He Digs On and Off Court

By Matthew Schwartz.

April 9, 2024

                                                                             (John Kew Williams)

Watching John Kew’s pickleball paddle reviews, you could get the feeling that the guy could go on Jeopardy and kick some serious butt. He regularly uses terms such  as “peel-ply technology,” “delamination,” and “medial stability.” He comes across as much professorial as pickleball fanatic.

The truth is, he’s both. He digs on the court and off.

He has a 4.2 DUPR and three degrees: a B.A. in psychology and anthropology, and a Masters and a PhD in anthropology. He’s putting his eduction to important work (more on that later). He’s 52 but could pass for 42. Besides playing pickleball he works out daily, doing mobility exercises and strength training.

 His real name is John Kew Williams. He uses his middle name on his pickleball platforms because when he started his YouTube channel all the variations of John Williams were taken. “That worked out well,” he says of the more distinctive name. That’s an understatement.

Johnkew Pickleball has become a go-to channel for particular paddle researchers, those wanting deep dives into technical aspects including RPM’s, swing weight, twist weight and core materials.

 Williams’ on-camera persona is mostly serious but he can be self-deprecating. He has acknowledged getting too “geeky” at times during reviews, saying things like, “Enough with the data, let’s see how it plays.” The channel has approximately 10,000 subscribers (full disclosure: I’m one of them). Five hundred pickleballers are signing-up every month. Not bad for a gig that began 31 months ago. He’s produced about 40 videos from his home studio in Lafayette, Colorado, a half-hour north of Denver. The most watched video, a guide to raw carbon fiber, drew 157,000 views. He also produces and co-hosts a podcast and has a website that has, among other things, a paddle database.

“Looking back, I understand that my paddle reviews tap into my background and personality,” Williams told me via email. “They combine many things I’ve enjoyed for a long time: teaching university courses in archaeology, gathering empirical data and metrics for stone tools, searching for patterns in those data, and presenting the results in charts. There are also the creative aspects of videography, photography, and audio mixing/mastering that I’ve enjoyed from my drumming/music background.”

Williams is an accomplished drummer. He’s played them his entire adult life, in bands and as a studio drummer. “My genre was rock and progressive metal, so [it is] very technical drumming with polyrhythms,” he said. Technical drumming is exactly what you’d expect from such a technically inclined guy.

Williams began playing pickleball regularly in 2021 while he and his wife were visiting her parents in Florida. Like most of us, it was love at zero-zero-two. “One of the main things I love is that you can get into these epic rallies,” he said. “Clearly, the rallies get more epic as you go up in level, but even lower-level players find themselves battling back and forth in a way that you just don’t see in other sports. Those outbursts of laughter and joy that you hear all the time on a pickleball court: think of the last time you heard players get that excited in tennis, basketball, football, soccer, or whatever sport. Yes, it happens, but I don’t think nearly as often.”

Williams says a major reason for pickleball’s explosion in popularity is that almost everyone who tries it doesn’t find it intimidating. “From women, men, children, elderly, all body shapes and sizes, everyone can play this game and think to themselves: ‘I can see myself getting pretty good at this.’ If that means playing better against your friends, competing in tournaments, or going pro, it’s still, at its core, that same youthful enthusiasm we’ve all felt when we picked up a sport or hobby and dreamed about how we would work hard and get better at it,” he said.

Williams didn’t plan to be a paddle reviewer. “I already had cameras and microphones, and a studio that I was using to record drums,” Williams said. “And then I saw a video by [paddle reviewer] Chris Olson about counting frames on high-speed cameras to calculate ball spin, and I just had to try it,” he said.

Williams acknowledges that his reviews might not appeal to the typical paddle shopper. “I ask a lot from my viewers. Sitting through a 20-minute video filled with data, metrics, and charts isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But to my surprise and delight, there are many people out there that share a similar appetite for details as myself.”

Cody Heyer shares a similar appetite. The 28-year-old with a 4.3 DUPR from Richmond, Virginia, subscribes to Williams’s YouTube channel and follows him on Instagram. “His reviews and videos do a great job of pushing the narrative of technology advancements, not only in paddle manufacturing but also testing-wise for consumers and for USAPA,” Heyer said. “So I like John because he’s incredibly analytical. Numbers tell stories and I like numbers and stories. The numbers give an idea of how the paddle will play, well before it gets into your hands.”

