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1451627 wk bocce league 5 gmf

Move over, pickleball: In this wealthy L.A. neighborhood, another game reigns supreme

Jimmy Dunne hopped off his electric bike, hung his helmet on the handlebars and hurried over to the three bocce courts at Veterans Gardens just in time to offer his usual Tip of the Day.

“Think strategically,” the commissioner of the Palisades Bocce Club told the 50 amateur players who had gathered at the park on this chilly gray morning. At 68, he was a relative youngster compared with most of the assembled crowd. “If you’re playing against a master like Bill Skinner and you’re down in the last quarter, go hard.”

Everyone laughed. Skinner, who is 90 and plays for the OBG (Old But Great) Rollers, beamed. And the tournament began.

Player’s name tags are kept in individual team parcels in a bin for the Pacific Palisades Bocce League.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Pickleball may have exploded in the wake of the pandemic, but in Pacific Palisades bocce is king. More than 900 people have joined the Palisades Bocce Club since it began in June 2021. In the spring season, which ended this month, 542 people played regular matches. Games take place three times a week, and while winning is nice, it has never been the point. The league prizes community over competition, bringing together neighbors of all generations to connect in the outdoors.

“None of this was ever about bocce,” said Dunne, a longtime Palisades resident and songwriter who has written for Whitney Houston and Kenny Rogers. “It’s about celebrating the wonder in our backyard and the simple pleasure of having friends in town.”

The stakes were high on this Tuesday in May — the winning team would head to the championships — but the vibe was decidedly relaxed. Roger Stewart, who’s in his 90s, rolled his ball while remaining seated on a bench. The ladies of La Bocce Vita, who wore matching black caps featuring their team name in sparkly pink letters, were more interested in planning a weekend getaway together than beating their opponents. And Skinner, a 40-year member of the local Optimist Club, wove through the crowd cracking jokes until someone told him it was his turn to roll.

Dunne, dressed in navy blue pants and a navy blue sweater, cheered them all on, his blue eyes twinkling beneath a pale pink baseball cap.

“Great shot! Just spectacular,” he called out. “Beautiful! Just a little long!”

Bocce dates back at least as far as the Roman Empire and has long been popular in Italy, but interest in the game appears to be surging in the United States.

A man using a digital device to measure the distance between two bocce balls.

Scorekeeper Sean Barnett uses a digital measuring tool to figure out which team’s colored balls are closest to the smaller pallino.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

A man watching a game of bocce ball, surrounded by other bocce players.

League Commissioner Jimmy Dunne watches play in-between the bocce courts during Thursday league night at the Veterans Gardens bocce courts. The courts in the pubic park were put in two years ago and currently 545 people are signed up to play.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“Our explosion is not quite to the pickleball level, but there has been a serious uptick since COVID,” said Alex Gara, co-founder of the American Bocce Company, which runs a league with 3,000 players in Chicago as well as national tournaments. “Often there’s this magical moment where things all come together and a sport grows exponentially very quickly. A lot of people feel like that’s happening for bocce right now.”

There are several reasons why bocce has become such a sensation in the wealthy seaside community of Pacific Palisades, according to Dunne. It’s less physically demanding than tennis or pickleball, making it an accessible social activity for the Palisades’ growing senior population. It’s easy to pick up, and because it relies more on skill and strategy than strength or speed, it’s one of the few sports where a 90-year-old might easily beat a 30-year-old.

“It’s time off from life, and God, do we need it.”

— Jimmy Dunne, Palisades Bocce Club commissioner

The neighborhood’s relatively temperate climate makes it possible for seniors to play outside year-round. It’s also an excuse for older players to get out of the house and for younger players to take a break from the relentless churn of parenting and work. It costs only $75 a person to join for a season.

“Nobody has a credit card in their pocket, and aside from taking pictures, nobody’s looking at their phones,” Dunne said. “It’s time off from life, and God, do we need it.”

