The group's organizers said its mission is to introduce pickleball to more African Americans and empower that community through the sport by fostering inclusivity and diversity, promoting health and building connections. Credit: Newsday staff

Ieda McCullough tried pickleball for the first time last week and loved it.

The retired Nassau police detective sergeant said for two years she tried to take summer lessons through the Town of Hempstead, but the classes were always booked when she tried to sign up.

McCullough, 60, said she finally was able to schedule a lesson recently for a sport that is sweeping the nation, thanks to the African American Pickleball Association, which formed last month on Long Island.

“I probably wouldn’t be able to play or learn properly if it wasn’t for them,” said McCullough, who is Black. “They gave me the opportunity to take lessons and play, something I haven’t been able to do for two years.”

The group's organizers said its mission is to introduce pickleball to more African Americans and empower that community through the sport by fostering inclusivity and diversity, promoting health and building connections.

Mike Atherley, 61, of West Hempstead, a founding member of the association and its treasurer, said he and his wife, Desiree Bunch, 57, have been playing for four years and noticed there wasn't a lot of diversity in the places they played. He said African Americans are underrepresented in the sport, which he called concerning because it’s a growing sport that is accessible and easy to learn.

According to 2023 statistics from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, a Maryland-based nonprofit, about 5% of pickleball players who play at least eight times a year identify as Black. 

The group’s most recent data also shows 8.9 million Americans played at least once in 2022, an 85.7% increase from the previous year.

“We thought it would be great if we had some kind of association to introduce the sport to more African American people,” Atherley said.

As he and his wife connected with other African American pickleball players, the idea for the association came up before organizers launched it last month.

The association has 39 members and a six-member executive board. It is open to anyone who wants to serve its mission, according to Annette Dennis, 65, the association's president and a Freeport resident who has been playing for eight years. She said the organization is working on getting certified as a nonprofit.

“We will be able to apply for grants and then offer youth programs such as clinics, and eventually tournaments and run summer programs in the parks,” Dennis added.

The association hosted an open play event on June 3 that McCullough and dozens more attended at Hempstead Lake State Park in West Hempstead. A Juneteenth event at Pickleball Plus in West Hempstead is already sold out, according to organizers. They said an open play event is set for June 24 at Hempstead Lake State Park.

Attracting younger people to the sport is also part of the group’s mission. They see opportunity for them through potential college scholarships and the chance to be an Olympian if the sport is ever added to the international games.

Kevin Wilson, 43, of Rockville Centre, a vice president at a financial firm and an association member, said he went from going to the gym at least three times a week to playing pickleball instead after trying the game in September. He added that while he never has felt unwelcome while playing as a Black man, having a sports organization for African Americans can be comforting.

“It can be intimidating, especially for newer players if they go to public courts and they don’t see someone who looks like them,” he said. “The organization will help grow support among the Black community.”

Ieda McCullough tried pickleball for the first time last week and loved it.

The retired Nassau police detective sergeant said for two years she tried to take summer lessons through the Town of Hempstead, but the classes were always booked when she tried to sign up.

McCullough, 60, said she finally was able to schedule a lesson recently for a sport that is sweeping the nation, thanks to the African American Pickleball Association, which formed last month on Long Island.

“I probably wouldn’t be able to play or learn properly if it wasn’t for them,” said McCullough, who is Black. “They gave me the opportunity to take lessons and play, something I haven’t been able to do for two years.”

How to get involved

To find out more about the Long Island-based African American Pickleball Association, email aapickleballassociation@gmail.com or go to their website, aapickleballassociation.com.

The group's organizers said its mission is to introduce pickleball to more African Americans and empower that community through the sport by fostering inclusivity and diversity, promoting health and building connections.

Mike Atherley, 61, of West Hempstead, a founding member of the association and its treasurer, said he and his wife, Desiree Bunch, 57, have been playing for four years and noticed there wasn't a lot of diversity in the places they played. He said African Americans are underrepresented in the sport, which he called concerning because it’s a growing sport that is accessible and easy to learn.

According to 2023 statistics from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, a Maryland-based nonprofit, about 5% of pickleball players who play at least eight times a year identify as Black. 

The group’s most recent data also shows 8.9 million Americans played at least once in 2022, an 85.7% increase from the previous year.

“We thought it would be great if we had some kind of association to introduce the sport to more African American people,” Atherley said.

As he and his wife connected with other African American pickleball players, the idea for the association came up before organizers launched it last month.

The association has 39 members and a six-member executive board. It is open to anyone who wants to serve its mission, according to Annette Dennis, 65, the association's president and a Freeport resident who has been playing for eight years. She said the organization is working on getting certified as a nonprofit.

“We will be able to apply for grants and then offer youth programs such as clinics, and eventually tournaments and run summer programs in the parks,” Dennis added.

The association hosted an open play event on June 3 that McCullough and dozens more attended at Hempstead Lake State Park in West Hempstead. A Juneteenth event at Pickleball Plus in West Hempstead is already sold out, according to organizers. They said an open play event is set for June 24 at Hempstead Lake State Park.

Attracting younger people to the sport is also part of the group’s mission. They see opportunity for them through potential college scholarships and the chance to be an Olympian if the sport is ever added to the international games.

Kevin Wilson, 43, of Rockville Centre, a vice president at a financial firm and an association member, said he went from going to the gym at least three times a week to playing pickleball instead after trying the game in September. He added that while he never has felt unwelcome while playing as a Black man, having a sports organization for African Americans can be comforting.

“It can be intimidating, especially for newer players if they go to public courts and they don’t see someone who looks like them,” he said. “The organization will help grow support among the Black community.”

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