It was a beautiful summer Saturday in Central Park, and by late morning, the pickleball players were filling the handball courts in the North Meadow. There were six games going on simultaneously, with players laughing and fist-bumping between each point. On the edge were dozens more waiting their turn to play.
But on Court No. 4, right in the middle of the pickleball hive, there was a man alone who seemed to be in a bit of trouble. He looked much older than most of the players there, and he wasn’t wearing a shirt. He looked to be in great shape for his age, and he crouched low to the ground, holding a paddleball racket that had been modified with strange handles and wires that connected to nothing. He looked like a cross between an old Hulk Hogan and a Rodin sculpture melting in the sun.
But really, he was a man who needed to use the bathroom.
He was about to serve himself against a wall when a young blonde woman approached. Suddenly: an opportunity. He would love an opponent, sure, but what he really needed was someone to hold court while he ran to the men’s room. He knew that the moment he stepped away, some pickleball player would set up a net in his space. His day would then be over.
He looked at the blond with a look. “Do you know how I can join the pickleball tournament?” she then asked, making a huge mistake.
To the dedicated pickleball players of Central Park, this is exactly the wrong guy to ask. His name is Paul Owens (or perhaps Paul Rubenfarb or Paul Rosenberg); he claims to be 97, and his cryptic business card reads “Let’s go dancing,” while he lists various genres like “doo-wop” and “1950s red-light mambo.”
They certainly know that his life seems to revolve around arriving at the North Meadow Recreation Center as early as 7 a.m., well before Parks Department employees turn in for the day, and just as the earliest pickleball players start trickling in. That is. when he stakes his claim in the middle of the courts and, in a sense, kidnaps the pickleball songs. He claims that they are taking away a space originally dedicated to the proletarian sport of handball, historically favored by teenagers of color. (He’s a former handball player himself, but like many seniors, he switched to paddleball, which is more forgiving on the knees.)
To anyone who questions why he insists on ruining the fun, he hands out a ransom note-style flyer that smacks of “the well-to-do aggressive elite of pickleball.”
On this hot Saturday, he tried to explain the ongoing battle to the well-intentioned woman. He needed her to hold court for him, but he hadn’t quite perfected his lift. “I resist gentrification,” he finally said. “These are not nice people. They’re this invasive thing.”
Pickleball is, in fact, like kudzu. That it is the “fastest growing sport in America” is well established. There’s a set of professional courts on Wollman Rink — rentable for as little as $120 an hour! — although everyday New Yorkers tend to gravitate toward unadorned chunks of concrete destined for other pursuits. And that caused problems. Last October, in the early days of the pickleball boom, a woman filed a 311 complaint about the sudden appearance of two unsanctioned courts in the West Village. Three days later, she reported back that the number of courts had tripled. “Please send help!” she begged.
fist fights almost exploded when a man calling himself the “pickleball doctor” set up clinics on the Upper East Side around that time. In Central Park, players sometimes trash-talk “Paddleball Paul,” or try to get him to convert to pickleball, though they’ve mostly learned to ignore him. This passive-aggressiveness might just be a function of the neighborhood. As Jared Vale, who is on the board of the Inner City Handball Association, told me, “This would never fail at Coney Island. Someone would just get shot.”
Pickleball may be new, but this is an old conflict. Handball itself was once the hot new thing. Irish immigrants used to play against the wooden fences in southernmost Brooklyn before the city built hundreds of courts in the late 1930s. Club matches at the Brighton Beach Baths and Castle Hill Pool would attract thousands of spectators who enjoyed stadium seating. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the city began paving an area in Central Park adjacent to the handball courts that were once used for horseshoe throwing.
Eduardo Valentin still remembers the first time he walked there from the South Bronx, in 1971. “A big Irish fireman took me in,” he said. The guys there played with a rock-hard black ball called an Ace and wouldn’t let young Mr. Valentin play without gloves. He became obsessed, in part because everyone was so welcoming there, as opposed to the more competitive courts at places like West 4th Street.
