By Bob Reinert
Red Line Editorial
When the people of Oneida, Tennessee, first began playing pickleball, outdoor courts were established by painting lines on the parking lot at a local church.
“It was a lot of work because the courts were at a slant,” recalled Oneida resident and USA Pickleball member Lisa Kallevig. “We had no fences, so the balls literally could roll a few blocks away because we were on a hill.
“At the end of the play session, we would drive around in our vehicles to pick up the balls.”
Keeping the courts viable became another obvious challenge.
“In the fall, we would bring out our (leaf) blowers and blow off the courts because there were too many leaves and acorns,” Kallevig said. “Sometimes it was super windy, and nets would literally blow over because they were the cheap, portable nets.”
Despite the obstacles, pickleball fever quickly spread across the community of some 3,700 residents that lies an hour north of Knoxville near the Kentucky border. A recent tournament at the local high school drew much interest, while people of all ages can often be found playing the game, despite the town’s limited court space.
“There’s so many people in our community who have caught the pickleball bug,” said Kallevig’s daughter, Elizabeth, a high school student. “If you drive through the town, you’ll see there’s painted lines in parking lots. There’s a bunch of people who have nets set up in their driveways.”
So, when Elizabeth saw a notice on USA Pickleball’s Instagram page that the organization was giving away a True Court from Pickleball United to one lucky community as part of the Members Choice Giveaway, she told her mother, who applied. USA Pickleball staff named Oneida one of three finalists from more than 150 entries, and in an online vote by members, the town was chosen.
Elizabeth said she wants “everyone to know how excited and grateful we are for this, and how our whole community was talking about this.”
Added her mom: “The whole community is buzzing about this court. This is the highlight of our year.”
When the pickleball tournament was held at Elizabeth’s high school, she said about a quarter of the school’s 400 players took part.
“There was a ton of teams,” Elizabeth said. “The whole high school was down there. Our community has just fallen in love with this sport.”
There has been similar interest among other age groups, too.
“Pickleball’s just a sport that everybody loves,” Lisa said. “It can be young and old. We have elementary (school) students playing it. They actually painted some lines out for recess on the playgrounds. It’s also the elderly, too. For a lot of them, it’s the highlight of the week.”
However, as Lisa Kallevig and her daughter pointed out, the local Boys & Girls Club is home to the only actual pickleball courts in town, and their availability is limited.
“We have one spot that we can play, one day a week, for about two hours, and that’s it,” Elizabeth said. “Those courts, they’re always full during that time period. It’s the middle of the day, as well.”
That’s why the Kallevigs are so excited about the new court. Lisa said a site has already been chosen for the True Court, which can be installed over any surface.
“We have a very nice city park that is well maintained, but there’s no funds to ever upgrade it,” she said. “There’s a very old tennis court there that is never used. We are planning to put it right over the tennis court. It’s just wasted space right now.
“There will be a line of people waiting to play. I’m hoping that this court brings the attention of our city council. Although it’s just a start, maybe in the next year or two they could do some fundraising or something to get more courts there.”
Kallevig also envisions establishing league play in a town that currently has none.
“We would actually love to,” Kallevig said. “People have asked about it. We just don’t have the space for it.
“We did hold a pickleball tournament as a fundraiser about six months ago at the Boys & Girls Club. We had a lot of teams show up. We drew people from several hours away.”
Kallevig added that the new court will likely be used year-round.
“The winters are not bad here, so most of the time, you can play outside throughout the year,” Kallevig said. “Those that are dedicated will be out there, no matter what.”
Brady Kellogg, managing director of partnerships at USA Pickleball, said he was happy for the people of Oneida.
“We have been absolutely thrilled to work with Pickleball United and our community in finding a great home for this True Court,” Kellogg said. “It was wonderful to see such an enthusiastic response from our audience on social media, as they voted and collectively decided which deserving community should enjoy this pickleball court.
“Our team at USA Pickleball is looking forward to seeing the continued growth of our sport in Oneida, Tennessee!”
Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.