LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Ten minutes out of a seven-day quarantine in mid-July, NBA referee Scott Foster set up a pickleball court in one of the prominent courtyards at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort.
Little did he know pickleball would grow to become the most popular activity inside the bubble.
“I had played with four other referees on the road this year,” said Foster, who picked up the game two years ago. “They said, ‘I guess that’s what we’re going to do in the bubble.’ I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do.’ ”
What began as mostly a game played by referees evolved into a game played by NBA and team staffers, cameramen, public address announcers, photographers, security, statisticians, National Basketball Players Association employees, including former NBA player Jose Calderon, reporters and TV analysts Richard Jefferson, Steve Smith and Jared Greenberg.
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Pickleball is a court game that is a combination of tennis and table tennis – plastic ball, paddle and net on a court that is 20-feet wide by 44-feet long – with its own set of specific rules.
NBA referee Scott Foster (left) has been an avid pickleball player during the NBA's resumed season in Orlando. Ben Dobson (right), Dallas Mavericks statistician, who also works in the bubble also plays. (Photo: Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY)
More than 3.3 million Americans play pickleball annually with a 9.7% increase in the previous three years, according to Sports and Fitness Industry Association's 2019 pickleball participation report.
Foster is the unofficial pickleball commissioner in the bubble. He is a welcoming host, teaching newcomers the game, lending his equipment, offering tips and his blunt yet funny commentary. He said nearly 70 people have played on the court he set up, and probably another 30 on two other courts on the NBA campus, including for NBPA staffers.
Foster estimated that nearly 2,500 games had been played by the time Game 4 of the NBA Finals started and about 35-40 people have purchased paddles.
“The culture of pickleball is to grow the game, and everywhere I’ve gone all over the country when I first started playing two years ago, people were like that with me,” Foster said. “I wasn’t very good and top players said, ‘Come play with us,’ and they would teach me the game even though it was taking away from their game. Everywhere I went, it was like that.”
The thwack and pop of the paddle hitting the ball is ubiquitous. It’s one of the first sounds bubble dwellers hear when leaving their hotel room.
Statistician Ben Dobson, who works for the Dallas Mavericks and has been in the bubble since July, became a top player.
“Incredible hands, covers the court, has great touch,” referee Josh Tiven said.
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Early on, Foster had rankings for the referees: himself, Tyler Ford, Tiven, Kane Fitzgerald, Brent Barnaky, John Goble, Jason Goble, Eric Lewis and Marc Davis.
“When you first start out, you seem a little clueless out there, but people got good really quick,” Tiven said. "The pickleball battles that happened here inside the bubble will be talked about for probably the next 20 years.”
Pickleball on the NBA campus was played mostly by referees at the start. There were just too many games and practices. But as teams were eliminated and fewer games were scheduled, more people had time to play.
“It’s as much a social game as it is a competitive game,” Foster said. “Of course, you can get competitive.”
There is added appreciation of what referees do on the basketball court because their ability to make a ruling from a distance is amazing. From the across the court, any of the refs can tell you if a ball is in or out. There is no arguing with them.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements. Who adjudicates a call when two referees disagree whether the ball was in or out? They can’t go to the replay center for a review.
Pickleball has been a popular sport inside the NBA bubble. (Photo: Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY)
“Option one is if there’s someone on the sidelines watching, we’ll go to them,” Tiven said. “Option two, we trust the call. But sometimes when you’re trying to play a ball that’s close to the line, can’t tell if it’s out because you’re trying to play the shot. There’s been almost no controversy because when in doubt, we just play it over.”
More than one paddle has been thrown. Jefferson spiked a paddle that hit the concrete just right and bounced 20 feet into the air and hit a hotel room window.
After losing a point to a reporter, Lewis, one of the best refs in the league, turned and said with a smile, “So that’s the way it’s going to be.” Then, he fired one of his hard-to-return “bullet” serves at the reporter.
When a newcomer asked if a serve was illegal, Foster said, “Illegal as (expletive).”
Foster has appreciated the way people have gravitated toward the game and taken it seriously.
“It’s not just people banging on the ball,” Foster said. “They want to learn the right way to play.”
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