Game gaining black acceptance, participation with growth of youth programs in urban areas

LACROSSE'S CHANGING FACE

May 19, 1993|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Source: Lacrosse FoundationStaff Writer

Michael Duke was afraid he'd be harassed by classmates when he first picked up a lacrosse stick several months ago. He was going through culture shock.

"Well, you know, I thought it was a game played only by white people," whispered Duke, 15, a midfielder and eighth-grader at Pimlico Middle School.

"I mean, we saw videos of the game, but I never saw any black legs running up and down," said Duke, whose team recently attended a Johns Hopkins game. "It looked like just a bunch of guys running and beating each other over the head with sticks. Now, I want to grow up and play for Johns Hopkins. Then I want to become a doctor."

The crack in the lacrosse door finally is beginning to open to minorities.

There are no statistics on the number of blacks who have played college lacrosse, but there were few before NFL Hall of Famer and former Syracuse All-American Jim Brown dominated the game in the mid-1950s.

There were few after Brown as well. But that began to change in the early 1980s, and the 1990s could be a decade that produces several black players who have an impact on the game. Essex Community College's Zach Thornton, who is one of the fastest midfielders in the game, is headed to Loyola.

Virginia, which has two black players, also has signed Tommy Smith of Fayetteville-Manlius High near Syracuse, N.Y. Smith, who considered Johns Hopkins and Syracuse, is being called the best high school defenseman in the country.

Johns Hopkins has signed midfielder Ryan Cummings of Nottingham High in Syracuse and is interested in midfielder Chris Lewis of Southern High in Baltimore. Forest Park senior attackman Ronald Foster is waiting to see whether he will be accepted at Towson State.

No. 1 North Carolina has two black players who dominate their positions, goalie Billy Daye and midfielder Ousmane Greene.

"There was a parochialism that was present in the game in the 1950s, '60s and '70s," said Steven Stenersen, executive director of the Lacrosse Foundation. "There was an old guard, 'The Lords of Lacrosse,' that just didn't want the game to grow. But the sport has gone through a renaissance, nearly doubling in participation from the 1980s to the 1990s. I think that period of parochialism is over."

But what took so long? And who was responsible?

"I'm sure finances and exposure had a lot to do with minorities not playing," said Brown, whom some consider the best player in the sport's history. "When I played, I never saw another black player. The great black athletes wanted to get into the money sports. If you didn't play lacrosse, who cared?"

Ron Smith, a former longtime assistant coach at UMBC, said: "Lacrosse has its own little subculture. It's a privileged class of individuals, like doctors, bank presidents and lawyers. They marry and worship within their own. They have five names they choose from to name their kids.

"I didn't experience many racial slurs, but you don't have to call me names to make me feel uncomfortable," Smith said. "They didn't exclude just blacks, but all minorities and poor whites, too."

Morgan State, the only predominantly black school to play lacrosse, was an NCAA power in Division II. From 1970 to 1975, Morgan State was ranked in the top 10 four times, twice reaching the playoffs.

The Bears had trouble scheduling opponents during the early days of the program because other teams feared of being upset. Morgan dropped the sport in 1981 because of financial difficulties.

"To a degree, we were never accepted," said Gene White, coach at Pimlico Middle School, who played attack at Morgan during 1979-81. "As we got better, a lot of schools wouldn't play us. We ended up playing schools like Notre Dame and Michigan State, teams just starting a program."

But there's a new coaching bloodline in the game today, one that isn't blue.

Loyola College coach Dave Cottle's family lived in a rowhouse off The Alameda and Northern Parkway. He played at Northern High and later at Salisbury State. Princeton coach Bill Tierney is from Levittown, a blue-collar suburb of New York. Johns Hopkins coach Tony Seaman was born in Washingtonville, N.Y. His father was a liquor salesman.

A number of coaches, including Tierney, Seaman, Yale's Mike Waldvogel and Georgetown's Dave Urick, are from Cortland (N.Y.) State, not the Ivy League.

"You're getting coaches from diversified backgrounds," Cottle said. "The emphasis now is getting good athletes and players, whether they're green, purple, black or white. I don't think color is still an issue."

Ricky Sowell, who starred as a midfielder at Washington College, says that isn't true overall.

Sowell is an assistant coach at Georgetown who aspires to be a head coach. He points out that there are no black head coaches in Division I and few assistants.

Wayne Braxton is the head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson, which plays Division II lacrosse. He is the only black coach at an NCAA school, according to the Lacrosse Foundation.

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