Quentin Walls, a 60-year-old pickleball player from Pickerington, Ohio, says, I consider John Kew to be the most technical and thorough of the pickleball paddle reviewers.” He also watches Williams’ podcasts to get the latest trends and says he always has Williams's paddle database open on his laptop.

Williams is high intellect and high energy. He and his wife, Michele, have three sons, ages 16, 14 and 10. “Honestly, even if there were 10 of me, I wouldn’t be able to do everything I want,” he said. He’s also into meditation, which helps maintain calm amid his busy schedule.

He says his income from the pickleball platforms doesn’t pay the bills. “But I see a path for becoming financially okay doing content creation,” he said. His main source of income comes from his full-time job doing archaeology consulting in Colorado and Saudi Arabia.

“What I love about archaeology is that for millions of years, humans have been running around living their lives, experiencing all the emotions, joys, pain, and mysteries that we all are experiencing today,” he said. “But there was no writing for 99.9 percent of our time on this earth. So, we have no historical record for most of our existence on this planet. And that’s my job as an archaeologist – to tease out our ancestors' life stories and experiences by analyzing stone tools, bones, pottery, and whatever else they left behind that’s survived. It gives me a lot of joy to be able to reconstruct the story of someone or a group of people that lived 10,000 years ago, or even two million years ago, who would have otherwise been completely lost and unknown to us.”


                                                           (Williams with his wife, Michele)

When we were corresponding last week Williams said he was “slammed” by an archaeology report he was wrapping up. His work schedule then was 75 percent archaeology and 25 percent pickleball. “Other times, those percentages are reversed,” he said. “If things keep going well with pickleball, I hope to be able to work on it as much as I want.”

Paddle junkies would dig that.

My thoughts of the week, not all pickleball

I’ve never read these words from anyone who’s involved in a debate or argumentative thread on Facebook or other social media: “You made great points and you changed my mind. I’m wrong, you’re right.”

Speaking of Facebook, my account was recently hacked and then suspended because the hacker posted something on Instagram that broke its rules, and they thought I posted it. I pulled up my activity file (and changed my password) and saw that the hacker used an IP address in Indonesia. Have you ever tried contacting Facebook? There are no phone numbers anywhere to be found. I emailed several departments there every other day and received one reply over two weeks, asking for an official ID. I sent that immediately, along with the activity file. Then I heard nothing so I gave up. Now I get to start a new profile over from scratch.

I read three online newspapers every morning but miss holding one in my hands. I also like holding a book, have never owned an e-reader and have no desire to.

While playing pickleball recently a guy on the other team called three serves wide that clearly hit the center line. It was his side’s calls so my partner and I said nothing. We waited until we met at the net after the match. Turns out the guy had been playing for a month and said he didn’t know that a serve is good if any part of the ball hits the center line. If this happens in the future with another player, I suppose there’s nothing wrong with me saying in a nice way, “Just confirming that you know a ball hitting the center line is in.”  I don’t feel comfortable saying that but it’s obviously a rule all players should know.

The Netflix series, Beef, has won a bunch of awards but after watching the first episode, I’m done. It’s interesting and I see why many viewers love it. I found it depressing, stressful and too intense. All things I dealt with 40 years professionally, not what I want in retirement. I don’t mind an intense movie occasionally but just couldn’t watch all 10 episodes of Beef.

My wife and I have recently been watching concerts on YouTube. We prefer classic rock and pop from the 60’s and 70’s. Frankie Valli’s voice at 89 is still amazing, his famous falsetto sounds like that of a much younger man’s. I caught myself sounding like my parents when I said more than once, “They don’t make music like that anymore.”

It’s a bummer when rain cancels pickleball, but it’s not as bad when I have a good book. Richard Neer’s FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, is currently helping to fill the pickleball void. On deck: The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn and the Transformation of Journalism, by Adam Nagourney.  

I’ve been drilling a lot and I’m now a 4.0 player. Belated April Fools. Zero drilling, still a 3.5 and probably always will be. And I’m okay with that, I just love playing.

I buy too many t-shirts because when I see one with a cool saying I can’t resist. My two newest: “Never trust an old man with a pickleball paddle” and one with a picture of a guitar on it that says, “I may be old but I got to see all the cool bands.”