It was a beautiful summer Saturday in Central Park, and by late morning, the pickleballers had filled the handball courts in the North Meadow. There were six games going on simultaneously, with players laughing and fist-bumping between every point. On the sidelines 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 by himself who seemed to be in some distress. He looked far older than most of the players there, and he wore no shirt. He looked to be in great shape for his age, and he was crouched low to the ground, clutching a paddleball racket that was modified with odd knobs and wires that connected to nothing. 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 serve against a wall to himself when a young blond woman approached. Suddenly: an opportunity. He would have loved an opponent, sure, but what he really needed was somebody to hold the court while he ran to the men’s room. He knew that the moment he stepped away, some pickleballer would set up a net in his space. His day would then be over.
He regarded the blonde expectantly. “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 maybe Paul Rubenfarb or Paul Rosenberg); he claims to be 97, and his cryptic business card reads “Let’s go dancing,” while listing a variety of genres like “doo-wop” and “1950s red-light mambo.”
All they know for sure is 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 clock in for the day, and just as the earliest pickleball players begin trickling in. That is when he stakes his claim in the middle of the courts and, in a sense, holds the pickleballers hostage. He contends they are taking away space originally devoted to the proletarian sport of handball, historically favored by teenagers of color. (He himself is an ex-handball player, but like many old-timers, he has switched to paddleball, which is more forgiving on the knees.)
To anyone who asks why he insists on ruining the fun, he hands out a flyer in the style of a ransom note that slams “pickleball’s well-off 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 the court for him, but he hadn’t quite perfected his elevator pitch. “I’m resisting 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 much as $120 per hour! — though everyday New Yorkers tend to gravitate toward unadorned pieces of concrete meant for other avocations. And that has caused problems. Last October, in the early days of the pickleball explosion, 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 pleaded.
Fistfights almost broke out when a man calling himself the “pickleball doctor” set up clinics on the Upper East Side around that time. In Central Park, players will sometimes trash-talk “Paddleball Paul,” or try to get him to convert to pickleball, although 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, put it to me: “This would never go down at Coney Island. Somebody 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 started paving an area in Central Park adjacent to the handball courts that was once used for horseshoe pitching.
Eduardo Valentin still remembers walking there from the South Bronx for the first time, in 1971. “A big Irish fireman 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, 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 rollerbladers 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 gotten older, and some players started needing double-knee replacements after decades of diving across concrete. Miriam Valentin began playing with a paddle in 2005, even as the preferred ball at the North Meadow became the much softer “big blue.” She went pro at paddleball, too, and is now regarded by some as among the best women in the city.
Mr. Valentin’s typical Saturday is a marathon of racket sports, in which he and his wife play against one of her sons, though she raised three boys and two girls on the court as a teenage mother. Other dedicated old-timers trickle in on e-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 having a smoke break between matches.)
Occasionally somebody will show up and offer to play hands versus paddle. Mr. Valentin recalled 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 in charge of teaching the next generation, but he couldn’t find enough interested students. “The fact of the matter is that handball is dying out,” Mr. Valentin said. “And this new game is not a fad.”
It wasn’t until 2018 that Mr. Valentin first held a pickleball paddle. He was instantly hooked, and he 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 expelled from other places across New York and hearing about Mr. Valentin’s willingness to share. Now he’s the unofficial mayor of a community with a group chat called UpperWestside Pickleball that boasts more than 2,200 members. Although his wife and some of the hard-core handball and paddleball players play pickleball to warm up before the real competition can begin, this had undoubtedly caused a bit of a rift in the subculture he came from.
Paddleball Paul has taken a much more absolutist stance. And just as the North Meadow has constantly reinvented itself, so has he. Census records show he was born Paul Rosenberg, and that he is probably 77 years old, 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 jaunt as 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 noticed he would spin solo like a graceful ice skater. The reporter attributed his quote to Paul Rubenfarb, the name he went by when he led group rides for the New York City Cycle Club in the same era. (A former member recalls that he stood out as someone who rode a handmade “Frankenbike” and would lead tango dances during the rides’ intermissions.) He re-emerged as a regular at community board meetings throughout 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 in Greenpoint in 2011.)
Now he is Paul Owens, and he has shifted his energies to something incredibly specific: expelling pickleballers from a small patch of pavement in Central Park. “I read all these autobiographies about people who went through many phases in their life,” he said. “Your life is a narrative, like a movie. And the strange thing is, your view of your life changes.” He admits to feeling betrayed that Mr. Valentin let these newcomers onto their turf. “Eddie is the only guy to have the clout to give them a court, which is very tragic, because he was a personal friend of mine,” he said.
Meanwhile, on that recent Saturday, it seemed like Paddleball Paul had gotten 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 angles, so when he practiced, his ball would frequently spin off into the middle of their play. That seemed to be the whole point.
“I want nothing to do with them,” he was saying to the blond woman. “Those guys are like the mafia.” He was practically trying to force a paddleball paddle into her hand.
“Just one game,” he said, genially.
The woman managed to politely extricate herself. She walked directly toward the actual organizer of the tournament. She had never played pickleball before, but the organizer encouraged her to return next week and learn the ropes.
Meanwhile, Paddleball Paul, with his pickleball-neon shorts and sneakers, watched from across the North Meadow.
“I guess I’m not persuasive enough,” he said to no one. “But that’s just the story of New York: endless waves of change.”
Then he went back to hitting against the wall, alone.