By Alex Abrams
Red Line Editorial
Rick Barry is considered one of the greatest players in NBA history, and there was a time when Alice Tym was ranked as one of the world’s top professional tennis players.
Next month, both will be competing at the 2023 Biofreeze USA Pickleball National Championships powered by Invited and the PPA Tour in Farmers Branch, Texas. They won’t be there, however, to take part in the Celebrity Pickleball Showdown that will include Basketball Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
Barry and Tym will instead be among the thousands of amateur pickleball players hoping to win a national title in their respective categories.
They’ll be joined by several other notable stars from other sports who’ll be competing in amateur matches. That list includes Tyler Hansbrough, regarded as one of the greatest players in college basketball history, his brother and former NBA teammate Ben Hansbrough, as well as Hank Haney, Tiger Woods’ former golf coach. In addition, the amateur field is expected to include big wave surfer Kelson Lau and former Rubik’s Cube world record holder Christopher Olson.
Here’s a closer look at three of the more recognizable amateurs for spectators to pay attention to during the tournament, which runs from Nov. 5-12.
Rick Barry admitted he missed competing after he retired in 1980 as one of the most prolific scorers in NBA history.
Though he spent several years playing golf and having success in long driving competitions, he needed to find a new sport to compete in around five years ago. His wife suggested he try playing pickleball.
Barry, now 79, said he enjoyed playing pickleball once he got the hang of it.
“It’s fast-paced. I mean I played basketball, which is a fast-paced game. We played fastbreak basketball,” said Barry, who the NBA named in 2021 as one of the league’s 75 greatest players. “You know pickleball is a fast-paced game. It’s not something that’s sedentary and you’re sitting around, taking forever to play it. No, it’s quick.”
Being as competitive as he is, Barry said he wanted to do everything he could to improve as a pickleball player and get good enough to someday compete for a national championship. He now plays pickleball for 2.5 hours a time.
Barry admitted he loves the sport and is “hooked” on it. While recently taking a cruise around the British Isles, he was relieved to see that his cruise ship had a pickleball court where he could hit shots while away from home.
Standing 6-foot-7, Barry is hard to miss when he’s on the court, using the hand-eye coordination that helped make him a Basketball Hall of Famer.
“People keep challenging me all the time when I’m up at the net. I just love it when they whack it at me because I have good hands. I still have really good hands,” Barry said. “I’m not obviously as quick as I used to be. I don’t move as fast, but my hands are really good.”
Alice Tym has had to adjust the way she plays on the pickleball court after first making a name for herself on the tennis court.
Tym was a professional tennis player from 1964-70, reaching as high as No. 13 in the world rankings in 1969. She was later inducted into the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Hall of Fame after serving as the head women’s tennis coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Yale University.
Tym said she has always had a good slice shot in tennis, which has helped with her “chip and charge” in pickleball. But a tennis court is larger than a pickleball court, and she has tried to avoid hitting tennis strokes during a pickleball match.
“I think the best way to approach a sport or any activity is to accept it on its own terms,” Tym, now 80, said. “I mean, yes, I was a professional tennis player, so obviously, pickleball was easy. But you shouldn’t be playing tennis on the pickleball court or table tennis on the pickleball court. What you need to do is learn how to play pickleball on the pickleball court.”
Tym is accustomed to having a racket or a paddle in her hand. After retiring from tennis, she played badminton and table tennis until the gym that she frequents in Chattanooga introduced her to pickleball.
Tym, who runs a horse farm, now plays pickleball, badminton and table tennis several days a week. She alternates between the three sports, going from one to the next depending on the day.
“What’s crazy is when you put the paddle in your hand or the racket in your hand, your brain just becomes whatever player that instrument is,” Tym said. “And I know a lot of people say that this will hurt your game or that’ll hurt your game, but they’re different games. And I don’t know, my brain sort of works with whatever’s in my hand.”
Kelson Lau regularly shares videos of himself surfing large waves in Hawaii with his thousands of Instagram followers, but two videos he posted in 2021 have nothing to do with surfing.
In the videos, he’s running around a pickleball court, chasing after shots and scoring a couple of quick points in his matches at the Los Angeles Open.
Lau said he focuses on big wave surfing during the winter, but once the summer rolls around he serves as the head pickleball pro for a country club and plays every day. His job includes teaching pickleball lessons and maintaining the club’s pickleball courts.
“There are some little things for sure,” Lau said on if he can bring any aspects of his surfing background to the pickleball court. “Obviously, your quick twitch muscles help and balance and all that kind of stuff. And just strength in the legs, it kind of ties over.
“I’ve noticed it makes my surfing better if I’m playing a lot of pickleball because my legs are stronger and all those little muscles.”
Lau started playing pickleball in 2019 after his grandparents convinced him to join them on the court only a few months after they picked up the sport. He’s highly competitive by nature, and he enjoyed getting better at pickleball.
Lau said he decided to compete in this year’s nationals after earning a guaranteed spot by winning a tournament in Texas this past summer. He’s scheduled to compete in singles matches.
Lau has never played pickleball outside the U.S. while traveling for surfing, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t carry his paddles with him. If he gets bored, he’ll practice hitting a ball against a wall.
“Usually when I travel on a surf trip, I’m pretty surf driven,” Lau said. “But I usually bring my paddles just in case.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to USA Pickleball on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.