In just over a year, Mike Koss, a USA Pickleball Ambassador and certified pickleball coach, and Tom Brewster, a member of the Westchester Park Tennis and Pickleball League, have created a thriving community of “picklers” that are obsessed with a sport most people hadn’t even heard of pre-pandemic. It’s so popular, that “Westchester Pickleball” has expanded its play schedule at the Westchester Recreation Center from just one day a week to morning and evening sessions, six days a week–and it’s not unusual to see the courts full. Clinics for beginners to intermediates happen throughout the week with competitive games taking place on Tuesday mornings. Friday evening games are typically followed by drinks at a local watering hole, adding to the sense of fun and community between players.
But Westchester Pickleball’s growth spurt shouldn’t come as a surprise considering pickleball is the country’s fastest-growing sport. Forbes magazine recently reported that pickleball has nearly 5 million players nationwide, which is an almost 40 percent increase over the last two years. The people of Westchester have bounced into the pickleball jar and are “Claussen” quite the commotion.
So what exactly is pickleball? The game, played in singles or doubles, is a combination of tennis, badminton and ping pong. Instead of a heavy racquet, a paddle is used to hit a type of wiffle ball (a plastic ball with holes) over a net that’s eight inches shorter than the one used for tennis. The pickleball court is also shorter and narrower than a tennis court, limiting the amount of running a player needs to do, especially when playing doubles. The smaller court size makes the game easier to play than tennis, particularly for people with less mobility. The game is played to 11 points and in most cases, you win by 2.
Though both Brewster and Koss share a love for tennis, they found pickleball separately before starting Westchester Pickleball together in 2021.
Koss, who lives in Playa del Rey, says he first became curious about the sport when he was playing paddle tennis in Fox Hills Park.
“There were two guys on the court next to me playing pickleball. I was not paying them any attention because I’m very focused on whatever I’m playing,” said Koss. “When my game was over, one of the guys playing pickleball said, ‘Hey, I was watching you, and you’d be a hell of a pickleball player!’ I said, ‘I don’t know what that is but here’s my number.’ He called me the next day and that’s what started me on my pickleball life.”
Brewster, a Westchester resident, first discovered the sport on a winter trip to Florida to visit friends. After just a few games, he was hooked!
“When I realized how much pickleball was growing in popularity, that there were celebrities involved and it was on TV, I thought we have to try it in Westchester,” says Brewster.
But he was shocked to learn that pickleball was not allowed on any tennis courts in the City of L.A. Using skills he learned working in the travel industry, along with his Midwest charm (he’s originally from Wisconsin), Brewster was able to convince City officials to try a pilot program at the Westchester Recreational Center. In the beginning, he, Koss and his friend Patrick O’Brien, were allowed to use blue masking tape to modify one tennis court into four pickleball courts.
“I reserved a court on a Saturday morning in 2021 and put out a little thing on social media about pickleball in Westchester,” says Brewster. “Fifty-four people showed up on one tennis court! It was a joke, but they were so enthusiastic! And there were tennis players playing on the other court. Well, they had a heart attack.”
Brewster explains that tennis players are rightfully protective of their courts and were shocked to see so many people on their turf playing a different game. To make matters worse, balls were flying all over the court, irking the players even more. Brewster knew if the picklers were going to coexist with the tennis players, they would need their own designated space.
“We went to the two-court system and it just exploded,” Brewster says.
Last August, two tennis courts at Westchester Park were officially hybridized into eight pickleball courts, much to the relief of Koss and Brewster, who are no longer spending painstaking hours to lay down a hundred bucks worth of blue masking tape only to pull it up and trash it at the end of every night.
The duo hopes that the city will eventually build dedicated pickleball courts.
“I think that’s the next step, whether it will be in Westchester or somewhere else in the neighborhood,” says Brewster.
Thanks to the perseverance of local pickleballers, a handful of courts have been added to the site plan for the tennis-heavy Lulu’s Place project proposed in the LAX Northside area along Westchester Parkway.
Westchester Pickleball, which is not sponsored by the recreation center, pays to rent the space at the park and offsets those costs by charging players a mere $7 each per day, while providing paddles, balls and helpful pointers. But Brewster and Koss can’t underestimate the strong community and the friendships that have continued to grow over the last year.
“We’ve got something special here,” says Brewster. “I’m proud of the welcoming, friendly and family-like environment we’ve cultivated, which isn’t always the case at many pickleball courts. Our players range in age from early teens to their 80s. Sometimes whole families–grandparents, parents and children–come together and make a family outing of it.”
“The amazing night lights of evening play–in addition to daytime sessions–great people and high-energy camaraderie are uniquely Westchester,” adds Koss. “We’re a very social group, too.”
During the holidays, the group loves to encourage costumes, which helps add to the festive atmosphere.
With these types of playful antics, it’s easy to see why the Westchester Pickleball community has grown to a roster of more than 700 members.
Koss isn’t surprised.
“The world is a difficult place. You see the news, no matter what side you’re on, it’s exhausting. But you come play pickleball and all that disappears,” he says.
I was invited to take a pickleball lesson from Koss on a brisk Friday evening. I’m not the athletic type and admit I was nervous to give it a try. I arrived at 5 p.m. to learn the basics and, despite having zero tennis experience, played my first game with no major embarrassments. I experienced the addictive joy of dinking the wiffleball back and forth and even had a few exciting rallies! The more seasoned picklers graciously welcomed me, and I can report that this was the most fun I’ve ever had researching a story.
So if you’re feeling like trying something new, getting some exercise or are up for a little friendly competition, just show up to the courts with sneakers, water and a smile.
“We have paddles for you and there’s enough of us to help you on your journey,” says Koss.
Visit westchesterlapickleball.com for more details.
Story by Shanee Edwards. Photos by Robert Higgins.