Lacrosse world comes 'Home' Tournament: Foreign players and fans flock to the Hopkins field they call the center of their sports universe for the world championships.

July 20, 1998|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN STAFF

In their home countries, it's an obscure sport played by a handful of die-hard athletes. Equipment can be hard to find and very expensive. They often have to explain to their puzzled countrymen just what exactly it is they do with those sticks.

But at the Johns Hopkins University's campus over the past few days, lacrosse fanatics from Melbourne and Manchester, Tokyo and Prague felt right at home as 11 nations competed in World Lacrosse '98, the once-every-four-years international championships.

Barry Moore, 54, a freckle-faced office manager from Australia, stood next to the infield fence yesterday, looked around Homewood Field and grinned.

" 'The Home,' that's what it's known as in Melbourne," said Moore. "It's great just to be here. That's one of the reasons I wanted to come."

Tournament play picks up today at 9 a.m. and continues through Wednesday, with the finals scheduled for Friday.

Interest in lacrosse in Australia is minimal, Moore said, compared to soccer, cricket and rugby. He's been kidded by his mates, he said, for playing "that stick game." But lacrosse, invented by Native Americans, would seem to be in Moore's blood. His father was a fanatical player. His son Greg, a 26-year-old police officer from Melbourne, is a defenseman on Team Australia.

"It's the greatest sport in the world," Moore said. "It's got speed. It's got big hits. It's just exciting, and it's exciting all the time."

The Czech Republic has eight lacrosse clubs, most of them in Prague. But the ranks of players, and the visibility of the sport, are slowly growing.

"Until maybe three years ago, we have to explain first that you are not going to catch butterflies or go fishing," said Veronika Brychcinova, 22, manager of her country's team. "Now, it's OK."

Czechs started playing lacrosse in the 1960s, she said, when someone read a book about the game and recruited friends to play. Trouble was, no one had any idea how long the sticks were supposed to be.

Home-grown version

"So they made them this long," she said, holding her hands perhaps a foot and a half apart. The shortest stick used in the North American version of the game is 40 inches.

So lacrosse players in the former Communist nation played what came to be called "Czech lacrosse" until the 1980s, when Canadians took 12 regulation lacrosse sticks to the Eastern Bloc nation. Some Czech clubs copied the new sticks, but some stuck with their home-grown version of the sport.

Working-class appeal

In the United States, many lacrosse players are students at private schools or elite universities. But in countries new to the sport, it appears to appeal more to working-class athletes.

Team Czech Republic is made up mostly of blue-collar and middle-class players, Brychcinova said, including a couple of computer programmers and an auto mechanic.

Nor are British players necessarily landed gentry, said Mel Stott, a 55-year-old former player and coach from Manchester, England. Stott should know. Many of the players for Team Scotland and Team Wales live in the industrial Manchester area. (To play for their nations, they have to be of Welsh or Scottish descent.)

"Most of the players I coached are out there today," said Stott, a retired police officer, as he watched Scotland play Wales.

(Scotland won, 14-9.)

Stott, who wore a blue-and-white soccer uniform, isn't sure why Manchester is "the hotbed of lacrosse in England." But the way he figures it, yesterday's matchup was really Manchester vs. Manchester "under the guise of two different countries."

Urge to play returns

Where Reggie Johnson came from, lacrosse might as well have been a foreign sport.

Johnson is a native of the Walbrook neighborhood of Baltimore, a mostly lower-middle-class, predominantly black neighborhood where few go to preparatory school. He recalls the first time he saw a game -- in the sixth grade at Harlem Park Middle School. He played in it. And he was hooked.

"Some kids told me to come play, and I said, 'I don't know anything about that game,' " he recalled. "But I played. I stuck with it. I got kind of decent at it."

Johnson went on to play midfield in the Walbrook High School team of 1990, which won a conference championship. Later, when he was a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., he played on a pickup team.

'World is catching on'

Yesterday the 5-foot-10, 220-pound security guard for NationsBank, who lives on North Avenue, sat with his 5-year-old daughter, Jazmine, watching Scotland beat Wales.

He was surprised by the number of countries in the tournament.

"The world is catching on to lacrosse," he said. "It's not just a Baltimore thing, like I thought it was."

He still feels the tug of the game.

"My daughter asked me why I don't play anymore," he said. "I said, 'I don't have time, taking care of you and the family.' " But now, he said, he's thinking about taking it up again, joining a local club.

'Lacrosse caught my heart'

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