By Nick Dawson

As a senior at the University of Puget Sound, Justin Maloof took an internship with the Tacoma Rockets of the Western Hockey League. 

It may have been one of the best things that ever happened in the meteoric growth of pickleball in this country. 

Maloof was born in Southern California, the son of Jack Maloof, who would enjoy a life-long career in professional baseball as a player, coach and manager. The senior Maloof played eight years in the minor leagues where he compiled a career batting average of .303. He would finish his professional career in Japan, playing one season for the Seibu Lions. Jack later served as a minor league hitting coach and manager, and eventually as a hitting coach for Major League Baseball’s Kansas City Royals. 

During a three-year stretch in his minor league journey, Jack Maloof played for the Tacoma Twins, the Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. Jack and his wife, Joan, bought a house in Fircrest, where they chose to raise their family. 

And that’s where Justin’s connection to Tacoma, and eventually his rise to prominence in the world of pickleball, got started.  

At the top of pickleball's rise is a Tacoma product

Justin was an all-state middle infielder at what was then Wilson High School (now Silas High School). He helped lead Wilson, under coach Bob Lightfoot, to a third-place finish in the 1988 state tournament, the Rams losing in the state semifinals to Juanita High, which included many members of the Kirkland Little League team that defeated a team from Taiwan for the 1982 Little League World Series championship. 

Following his graduation from Wilson, Justin attended the University of Puget Sound on a baseball scholarship, playing three seasons for the Loggers and coach Brad Cheney, graduating in 1992. 

As a college senior with little knowledge or experience in the world of hockey (the first hockey game he ever saw was an exhibition between Hall of Fame legends Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings and Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins), Justin came across an internship opportunity with the Tacoma Rockets. The following year, after his university graduation, Justin turned the internship into full-time employment with the Rockets. He worked for the organization as an account executive in group sales and in game-night promotions.  

Justin’s next professional move was out of his hands and proved fortuitous. During the 1994-95 season, the Seattle SuperSonics played their games in the Tacoma Dome while their long-time home, Key Arena, was being renovated. The Sonics displaced the Rockets, with that organization moving to Kelowna, British Columbia. Not wanting to follow the team to Canada, Justin and his wife chose instead to move to Phoenix, Ariz., to be nearer to his parents. 

“I didn’t think I would be staying in hockey,” Justin recalls, but when the Winnipeg Jets franchise relocated to Phoenix, he was hired “for a ground floor opportunity” by the Coyotes in their inaugural National Hockey League season in 1996-97. 

He worked for the Coyotes for 16 seasons. For someone who grew up in and around professional baseball, Justin enjoyed his career in hockey, and to this day describes himself as an avid hockey fan. 

Justin’s transition to pickleball came in 2013 and coincided with the exponential growth of the sport not only in the United States but around the world. Justin was named the Executive Director for USA Pickleball, becoming the first full-time employee of the organization that had existed through the labor of volunteers since 2005. Justin was elevated to the position of Chief Operating Officer in 2021. According to the USA Pickleball website, Justin is responsible for the overall operation of the organization. He also oversees USA Pickleball’s operational structure, sustainability and service to its members and sponsors. Under his direction, USA Pickleball membership has increased over 1,400 percent.

“It was scary going from a high-level professional sport to a sport that was fringe level at the time,” Justin says. “It was a leap of faith for sure.” 

During Justin’s tenure, USA Pickleball has helped bring structure to the game, formalizing standards for everything from rules of play to court and net size to standardizing equipment. For example, USA Pickleball has a list of more than 1,000 manufacturers that make products within the organization’s rules. 

USA Pickleball has helped build the framework to move the perception of pickleball as a sport for seniors to a challenging and competitive sport for all age levels. While most of the 80,000-plus registered members of USA Pickleball are in the 60+ age category, the largest growth has come in the 30-40 age range, according to Justin. 

As the sport has grown, so has USA Pickleball as an organization. First, there was only Justin and volunteers, and after surviving the Covid years, there are now 36 “top talent” employees, says Justin. 

“I certainly felt that pickleball had a lot of potential,” Justin says, “but I would not have imagined we would be in the position we are today.”  

To see pickleball’s exponential growth, particularly over the past 10 years, “has been very rewarding,” he says. “It will be amazing to see where it will be in 10 more years.” 

Nick Dawson is a contributing writer for the Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Museum. After working as a college sports information director for 22 years locally, Nick is enjoying “retirement” as an elementary athletics assistant at Cascade Christian Schools. He also enjoys volunteer work at ManeStage Theatre Company in Puyallup. He enjoys soccer, softball and golf in his spare time.

Skip to content