On Dec. 22, ESPN re-broadcasted the Margaritaville 2018 USA Pickleball National Championships held last month in Indian Wells, Calif.
“To have an organization like ESPN express the interest is a major step that’s just going to increase the awareness of our sport, who knows how many times over,” said Jack Thomas, president of the USA Pickleball Association (USAPA).
As the sport grows, so, too, will its support for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. In 2016, the USAPA picked St. Jude as its designated charity.
This link between the sport he loves and the charity he admires makes Thomas even happier than a win on the court, because in 2014, his grandson Andrew was found to be suffering from a rare type of cancer, and it was St. Jude that saved his life.
A rare cancer
Thomas’ daughter, Holly, had been concerned for a couple of years about a mole growing on her son Andrew’s back. Finally, in 2014, a doctor agreed to remove and biopsy the spot. It was spitzoid melanoma, a very rare skin cancer. At the time, Andrew was only 10 years old.
Over the next two weeks, his parents met with local doctors and contacted specialists from across the United States in the urgent search for treatment.
Finally, they found St. Jude, and three days later, they were on a plane to Memphis, Tenn., from their home in Arizona.
Treatments invented at St. Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20% to more than 80% since it opened 50 years ago.
Certainly it was a stressful time for the family, but Thomas says the most surprising thing about visiting his grandson at St. Jude was how cheerful it was.
“It’s one of the happiest places that I’ve ever been involved with, and I know that it sounds weird, but I say that because despite all of the concerns about the children and their illnesses, when you walk in those doors, you see nothing but happy. All of the posters, all of the artwork, is positive,” said Thomas. “The care they gave Andrew, the openness, the consultations with the physicians and the nurses — all of that. It’s truly an amazing place. And no one has ever paid even a penny for their child’s treatment. That’s remarkable.”
Today, Andrew comes back just for checkups. He’s in high school and thriving. And like his grandfather, Andrew is an athlete through and through.
“He’s a tremendous baseball player,” said Thomas, “a tremendous athlete, but specifically, he’s really, really a great, young baseball player.”
A chance to do good
Jack Thomas and his wife arrived for dinner just before 5 that Sunday night in 2011 in Fountain Hills, Ariz., but first their friends wanted to introduce them to a game that combined aspects of table tennis, tennis and badminton. So the couples took to the court for a quick game of pickleball.
“Long story short, dinner didn’t happen until around 9 o’clock,” said Thomas. “They couldn’t get me off the court, I was having so much fun.”
In the six years since Thomas has served on the board of the USAPA and in his past year as the board president, he’s seen his sport hit the big time.
Pickleball, which was created in 1965, now has approximately 3.1 million players and has been called the fastest-growing sport.
The mission of the USAPA is to promote the development and growth of pickleball in the United States and its territories. “Now our aspirations for the sport? The big carrot would ultimately be the Olympics, and we believe that can happen,” said Thomas.
Thomas feels special pride in knowing that as his sport grows, so does awareness of St. Jude in communities nationwide.
“It’s really a neat feeling to have people understand just how important St. Jude is and how much St. Jude has given to families and certainly to the children treated there,” said Thomas.
What is Pickleball?
- Pickleball combines aspects of table tennis, tennis and badminton.
- Pickleball takes its name from a family dog named Pickles.
- With the USA Pickleball Association’s national tournament airing on ESPN, Pickleball has become a legitimized sport.
- Pickleball is thought to be the fastest-growing sport in America.
Since November 2016, the USAPA has raised more than $55,000 for St. Jude through a variety of avenues.
Some tournament participants have asked supporters to sponsor them by pledging 10 cents or a dollar per point. Many tournament organizers donate their entire tournament revenues after expenses to St. Jude or earmark certain events within the tournament to go to the hospital.
“People should support St. Jude to the max, whatever their max is, whatever they feel comfortable doing,” said Thomas, “It’s an amazing place. My grandson is here today because of St. Jude.”
If you want to help support St. Jude like Jack Thomas and the USAPA, let your passions guide you to create an event and raise funds for St. Jude.
Help our families focus on their sick child, not medical bills.
When you donate, your gift means families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food — because all a family should worry about is helping their child live.