The man arrived at the Central Park Recreational Center earlier this week ready to play pickleball, a racket sport that’s a mix of tennis, badminton and table tennis.
He plays pickleball almost every day, according to Joey Alice, a Central Park resident and pickleball enthusiast. Alice is a friend and pupil of the man, who she nicknamed “the Mayor of Pickleball.”
“He spends all his time teaching new people [pickleball] for free,” Alice said. “Pickleball is a super social sport, and everybody knows him for playing pickleball.”
The courts at the Central Park center aren’t permanently marked for pickleball. Instead, yellow raised cloth markers that resemble tape are used to designate the ins and outs of the playing field.
On this particular day, it’s unclear if the cloth markers were in place. It’s also unclear what was said between the man and staff at the rec center. What is clear is that the man later used a permanent black marker to draw boxes and X’s on the floor to mark the makeshift pickleball court. (Neither the Denver Police Department nor the Denver Department of Parks and Recreation would confirm the man’s identity for Denverite.)
The drawings triggered an onslaught of drama.
The man was banned from all of Denver’s rec centers. Pickleball play was suspended at the Central Park center. Parks and Rec estimates that the damage will cost around $10,000 to fix, and the man is being charged with vandalizing the center after the department filed a police report.
Passionate pickleball players are heading to social media to defend the man, including Alice.
“It’s a way overreaction,” Alice said. “I don’t think this qualifies as vandalism. We’re not talking about a teenager carving their girlfriend or boyfriend’s name into the floor. It’s not spray paint. He’s the leader of all of these older people [who play pickleball]. You’re basically giving an older person a death sentence when you’re telling them they can’t exercise and do social activities.”
But Parks and Recreation spokesperson Cynthia Karvaski said reporting vandalism to police is department protocol.
“Anytime there’s any type of vandalism at any of our city-owned facilities, we do file a police report,” Karvaski said. “It’s protocol to file a report. A person took a permanent marker, came into the gym and marked the floor. That would be considered vandalism. Similar to if we walked into the City and County Building and drew on the floor.”
Karvaski said the department is familiar with the man, though not in a particularly negative way.
The man previously approached the organization requesting that permanent pickleball boundaries be placed on the Central Parks court. It’s been an ongoing discussion, according to the Front Porch, a free paper serving Northeast Denver neighborhoods. The news outlet said Central Park residents have been lobbying for permanent paint markers because they believe the cloth markers are a tripping hazard.
John Martinez, the deputy executive director of Parks and Recreation, told the outlet the markers were deemed safe and that permanent lines would confuse volleyball and basketball players.
“It’s something we’ve looked into, but it’s not something we’ve committed to,” Karvaski said. “There are other recreation centers nearby that have permanent courts.”
The sport was created more than 60 years ago but was rediscovered among retirees and later youth in recent years, in part due to the pandemic. Since its resurgence, pickleball has seen its fair share of controversy, from noise complaints to demands for more courts to outright bans.
“People are very passionate about pickleball, and understandably it’s a very popular sport,” Karvaski said.
Karvaski said pickleball games will remain suspended at the Central Park center.
It’s unclear whether the man will be fined, jailed or allowed to return to a rec center. The outcome, Karvaski said, depends on the police investigation.
Alice said she hopes the department sees that the man made a mistake. She expects there to be consequences but believes that criminal findings are excessive.
“You have to have some sort of consequence… but this wasn’t done with malintent,” Alice said. “It’s a harsh reaction. He’s an old person who’s just trying to be healthy and still contributing to his community when he doesn’t have to. It’s an inappropriate reaction. It’s a mistake! It’s pickleball. Pickleball is just fun and they are ruining it.”