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Man who lost foot one of many catching pickleball fever in Hillsborough

Buddy Hall, 58, of Tampa returns a serve during a game of pickleball with doubles partner Doug Albright, 55, at the Gardenville Recreation Center in Gibsonton. Pickleball is spreading in popularity across Hillsborough recreation centers.
Published Feb. 1, 2017

TAMPA

Buddy Hall has had to replace his right foot three times in about three months, all because of his passion for pickleball.

Fortunately, Hall doesn't have to shell out cash every time. The $3,500 foot attachment for his prosthetic right leg comes with a three-year warranty.

A toned man of 58, Hall spends four to five mornings each week dashing about a pickleball court, where the stop-and-start action of the game puts a lot of stress on the carbon fiber foot. He thought pickleball — a combination of tennis, ping-pong and badminton — sounded kind of silly when friends first suggested he play.

"I did it one day, and I got hooked,'' he said.

Apparently, that happens to a lot of people. Named for a pet dog, the game was invented in 1963 by Republican U.S. Rep. Joel Pritchard of Washington and two of his buddies. It now is played at more than 15,000 indoor and outdoor courts in the United States, according to the website of the USA Pickleball Association.

Hillsborough County has caught pickleball fever, said Dana McDonald, a special events coordinator with the county.

That's largely due to the efforts of "Coach Russell" — Russell Elefterion, a retired county tennis instructor. Elefterion first became familiar with the game in 2009 by officiating at the Tampa Bay Senior Games. Soon, he was hooked, too.

By 2013, Elefterion was promoting the game throughout the county. Now, it's offered at most county recreation centers and a few senior centers. The city of Tampa started offering the game at the David Barksdale Senior Citizen Center and some recreation centers about a year ago.

"I really hate to admit this," Elefterion said. "I've picked up a tennis racket one time since I started playing pickleball."

The court is smaller than a tennis court and the whiffle balls are easier to hit, yet the game is fast-moving and competitive. A lot of the appeal is social, Elefterion believes.

Elefterion, 59, retired in 2015 after 36 years and started Suncoast Pickleball Association Inc., which runs tournaments in six southern states. One is planned for Tampa in March. He also sponsors training "boot camps'' around the country. He's become so well-known in the game that equipment maker ProLite sells a Coach Russell signature paddle.

Serious pickleball players own their own paddles. Hall used the rec center paddles till someone gave him one. They look like ping-pong paddles, but bigger. Some have a graphite outer shell over an inside that looks like Styrofoam, said Joe Piniella, who went up against Hall recently at the Barksdale center, near Hall's West Tampa home.

Piniella, 67, brother of retired baseball great Lou Piniella, has first-hand knowledge of the composition of paddles. "I get mad and break them,'' he said.

Hall, retired from the tree-removal business, had always been active, but he stopped sports altogether for years after the 1998 accident that took the lower part of his leg. He was grinding a tree root when the machine slipped and caught him about mid-shin.

"I was out of it, thought my life was over, blah blah blah,'' he said. One friend got him playing a little tennis, but he was self-conscious about how he moved. Then one day he decided to try aerobics at the Barksdale center.

"I'm insecure as heck with all those ladies, but I was doing it. All of a sudden, I started to get some confidence, standing on one leg and stuff.''

Soon, he was moving with grace and speed, playing tennis, basketball, softball. He still gives one morning a week to tennis, but the other days are devoted to the addictive game with a silly name.

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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