 and already familiar with the game, Sheila Munson was one of the more accomplished players at the center. She spent as much time teaching newcomers as playing.
"The game is easier on the joints for a lot of seniors," she said. "Because the court is smaller, they don't have to run as much or as hard. But it's still a workout!"
According to the Pickleball Association, the game was invented in 1965 by the late Joel Pritchard, congressman from Washington State, and a businessman friend, Bill Bell. They had returned from playing golf to find their families sitting around bored at Pritchard's house. The property had an old badminton court but not enough rackets, so the two friends improvised and started playing with pingpong paddles and a perforated plastic ball.
However, the source of game's name remains in dispute. According to the Pickleball Association's website, Joan Pritchard, the congressman's wife, said she borrowed the name from the "pickle boats" in rowing, which are manned by extra rowers not selected for the main boats. Another story has it that the game was named after the Pritchards' dog Pickles.
Pritchard and Bell set about designing the game and setting rules, always keeping in mind that is was for entire families to play together. The first pickleball tournament was held in 1976 in Washington State. By 1990 it was being played in all 50 states.
Setting up a pickleball court is relatively cheap, Ryan said. His staff at the Evergreen center put up two portable nets inside a vinyl-floored recreation room and laid out the courts with yellow tape. They bought a few paddles and balls, and, bingo, they were ready to go.
Young people are taking up the game, too. Cordelia Jiang, 23, said she heard about it through Meetup.com, an online social network.
"It's really easy to pick up," she said at the Evergreen center after she and Munson teamed up for a victory against Jackson and his teammate. "It's casual, but it's still a workout."
Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.
For more information, call the Evergreen Community Center at 408-794-6717 or the Seven Trees Community Center at 408-794-1690. For general information, go to http://www.usapa.org.