Pickleball Points: Pickleball knees, crocodiles and 600 elephants

My readers should know that my knee problems are not related to pickleball. I was already beginning to have problems in officer training school after years of pounding on tennis courts.

While you folks have been enjoying summer along our coast, I had my second knee replacement. I returned to the same practice, Nirschl Orthopedic, that replaced my right knee, and you might find it amusing how we first met, because it is not your standard doctor-patient relationship.

To all of us who take competitive pickleball seriously, the various strength-building machines in the gym are not strangers, and I met one of early pioneers of strength-training machines. I am writing about Arthur Jones, the fellow quoted in Sports Illustrated, “I’ve killed 600 elephants and 73 men in my life, and I’m sorry about the elephants.” This quote doesn’t convey Jones’ gravelly and threatening voice.

I met Jones on what Hemingway might have called a movable seminar. There were four of us and our wives, and we were invited to a retreat in Puerto Rico at the invitation of this self-made man, an inventive genius, mercenary and filmmaker turned entrepreneur, who invented the revolutionary variable-resistance Nautilus machine for physical training and rehab.

Jones collected us at the Atlanta airport with a private plane from his small fleet and flew to his headquarters in Florida, where he gave us a tour of his Nautilus lab facilities. At his lab, he had one academic fellow on staff — a bionic freak who could lift extreme weight and run a marathon, both without any training.

Our inventor, Art Jones, was the first and only executive I ever knew who kept an enormous wild crocodile in his office. I am a practical enough guy to envision some benefits with keeping a croc in the office and kept hoping I wasn’t one of them.

Jones’ self-described motto was, “Younger women, faster airplanes and bigger crocodiles,” and he flew his own Fairchild prop while his wife served refreshments — she dressed in some type of African sarong wrap.

An employee of Jones who sat next to me had one of those old-fashioned gym bags with a pistol and wads of currency. The size of his overdeveloped biceps was deterrent enough, sans le pistolet, to keep my hands out of his gym bag.

Barry McDermott did a full-length article about Jones in the April 25, 1975, edition of Sports Illustrated, which is well worth the read. Jones was a raconteur who seemed to captivate his listeners, and McDermott quoted him about the 600-elephant story. I can tell you firsthand, when Jones told his stories, they did not seem to be exaggerations.

Jones continued to pilot our group down to Puerto Rico after a lunch with the then-very famous linebacker Dick Butkus, who had sought out Jones to help him improve strength around his right knee so he could return to football.

The others seemed mesmerized by Jones, but my wife and I were not swayed. Jones’ stories seemed real enough, but I just couldn’t understand why he was wasting them on me. And, come to think of it, he might have been thinking the same thing, because the vibes between us were not good.

Every week in my job at Wilson Sporting Goods I met a very large number of people, and frequently many of them tried to dazzle with all kinds of wild claims. I thought I was a convincing listener, but I must have been giving telltale signs that I still wasn’t ready to buy Jones’ Kool-Aid.

During the long, very turbulent flight, Jones turned controls over to his co-pilot and joined us in the cabin. He sat across from us and then told my wife a story, claiming he had considered an experiment implanting a woman’s brain in a monkey, but then decided it would be unfair to the monkey. Her quick response was, “I’m disappointed in you, Arthur, and they all told me you were so smart.”

Perhaps I should explain “us.”

The other three on our junket included Dr. Robert Nirschl, who then was a young, bright, very studious, orthopedic surgeon on his way to leading the field in the world of repairing top professional athletes. He is still frequently cited around the world as the leading expert on tennis elbow. Nirschl recently was named a Mayo Clinic Distinguished Alumni, and they listed a full page of his firsts included founding the Nirschil Orthopedic Center for Sports Medicine & Joint Reconstruction, Virginia Sports Medicine Institute, and U.S. Tennis Association’s Sports Science Committee.

Facing Nirschl and his wife in the specially-configured passenger cabin was Dr. Stanley Plagenhoef, a decorated World War II navigator whose role on March 24, 1945, in the largest airborne operation in the history of aviation, Operation Varsity, can be found on the Internet.

When we met, he was a professor at University of Massachusetts. Stan had written several bestselling books about tennis, as well as biomechanics in sport, and in the summers, taught tennis in Maine. His work in sport science still has a serious following among university coaches and instructors, and annual excellence awards are given today in his name.

Sitting across from my wife was a fellow who also liked to laugh. He was Geoff Harvey, the one-time Tasmanian tennis champion, and then tennis pro at the famous Longwood Cricket Club. His lesson book, at the height of tennis popularity, looked like the Who’s Who of New England society.

The fourth of course was me, “Hey, you” as Jones referred to me, which was, of course, better than “Crocodile chew,” so I didn’t object.

Jones produced a television show in the 1950s called “Wild Cargo” and also invented the system to shoot stable movies from helicopters, which prior to that point was little more than a sequence of shuddering images. He fought as a mercenary in Africa, and I couldn’t help wonder, especially when finding a quote about strafing guerrillas, about the connection between his camera invention, helicopters and Congo warfare.

Jones’ Nautilus training equipment invention was truly significant, and our bright doctor amigo was very interested in all the completed research on folks who had trained with the original Nautilus prototypes. It was a new method of strength training, and Nirschl was making the best of it.

But the other three of us, all with tennis backgrounds, like three amigos with beautiful women on our arms, were ready for fun in Viejo San Juan. The occasion was that Wilson was relocating me and my family to introduce Wilson to Europe. We all laughed and laughed well into the early morning hours, and that laughter from that long four-day weekend bonded us for our entire careers. Sometimes it might only be seeing one another on opposing moving walkways at international airports, with only time for a nod followed by a good laugh.

In the patient interview about my knee-replacement surgery, Dr. Clay Wellborn, a bright-eyed surgeon in Nirschil’s practice who had not anticipated what an errant patient I would be, asked why I had chosen to drive from the Delaware beaches all the way to Arlington, Va., for my knee-replacement surgery.

Given my history with Nirschl, my answer could not just be an ordinary everyday “because Nirschl Orthopedic leads the field in joint reconstruction.” No, it had to be in keeping with our first Arthur Jones junket. I said — of course I am sure nowhere as menacing as Jones — “Because I know where Nirschl lives!”

Dr. Wellborn was successful with my first knee, which is pain-free. Now I am working to recover this other replacement as quickly as possible, using Jones’ Nautilus equipment while remembering that Tasmanian Devil Geoff Harvey, and tennis guru and war hero Stan Plagenhoef. I simply had to stop periodically to laugh out loud as I wrote this piece.

Vaughn “The Baron” Baker is a Senior Olympics gold-medalist in pickleball, and is public relations director for the First State Pickleball Club (FSPC) and captain of the Ocean View Crew pickleball community. He spent his career working with top tennis professionals while working for Wilson Sporting Goods and introducing the Prince Tennis Racket and Wimbledon Tennis Lines. For more information, visit PickleballCoast.com.

By Vaughn Baker
Special to the Coastal Point