written by Chad Walsh | photography by Jason Redmond
Let’s face it—many of us spend our days with our noses buried in our phones so we don’t have to engage with other strangers who (again, let’s face it) are probably doing the same thing. You might even be reading this on your phone. At a time when our best leaders are asking us to leave our news silos and political echo chambers and reach out to one another, there seems to be no clear path to do so. So how do we get out of this pickle?
That’s where Seattleite Roger BelAir comes in. BelAir is a banker-turned-investor-turned-author-turned-public speaker. It’s safe to say he could also be considered the Mayor of Pickleball, a game invented as a lark on Bainbridge Island in 1965, now said to be the country’s fastest growing sport.
For the uninitiated, pickleball is sort of like mini-tennis, incorporating elements of doubles tennis, table tennis
BelAir points out that in 2003 the game was played on only thirty-nine courts. Today, more than 3 million people are playing on more than 6,000 courts around the United States. And while BelAir emphasizes that playing pickleball is good for our health, he argues it’s also good for our collective mental health.
“I don’t know of any sport more social that this,” BelAir said. “Most people go to the courts by themselves and sit on the sidelines until it’s their time in the rotation to play. You play a twelve-minute game, go to the back of the line and wait your turn for another match. It’s common to play with and against fifteen strangers on a given day. It’s only natural that relationships are built. Those relationships can evolve into friendships, and sometimes friendships can turn into very good friendships.”
While the recreational game is popular among Arizona retirees and Seattle millennials, it’s now reaching new populations who’ve come to embrace its small joys.
After watching a 60 Minutes report documenting the grim conditions at Chicago’s Cook County Jail, BelAir reached out to the jail’s weary warden, who agreed to let him introduce the game to even more weary inmates. After a few short lessons, BelAir said “guys who don’t have much to do besides play cards, watch TV and get in each other’s faces” were laughing like children during the jail’s new pickleball tournaments. They were quick converts, BelAir said. Playing pickleball grants those inmates a small respite while they await trial on very serious charges.
BelAir said he would love to see every able-bodied person interested in pickleball give it a shot. He has taught more than 700 people how to play since he picked up his own racket.
But his ultimate goal is to show people that playing the game with strangers (and maybe soon-to-be friends) is good for our mental health, which can in turn improve the collective emotional health of our own communities.
Born: Kennewick, Washington
Residence: Edmonds, Washington
Roger plays pickleball five days a week and meditates every day. “Both activities nourish my soul.”
Roger eats a primarily plant-based, whole-food diet. “I call myself a ‘vegan who cheats.’”
98 percent of all inmates eventually are released. If we can make them better people while they are on the inside, it’s safer for all of us once they return to society. Pickleball can help play a role in developing positive life skills like learning from mistakes, thinking about consequences and being a good teammate.