SLICE OF HEAVEN
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
By Bill McLean
ILLUSTRATION BY BARRY BLITT
Golf, tennis, pickleball.
For many, it takes a while to become at least adequate in two of those three sports.
Not so with pickleball, claims Highland Park resident Ron Saslow, who struck his first pickleball shot in the spring of 2020, when most of the world welcomed any kind of diversion from COVID-19. Locked up and bored, the Saslow family members couldn’t wait to wake up and start their days with a pickleball rally outside.
“Pickleball is easy to play and easy to learn,” the 57-year-old Saslow says. “It’s easy to get good at it, but it’s hard to become a great player. Improvement in golf and tennis is usually measured in months or years. In pickleball, it’s measured in hours or days.
“Were you to pick up a pickleball paddle for the first time today, you’d be having fun in an hour, if not earlier,” he adds. “Because people today seek instant gratification, I’m not at all surprised by pickleball’s rapid growth.”
More than 36.5 million people played pickleball from August 2021 to August 2022, according to an Association of Pickleball Players (APP) report.
Saslow doesn’t see that number heading south anytime soon. And it’s a robust figure that led him to spearhead a group that formed the Chicago Slice, a four-member (two men, two women) professional team in Major League Pickleball (MLP).
MLP awarded a team to Saslow and his A-plus band of co-owners—including Chicago Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, tennis legend Chris Evert, television host and model Heidi Klum, and Doug Ellin, creator of the HBO series Entourage—in October 2022.
The 24 MLP teams gather to compete annually in a pair of three-event segments at sites in California, Florida, Arizona, and Georgia. Half the teams battle in the Challenger category, akin to Major League Baseball’s Triple-A, and the other 12 teams (including the Slice) are Premier crews, akin to MLB parent clubs. The Slice captured a championship in the first half of 2023 and then—after a re-draft lottery was held in New York—secured the right to pick first. The Chicago Slice chose none other than Ben Johns, ranked No. 1 in men’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles by the Pro Pickleball Association (PPA). He’s pickleball’s GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)—at age 24.
“Ben is a good guy, an amazing player,” says Saslow, who’s also the founder and managing partner of Chicago-based Thirty- 5 Capital and the founder and CEO of ProXR Pickleball, the official paddle sponsor of MLP since 2021. “He’s also a very smart, analytical player who knows every nuance of the sport. He helped us pick the rest of our team (Erik Lange, Jessie Irvine, and Lacey Schneemann) after we picked him first.
“We believe fans of the sport will enjoy Major League Pickleball more than the other professional pickleball organizations (APP and PPA) because of our league’s team aspect. It’s appealing. Crowds get into it when you attach a city’s name to a team of players battling in a hugely popular sport.”
But Saslow’s favorite home team features wife Ellen and their sons Joe (26 years old), Charlie (24), and Danny, a 21-year-old student at Washington University in St. Louis, his parents’ and Joe’s alma mater; Charlie is a New York University graduate. Ellen, a former firstgrade teacher who earned her master of science degree at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy (SESP), picked up pickleball when her husband did, more than three years ago, and she’s as agog about the sport as Ron is.
“Danny has told me that pickleball has taken off at Wash U,” Ron Saslow says. “Students can’t get enough of it down there and at other colleges across the country. Five years ago, the average age of a recreational pickleball player was 62; it’s now down to 41.”
The Chicago Slice and the other 23 MLP foursomes are scheduled to play in two more events in 2023, including one in Dallas, November 2-5, and the finale in Southern California, December 7-12. The Chicago Slice franchise does not have a home venue. Yet. Count on can-do Saslow to do something about that, maybe in Highland Park.
A son of the late Richard Saslow, Ron attended Highland Park High School for a year before transferring to North Shore Country Day in Winnetka before the start of his sophomore year. He caught and pitched for HPHS’s baseball team and wrestled and played football and baseball at NSCD.
“I’ve been interested in sports all my life,” says Saslow, who’s a limited partner of the parent company of the Chicago Cubs and serves on their Advisory Board. “I sold our family business (Hu-Friedy Group) in 2019 because I wanted to go the private-equity route in the fields of sports and music. I haven’t formed a music venture yet; that’s next.
“I love work and working.”
Richard Saslow bought Chicago-based Hu-Friedy in 1959, 51 years after it was launched. Hu-Friedy is a global healthcare manufacturing company specializing in dental and infection control products. Ron Saslow took over as president of the company in 2000 and served as its CEO from 2005-2019.
“I was the only one of my family’s three kids to go into the family business,” Saslow says. “I remember nights at the dinner table, when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, where I learned, learned, learned about my father’s work. My father put no pressure on any of us to do what he did. He was equally supportive of our career interests.
“That was one of the big lessons I learned from him. I’m like that with my children.” Saslow describes fatherhood as a journey. He has loved every leg of it.
“Be a good parent, a good coach, and a good friend—I’ve tried to be all of those for my sons,” he says. “I love the things we have in common, but I also love the things they’ve done that I never attempted. Joey played basketball, and Danny got into hockey. Charlie enjoys the arts and theater.“All three of them opened my eyes—and became my coaches.”
Visit chicagoslice.com for more information.