THE MODERN PADDLE:
AN ORIGIN STORY
When Boeing engineer Arlen Paranto made a pickleball paddle for his son out of discarded jet floor paneling back in 1984, he unintentionally revolutionized the sport. Here’s how it happened.
Necessity is the mother of invention, the saying goes. And Steve Paranto couldn’t agree more.
An early pickleball convert, Paranto began playing in 1974 as an 18-year-old student at Green River College in Auburn, Washington, not far from where the game was invented. When Paranto saw some people hitting a Wiffle ball around with wooden paddles, he was intrigued, and decided to take up the game. “I even played in what was billed as the world’s first pickleball tournament, near Seattle, losing in the finals,” he says.
Paranto loved the sport, but he had one big problem: the heavy plywood paddles in use at the time. “I told my dad, ‘This is ridiculous. I just weighed my paddle, and it weighs 13 times what the ball weighs. My tennis racket is only seven times heavier than a tennis ball. The ratio’s all wrong.’”
Steve’s father, Arlen Paranto, an industrial engineer at Boeing who often came up with inventive solutions to real-life problems, got to work. A few weeks later, he stopped by Steve’s place with two prototype paddles he’d made out of the honeycomb fiberglass floor paneling used in jet airplanes.
When Steve tried out the new paddles, he immediately noticed an improvement. “The first hit—the sound it made—was totally different,” he recalls. “The feel was different too. The ball came off faster. Pretty soon, my partner and I were winning all the tournaments. Nobody could beat us.”
So Arlen set out to make more of these new 7-ounce paddles. (The plywood ones weighed about 12 to 13 ounces.) “We started out just selling them to our friends—probably giving them away,” says Steve. “But pretty soon, we had a company.”
That company was called Pro-Lite and had a lightning bolt as its logo. “Dad and I were watching The Natural, with Robert Redford, and in the movie, lightning hits a tree, and his character cuts a bat from the tree and puts a lightning bolt on it. We go, ‘That’s our logo!’ Within months, Dad started selling them out of the trunk of his car, and then to all the local sporting goods stores in the Northwest, and soon sporting goods stores started ordering them around the country.” (The company was later bought by Pickleball Hall of Famer Mark Friedenberg and is now run by his son, Neil.)
Arlen died in 2019, after being inducted into the Pickleball Hall of Fame for his game-changing invention. “His paddle revolutionized the sport,” says Steve. “The rallies were more fun. You could reset balls. The sweet spot was bigger. The game just took off after the paddle was created. I always tell people I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time with the right dad to have all these incredible things happen in the world of pickleball.”