By Kim Ibes
It all started with a dog, named Pickles!
When I caught up with Larry Seekins, he had just returned home to Billings from a long weekend bow hunting with his son-in-law and grandson. They’d been caught in a late summer storm along the Missouri River Breaks, and despite fighting muck and nasty weather, Larry returned with his sense of humor firmly intact.
“We have an annual program here in cooperation with Montana Fish and Game,” declares Larry with a hearty grin. “It’s where my family and I go out and exercise Montana’s elk and deer.” For a guy who hates to exercise, he sure seems to spend a lot of time in its grip. “I do hate to exercise, but I love games,” he explains. Pickleball—a court game that’s been sweeping across Montana and the nation—is something he can’t seem to get enough of. At 73, Larry plays an average of five days/week. Monday through Thursday, he’s mentoring future players, and each Friday evening he’s bringing new people into the sport.
Over the past 28 years, he guesses he’s taught the game to more than 1,600 people. He volunteers more than 600 Pickleball hours a year at the YMCA, he’s the Commissioner of the Big Sky State Games for Pickleball, is a five-time winner in the World Senior Games for Pickleball, and that’s just the short list. “I tell myself that Pickleball is just a game, and I play probably two hours a day. My body says you just lied to me, but fortunately I have a bad memory, so I go out the next day and do it again,” says Larry with a grin. For the curious, the uninitiated, and those like me who have seen the banners proclaiming, “Pickleball played here!” but have not one iota of a clue about what they’re talking about, well, this one’s for you.
“When people start out with me, I have them sit down and I give them the talk,” says Larry, describing his Friday night beginner course at the Billings YMCA and responding to my question regarding the origin of Pickleball. He gives me the abbreviated version, but his students get the full story. “It was invented in 1965, by Washington State Representative Joel Pritchard from Bainbridge Island who wanted to find a game his family could play in the wind and the rain yet still be outside playing together.” Along with two friends, Bill Bell and Barney McCallum, they took the ball that Prichard’s dog “Pickles” played with, dropped a badminton net a couple inches lower, created wood paddles, rules, and voila, you have Pickleball.
“Addictive?” asks Larry. “Yes, for some people. (Continued on pg. 55) But what really counts in the Pickleball world is that we create all sorts of memories with the relationships we develop. They’re really solid, sound, and fun, so it works!”
Larry grew up in Cody, Wyoming and earned a degree in civil engineering at MSU Bozeman in 1966. He went into the Army Corps of Engineers and spent two years in Virginia training combat engineers. “They basically go in, blow up things, and then build things. They were always on more than the front lines,” Larry explains. After his sting with the Corps of Engineers, he was recruited by the U.S. Forest Service. “My first assignment was in Billings, and it was a lot like that of a platoon leader,” he recalls. “I did blow up some things, but I was out in the wilderness building roads and I had a tremendous career.”
Larry’s first encounter with Pickleball was around 1977 while stationed Kremmling, Colorado. “My wife and I read an article about Pickleball in the local newspaper; I think we started with wood paddles and green balls and we played on a tennis court, but we had fun,” he recalls. Soon thereafter, Larry was transferred and the Pickleball set went into storage. The Seekins didn’t play Pickleball again until he was transferred to Oregon in 1988. Larry was recruited to rebuild Mount St. Helen’s into a world-class visitor’s center. But, while he succeeded at the project, it took a toll on his health.
“I’d gone from a very active lifestyle to sitting at the office or in a car driving,” he recalls. “Once I started Pickleball my body really started improving. You’ll find pickleball players are usually in pretty good shape.” While there, they met the son of the man who invented the first composite Pickleball paddle, who also happened to be one of the best players around. The Seekins took classes, and as Larry says, “We’ve never been the same since. We go to senior tournaments and we’re all dealing with something, as we’re getting older, but I’ve discovered there are some similar characteristics and I’ve given it the name LOCS. It stands for lack of common sense,” Larry declares with a chuckle.
From Larry’s perspective LOCS has three clinical symptoms: 1. After playing for a couple of hours one will say, let’s play one more game; 2. One will play when sick or injured and when one should be recovering or resting at home; and 3. One will travel several hundred miles to play for a silly little medal. “I don’t have this problem, but I recognize it in other people,” Larry declares with a straight face. Understand of course, that this is the same man who for the last quarter of a century has traveled throughout the country to play and win in Pickleball tournaments for those “silly little medals.”
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