Now 67, Mr. Valentin has lived through several iterations of life at the North Meadow. He remembers when racquetball was all the rage in the 1980s. Then came the roller skates in the 1990s. He met his wife – an A-level handball player named Miriam – right at the tail end of that era. By then, the scene had aged, and some players began needing double knee replacements after decades of diving across concrete. Miriam Valentin started playing with a paddle in 2005, even when the preferred ball at the North Meadow became the much softer “big blue”. She also turned pro at paddleball, and is now considered by some to be among the best women in town.
Mr. Valentin’s typical Saturday is a marathon of racquet sports, in which he and his wife play against one of her sons, even though she raised three boys and two girls on the court as a teenage mother. Other dedicated old-timers stream in on e-bikes around noon with coolers full of Presidents and sandwiches. (The North Meadow is probably one of the only places in the United States where serious athletes can be seen having a smoke break between matches.)
Sometimes someone will show up and offer to play hands for a paddle. Mr. Valentin remembered a guy who used to play on his high school’s varsity handball team and was now a coach at the same school. He was responsible for teaching the next generation, but he did not find enough interested students. “The fact of the matter is that handball is dying,” Mr. Valentin said. “And this new game is not a fad.”
Only in 2018 did Mr. Valentin hold a pickleball paddle for the first time. He was immediately hooked, and he bought a net, which he dragged to the handball courts, where he begged people to play with him. More and more players gravitated to the courts after being driven from other places across New York and hearing of Mr. Valentin’s willingness to share. Now he’s the unofficial mayor of a group chat community called UpperWestside Pickleball, which boasts more than 2,200 members. Although his wife and some of the die-hard handball and paddleball players play pickleball to warm up before the real competition can begin, this has undoubtedly caused a bit of a rift in the subculture he came from.
Paddle ball Paul took a much more absolutist attitude. And just as the North Meadow constantly reinvented itself, so did he. Census records show that he was born Paul Rosenberg, and that he is probably 77, not 97. By his own account, he grew up playing handball with his dad, an importer-exporter, in Williamsburg. And as it turns out, this isn’t his first outing as an avatar of a dying New York subculture.
In a past life, he was part of a scene of ballroom dancers. Even then, he marched to the beat of his own drum. “Conventional partners limit me,” he told a reporter in 1992, who noted that he would spin solo as a figure skater. The reporter attributed his quote to Paul Rubenfarb, the name under which he led group rides for the New York Bicycle Club in the same era. (A former member remembers that he stood out as someone who rode a handmade “Frankenbike” and would lead tango dances during the rides’ breaks.) He reappeared as a regular at community board meetings all over the city, even successfully petitioning to expand. the Red Hook historic district, according to The Brooklyn Paper. (The same publication noted that he did not do the same in Greenpoint in 2011.)
Now he’s Paul Owens, and he’s turned his energies to something incredibly specific: kicking pickpockets off a small patch of sidewalk in Central Park. “I read all these autobiographies about people who went through many phases in their life,” he said. “Your life is a story, like a movie. And the strange thing is that your view of your life changes.” He admits to feeling betrayed that Mr. Valentin has left these newcomers on their turf. “Eddie is the only guy who has the power to give them a court, which is very tragic , because he was my personal friend,” he said.
Meanwhile, on that last Saturday, it seemed that Paddleball Paul got up early for nothing. The other handball players were all at a tournament on Long Island. There was plenty of room for everyone, but that didn’t stop him from standing right in the middle of the pickleball matches, forcing the participants to label their courts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. Paddleball and handball are both about hitting. hard-to-reach corners, so when he practiced, his ball would often spin into the middle of their game. That seemed to be the whole point.
“I want nothing to do with them,” he told the blonde woman. “Those guys are like the mob.” He almost tried to force a paddleball paddle into her hand.
“Just one game,” he said kindly.
The woman managed to politely extricate herself. She walked right up to the actual organizer of the tournament. She had never played pickleball before, but the organizer encouraged her to come back next week and learn the ropes.
Meanwhile, Paddleball Paul, in his neon pickleball shorts and sneakers, watched from across the North Meadow.
“I guess I’m not convincing enough,” he said to no one. “But that’s just the story of New York: endless waves of change.”
Then he went back to banging against the wall, alone.