It was a beautiful summer Saturday in Central Park, and by late morning, pickleballers had packed the handball courts at North Meadow. There were six games going on simultaneously, with players laughing and fist-bumping between each point. On the sidelines were dozens more waiting their turn to play.
But on Court No. 4, smack dab in the middle of the pickleball hive, was a lone man who seemed to be in some distress. He seemed much older than most of the players there, and he wasn’t wearing a jersey. He seemed to be in decent shape for his age, and he was crouched on the ground, clutching a modified paddle tennis racket with strange knobs and wires that didn’t connect to anything. He looked like a cross between an elderly 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 help himself against a wall when a young blonde woman approached. Suddenly: an opportunity. Sure she would have loved to have an opponent, but what she really needed was someone to hold court while she ran to the men’s room. He knew that the moment she walked away, some pickleballer would set a net in her space. Then his day would be over.
He looked at the blonde expectantly. “Do you know how I can join the pickleball tournament?” then he asked, making a big mistake.
For you dedicated Central Park pickleball players, this is exactly the wrong guy to ask. His name is Paul Owens (or maybe Paul Rubenfarb or Paul Rosenberg); he claims to be 97 years old, and his cryptic name card reads “Let’s dance,” while listing a variety of genres such as “doo-wop” and “1950s red-light mambo.”
All they know for sure is that their life seems to revolve around getting to North Meadow Recreation Center at 7 am. when he stakes his claim in the middle of the courts and, in a sense, takes the pickleballers hostage. He maintains that space originally dedicated to the proletarian sport of handball, historically favored by teenagers of color, is being taken away. (He is a former handball player himself, but like many veterans, he switched to padel, which is more forgiving on the knees.)
To anyone who asks why he insists on ruining the fun, he hands out a ransom note-style flier criticizing “pickleball’s well-to-do aggressive elite.”
On this hot as hell Saturday, he tried to explain the ongoing battle to the well-meaning woman. He needed her to hold court for him, but she hadn’t perfected her elevator pitch. “I resist gentrification,” he finally said. “These are not good people. They’re this invasive thing.”
Pickleball is, in fact, like kudzu. It is well established that it is the “fastest growing sport in America”. There is a set of professional courts at Wollman Rink, rentable for up to $120 per hour! – although every day New Yorkers tend to gravitate towards unadorned concrete pieces destined for other vocations. And that has caused problems. Last October, in the early days of the pickleball explosion, a woman filed a complaint to 311 about the sudden appearance of two unauthorized courts in the West Village. Three days later, she reported that the number of courts had tripled. “Please send help!” she pleaded.
fist fights almost burst when a man calling himself the “pickleball doctor” opened clinics on the Upper East Side around this time. In Central Park, players sometimes badmouth “Paddleball Paul” or try to get him to convert to pickleball, though they have mostly learned to ignore him. This passive aggressiveness could simply be a function of the neighborhood. As Jared Vale, who sits on the board of directors for the Downtown Handball Association, told me: “This would never happen 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 on the southern edge of Brooklyn before the city built hundreds of courts in the late 1930s. Club games at the Brighton Beach Baths and Castle Hill Pool would draw thousands of spectators. , who would enjoy the stadium seats. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the city began paving an area in Central Park adjacent to the handball courts once used to throw horseshoes.
Eduardo Valentin still remembers walking there from the South Bronx for the first time, in 1971. “A great Irish firefighter took me in,” he said. The guys there played with a rock hard black ball called the Ace and wouldn’t let a young Mr. Valentin play without gloves. He became obsessed, in part because everyone was so welcoming there, in contrast to the more competitive courts at places like West 4th Street.
Now 67 years old, Mr. Valentin has lived several iterations of life at North Meadow. He remembers when racquetball was all the rage in the 1980s. Then came skaters in the 1990s. He met his wife, an A-level handball player named Miriam, right at the end of that era. By then, the scene had aged, and some players began needing double knee replacements after decades of taking a plunge on concrete. Miriam Valentin started playing with a paddle in 2005, even as the ball of choice at North Meadow became the much softer “big blue.” She also turned professional in paddle tennis, and is now considered by some to be one of the best women in the city.
Mr. Valentin’s typical Saturday is a racket sports marathon, in which he and his wife play against one of their children, though she raised three boys and two girls on the court as a teenage mother. Other dedicated veterans arrive bit by bit on electric bikes around noon with coolers full of Presidentes and sandwiches. (The North Meadow is probably one of the only places in the United States where one can see serious athletes taking a smoke break between games.)
Occasionally someone will show up and offer to play hands vs. paddle. Mr. Valentin remembered a boy who used to play on his high school varsity handball team and was now a coach at the same school. He was in charge of teaching the next generation, but he couldn’t find enough interested students. “The fact is that handball is going extinct,” Valentin said. “And this new game is not a passing fad.”
It wasn’t until 2018 that Mr. Valentin first held a pickleball paddle. He was instantly hooked and bought a net that he dragged to the handball courts, where he begged people to play with him. More and more players gravitated to the courts after being banned from other New York venues and hearing about Mr. Valentin’s willingness to share. He is now the unofficial mayor of a community with a chat group called UpperWestside Pickleball that has over 2,200 members. Although his wife and some of the handball and padel players play pickleball to warm up before the actual competition begins, this undoubtedly caused some rupture in the subculture from which he hailed.
Padel Paul has taken a much more absolutist position. And just as North Meadow has constantly reinvented itself, so has he. Census records show he was born Paul Rosenberg and is probably 77, not 97. By his own account, he grew up playing handball with his father, an importer-exporter, in Williamsburg. And as it turns out, this isn’t his first excursion as an avatar of a dying New York subculture.
In a past life, she was part of a scene of ballroom dancers. Even then, she marched to the beat of her own drum. “Conventional partners limit me,” she told a reporter in 1992 that she noted that she twirled alone like a graceful ice skater. The reporter attributed his quote to Paul Rubenfarb, the name he used when he was directing group races for the New York City Cycling Club around the same time. (One former member recalls that he stood out as someone who rode a handmade “Frankenbike” and led tango dances during intermissions on rides.) He re-emerged as a regular at community board meetings across the city, even successfully petitioning to expand the Red Hook Historic District, according to The Brooklyn Paper. (The same publication noted that he failed to do the same at Greenpoint in 2011.)
Now he’s Paul Owens, and he’s focused his energies on something incredibly specific: kicking pickleball players off a small patch of sidewalk in Central Park. “I read all these autobiographies about people who went through many stages in their lives,” he said. “Your life is a narrative, like a movie. And the strange thing is that your vision of your life changes. He admits to feeling betrayed that Mr. Valentin allowed these newcomers into his territory. “Eddie is the only man who has the influence to give them court, which is very tragic, because he was a personal friend of mine,” he said.
Meanwhile, on that recent Saturday, it seemed that Paddle Paul Paul had been 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 up right in the middle of pickleball matches, forcing contestants to label their courts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. Padel and handball are both covered to hit. hard-to-reach angles, so when he practiced, his ball would often spin in the middle of his game. That seemed to be the whole point.
“I don’t want anything to do with them,” she was telling the blonde woman. “Those guys are like the mob.” She was practically trying to force a paddle out of her hand.
“Just a game,” he said, affably.
The woman politely managed to get out. She walked directly to the actual organizer of the tournament. She had never played pickleball before, but the organizer encouraged her to come back the next week and learn the rules of the game.
Meanwhile, Paddleball Paul, in his pickleball shorts and neon sneakers, watched from across the North Meadow.
“I guess I’m not persuasive enough,” he told no one. “But that’s just the story of New York: endless waves of change.”
Then he hit the wall again, alone.