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Pickleball, Prison, and Hope

By Kevin Harrison, GAMMA Brand Partner |

I was introduced to the sport of pickleball at what was one of the lowest points in my life. On the day that I first descended down the staircase of federal prison to serve a 78-month sentence, I was full of shame and guilt for my past stupidity, full of anxiety and fear about my present life as an inmate, and full of despair and hopelessness for any sort of meaningful future. What was I thinking? What had I gotten myself into? Who would I become because of and after incarceration? My head was full of questions that day, but at least one was answered just moments later.

While being escorted to my unit, another inmate gave me the unofficial orientation of life at Morgantown FCI. He spoke fast and used words that didn’t seem to go together at the time, and this just compounded my anxiety (I would quickly become well-versed in the indigenous language, although I still have so many questions about the origin of certain words). Off in the distance, I spotted what appeared to be a green wiffle ball occasionally breaking the horizon and then disappearing behind a knoll on the compound. When I asked my tour guide about it, he said two words, at least, I hear two words and had to ask again because I hadn’t ever heard those two words used together. He stopped walking, looked at me with a smile on his face as if he understood my confusion, and repeated the words, enunciating each one, “Pickle. Ball.”

Hearing those words, coupled with all the other new phrases and concepts I was learning, led me to assume that this “sport” was a prisoner invention; inmates making up a sport with the limited supplies to which they had access. I would soon come to learn otherwise, and I would also soon come to love this sport, not because of its origins, but because it was a conduit of hope when I needed it the most.

Over the next 5 years, pickleball was my outlet. Despite all the physical and emotional ups and downs that existed in my captive environment, pickleball was a constant. Playing singles tired me out to the point where, despite a buzzsaw chorus of 25 guys snoring, I rested well. Playing doubles was mentally taxing enough that my brain didn’t have so much downtime to dwell on things outside of my control. Pickleball gave this important respite not only to me, but to hundreds of men during my time of incarceration, and it fostered a sense of community from which we all benefited.

For more than eight years now I’ve played this wonderful sport (there was a bit of a learning curve after prison though, as we thought that hitting the guy at the net WAS the objective), and with each opportunity to play I feel a deep sense of gratitude for how impactful this game has been on my life. I am also so very thankful for the support of Gamma Sports, whose generosity has helped equip me to introduce the game to multiple schools in my area and have an impact on the next generation of pickleball players. So, whether you’re prisoner or free, whether you’re young or old, for many of us pickleball represents much more than a game - it represents good tidings of hope no matter the season of life we’re in.

And, as Andy Dufresne said, “Hope is a good thing, may be the best of the things. And good thing never dies.”


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