Lightning strikes in the distance and gray clouds hang over the city as a storm surrounds Patterson Park, but never manages to touch down on the tennis court where Autumn Provenzano is teaching about 10 people how to play pickleball. Most of them have never played the sport before—and many had never even heard of it. But Provenzano knew she could help the sport find a new home in Baltimore.
Pickle what? While those famous Jameson and pickle-juice shots you can slam near Camden Yards might come to mind, this has nothing to do with those. Pickleball is a racquet sport that was invented in 1965 near Seattle and is a cross between badminton, tennis, and pingpong. Think a badminton-sized court, a shorter tennis net, a smaller wiffleball, and a larger pingpong paddle.
Provenzano, 26, was born in Detroit and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, when she was 10 years old. She has a short blonde bob, bright blue eyes, and a contagious, friendly positivity that bursts with ease through her welcoming smile. She is the oldest of three siblings, all 18 months apart, and comes from a close-knit Christian family. Provenzano graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010 with her bachelor's degree in exercise science.
Initially, her plans were to go to graduate school for physical therapy. But during her junior year, her father told her about American Communications Network, now ACN, a telecom, energy, and banking business he founded.
"I knew my dad spoke on stage in front of thousands of people but I didn't know what ACN was, I didn't know it was network marketing. I didn't know anything," Provenzano says. "And he did that on purpose because he knew if we did ACN at age 18 we probably wouldn't have gone to college."
While some skeptics might hesitate before signing on to work under a multi-level marketing plan, which is legal but is sometimes thought of along the lines of a pyramid scheme, Provenzano decided that the family business was a better fit than physical therapy. She partnered up with her little brother and they started working for ACN.
In an effort to expand the business, Provenzano's parents urged her to get out of Charlotte after graduation and take advantage of the opportunities in the mid-Atlantic.
"They knew that I wasn't happy living at home in Charlotte. I was bored. I didn't have anything to do, so they knew it was a good decision for me," Provenzano says.
In April of 2012, she decided to reach out to a friend who had just moved to Baltimore.
"She said 'I love it! And we're looking for a roommate right now. You'd have so much fun, you're going to absolutely love Baltimore'," Provenzano recalls.
Three days after Easter, she made the seven-hour drive from North Carolina. When she arrived, she got a mini-tour of Baltimore and scoped out of her friend's row home in Canton. She also met John Moheyer, the owner of the house.
"We went to dinner in Fells at Waterfront Hotel and I signed the lease the next day. I only stayed for 24 hours," Provenzano says.
She moved to Baltimore a week and a half later. A couple weeks after that, she ended a four-year relationship with a man back home. Provenzano would often work from home in her room upstairs, while Moheyer, an insurance agent, worked from home in his office in the basement. Every day for lunch, they'd end up meeting in the kitchen.
"It was just lunch date after lunch date. I didn't know anybody, so John kind of felt bad for me," Provenzano says, her face brightening with the story. "He taught me a lot and introduced me to a lot of people and one thing led to another and I found myself very attracted to him."
The two started dating that October and have been together ever since.
Moheyer's parents are snowbirds from Ohio, who spend three months out of the year living in Sarasota, Florida. When Provenzano and Moheyer went to visit, his father introduced them to pickleball, which was popular among his older crowd.
"They had pickleball courts at the golf clubhouse . . . and he was like 'Let me come teach you,'" Provenzano says. "And we thought 'This is awesome!' So that's how we learned it and we thought we could easily bring that up here and make it a social sport."
Provenzano and Moheyer picked the rules up quickly. Only the team or player serving has an opportunity to score a point and the ball must bounce one time on the other side before being volleyed into play. It is considered a fault if a player volleying a ball steps into the non-volley zone, or "kitchen," at any time. The first team to score 13 points wins (you have to win by two), or the team with the higher score at the end of 20 minutes wins—the games are meant to be short and competitive.
Provenzano and Moheyer came home, bought a set of official pickleball equipment, created Play Pickleball as an LLC, and got permission from Patterson Park to reserve the tennis courts. They printed flyers hoping to gain interest in a BYOB social season, which would run for seven weeks and cost $60 per person with all the equipment included.
Despite Provenzano's marketing experience, it was hard to find players.
"For the past three seasons, nobody signs up until three days before. The second season I was like 'Oh my gosh, we're not going to have a season' because nobody registered—then all of a sudden there were a bunch. People are so last-minute," Provenzano says.
In their first season, a summer league in 2013, there were 10 players. In the fall, they played with 11. The spring 2014 league racked up 16 members (the youngest at 23 and the oldest at 64). The fall season started Sept. 9.
"Our initial thought was that it was going to be catered to a younger crowd," Provenzano says. "But now we're getting interest from all ages so we're like, 'Why not? Just come out and play.'"
Back at Patterson Park, the fear of rain has passed and Provenzano and Moheyer welcome two new people who saw their banner. The clean and distinct click of the plastic pickleball hitting the wooden paddle speeds up as the practice match gets heated and the players dance back and forth on their opposing sides of the court. When one player steps into the non-volley zone the other team is fiery and quick to shout "He's in the kitchen!" among a roar of laughs and cheers.