Dunne’s love affair with bocce began in the summer of 2010, when he stumbled across a park in the French countryside where people of all ages were gathered around what looked like a bocce court. (This being France, they were likely playing a similar game, petanque). As he took in the scene, a wedding party streamed out of a local church and joined the game.

“I had never played bocce and I had no idea what it was, but what was magical about it was that it was drawing all these people in the community to come out at sunset,” he said. He vowed to create something similar in Los Angeles.

Dunne, who was a writer and producer on “Happy Days” and counts former L.A. mayoral candidate Rick Caruso among his closest friends, is the kind of guy who gets things done. Soon after returning from his trip he convinced the Bel-Air Bay Club in Pacific Palisades, where he’s a member, to put in two bocce courts. Within months, 250 people had joined its league. Word got out and Dunne helped the game spread to Hillcrest Country Club in Beverly Hills, the Griffin Club in Cheviot Hills and the California Club in downtown L.A.

“I took on this odd role of being the pied piper of bocce,” he said. “But my interest wasn’t in bocce, it was in whether this could create belonging.”

A group of women cheering while sitting on a bench.

Nancy Myers reacts with her “I Liff Bocce” teammates as they win during play for the Pacific Palisades Bocce League.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

After a string of successes with country clubs, Dunne decided to experiment with building a bocce community that was open to the public. In 2016 he and a group of friends began fundraising to build three courts on a patch of dirt near the Palisades Recreation Center. Bill McGregor, an old friend and an architect and real estate developer, drew up the plans for what became Veterans Gardens. Today it is a beautifully landscaped park with several picnic tables and barbecues in addition to the bocce courts — all of it paid for and maintained by private donations including from the local American Legion post. The park opened in 2021 at the height of the pandemic.

“I knew bocce was a thing, but this exceeded our expectations,” said McGregor, who oversaw the construction of the former Sony Music headquarters designed by I.M. Pei, among other local developments. “So many people have not used their public park since their kids were little. Now they’re using it again.”

A man walking between bocce courts, counting scores as a crowd looks on.

Scorekeeper Sean Barnett walks in-between the bocce courts during Thursday league night at the Veterans Gardens bocce courts.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Dunne is relentlessly optimistic, but even he was surprised by the league’s success. “In the country clubs people are eating and drinking the whole time,” he said. “What’s wild to me is here people come out with no cocktails and no food.”

Despite the Palisades Bocce Club’s folksy, all-American vibe, a lot of time, thought and energy has gone into making it the community hub it has become. To keep players engaged off the court, Dunne sends out a weekly newsletter with photos from recent games and announcements about who is celebrating the birth of a new grandchild or recovering from surgery.

He hired another friend, Carlyn Peterson, to manage the logistics of the league, placing people on teams, scheduling games and organizing the end-of-season dinners where awards like “The Snappies (Best Dressed in the World)” and “Happiest Campers (A Team So Full of Life)” are given out. A handful of certified bocce professionals are paid to referee the matches.

“It’s the one-two punch of providing the courts and professional programming that’s the secret sauce,” said Dunne, who volunteers most of his time but is compensated to run and manage the league. “That’s what makes it work really well.”

A close up of a woman's hands gripping two award medals.

Diane Gallant sports two awards at the Palisades Bocce League Awards Dinner.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

A man holding a microphone and reading from a piece of paper.

League founder Jimmy Dunne, presents awards at the Palisades Bocce League Awards Dinner.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Dunne would like to see the success of the Palisade Bocce Club replicated across Los Angeles, especially in neighborhoods with fewer resources than Pacific Palisades, where the average price of a house is over $3.5 million according to Zillow.

“To me there is a path to get those projects done, not by the city, but by donorship from folks who have the ability to fund it from other communities,” he said.

He’s already reached out to the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

In the meantime the league is gearing up for the summer and fall seasons, and because there are more players and teams than ever before, there will be an extra spot for games on Sunday afternoons.

Skinner will be there. The ladies of La Bocce Vita have already signed up.

“When people crab about this and that and say everything is wrong in the world, I just want to say, ‘Come to the park and see,’” Dunne said. “There are some wonderful things going on.”

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