By Mark Berton
J “Gizmo” Hall has gone from putting out fires in the real world to being on fire in the world of pickleball.
J “Gizmo” Hall’s introduction to pickleball was watching a game played by women in their 70s at his local gym in Virginia, where he did cardio and played basketball to stay fit for his firefighter job.
“I heard this sound when I was leaving the basketball court. It sounded like ping-pong, but different, so I decided to peek around the corner and check it out,” Hall says. “I saw three nets set up and a few older folks, and this woman said, ‘Hey, this is pickleball. Do you want me to show you how it’s played?’”
Hall declined and focused on taking in this sport he’d never seen before. Later in the week, he heard the sounds again, and went back for another look.
“The same people were playing, and this time the woman grabbed me and said, ‘You don’t get to peek around the corner twice and not play.’”
To say that woman changed Hall’s trajectory in life would be an understatement. He left firefighting last September, although he still has the certifications and qualifications to serve in Virginia, and made the decision to go pro in pickleball. It was a huge decision for Hall, who not only served as a firefighter, but who also owns and operates a family farm with his wife and two children in northern Virginia.
“We raise chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl, goats, mini donkeys and ducks, as well as food crops. When I’m home from the road, that’s all I do—crash hard in the garden, make sure it’s all turnkey for my wife, then I’m back out there,” he says. “My kids are 6 and 7 years old and they’ll grab the eggs out of the nesting boxes. It teaches responsibility and I want to raise them the right way. I’ve been a city boy my whole life and it wears you down. I told my wife we needed at least five acres in the country and she found us 10 with a pond. She supports me 110 percent. She supported us moving to a farm and she supports my goal of going pro in pickleball.”
While the whole family enjoys the sport—they play tournaments together when they can—Hall’s obsession with pickleball goes above and beyond your casual player.
“I just started playing four, five days a week, driving multiple hours to find the best competition I could. We’re about an hour north of Richmond, on Pickleball Farm—that’s the name of our farm. To compete, I’d go to Richmond, Charlottesville or all the way to Baltimore,” he recalls. “People thought I was crazy to chase this dream to go pro, and I said, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t put your limitations on me. I appreciate the opinion, but I’m gone.’”
But it’s not just that he’s gone from being a neophyte in the sport to a Gamma-sponsored 4.5 player that’s impressive, it’s what he’s accomplished along the way. He earned a bronze in the 4.0 Singles during Nationals at Indian Wells in 2018, and he’s become a memorable player for many reasons. Some may recognize his nickname, “Gizmo,” called over the loudspeakers at matches or his trademark cheeseburger outfits on the court. However, despite the rock-star glam he demonstrates, it’s his ambassadorship and work with kids he’s really known for.
“I grew up in a broken home. My mom worked two and three jobs to make ends meet. Not having a positive role model, while it’s not an excuse, I got into things I shouldn’t have, so I wanted to help other kids so they didn’t make the same mistakes I did. I want to teach them how they can do things that are more productive. If I can reach one kid, it’s all worth it,” he says. “So my goal with pickleball is to reach the youth and be your favorite player.”
Hall unabashedly charges the court draped in cheeseburger pattern fabrics—whether it’s jerseys, leggings, capes or whatever he feels like wearing that day—all so fans can say, “The guy in cheeseburgers? That’s Gizmo.” But it’s more than a gimmick. There’s personal meaning behind his carnivore style. He calls easy lobs “cheeseburgers,” the kind you just drool over, ready for you to crack. And, there’s literal cheeseburgers that he loves and eats regularly.
Hall’s nickname was the name of his first dog and has stuck with him since he was 14, but he’s found it helps him stand out in tournament settings when it’s announced over the loudspeakers.
“There’s not many African Americans in this sport in general, not many with dreadlocks, and nobody wearing cheeseburgers,” he adds. “You’ll remember me for how I play or how I dress, but at the end of the day, you’re going to remember me.”