In mostly white sport, black talent in pipeline

Lacrosse: Johns Hopkins' Kyle Harrison and Virginia's John Christmas are two promising freshmen who could help change the game's image.

April 27, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

The integration of college athletics includes some identifiable landmark games.

Basketball has the 1966 NCAA final at Cole Field House in which all-white Kentucky lost to a Texas Western team that played only African-Americans. In football, Alabama's recruiting changed in 1970 when Southern California came to Legion Field and Sam "Bam" Cunningham flattened Bear Bryant's bunch.

Perhaps lacrosse will begin to shed the image that it is whiter than ice hockey when the NCAA championship game features Kyle Harrison of Johns Hopkins and Virginia's John Christmas - which could happen as soon as Memorial Day.

Harrison is a do-it-all midfielder for the top-ranked Blue Jays. They've lost only to No. 3 Virginia, whose top point-getter is attackman Christmas.

They are two of the game's best freshmen and good bets to return an African-American presence to the All-America first team, although Princeton's Damien Davis, a defenseman out of Gilman, could get there first.

The issue of the scarcity of blacks in lacrosse has been debated for decades, especially in Harrison's household, because his father was one of the catalysts of Morgan State's brief run in the sport and co-author of a book about it, Ten Bears.

A $15 basketball can occupy 10 kids, but it costs thousands to outfit them with helmets, sticks, gloves and pads. Whether for economic reasons, social or a mix, few blacks have made a substantial mark in lacrosse.

Jim Brown, one of the best players ever, was the first African-American to achieve first-team All-American notice, in 1957. He's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and could probably have matched up with Oscar Robertson and Muhammad Ali, but as much as lacrosse acknowledges Brown's unique talent, he was a first-team All-American only in his final season at Syracuse.

Dartmouth head coach Rick Sowell is believed to be the only black man coaching in Division I.

In a sport awash in stereotypes, Christmas and Harrison turn a few on their heads. Harrison, the prep school kid, is still learning the game; Christman, from a public school, is among the most sophisticated players in the nation. The lack of black faces in lacrosse deterred neither, because both could talk to role models under their roofs.

With 23 goals and 13 assists, Christmas is the first freshman on the All-Atlantic Coast Conference team in eight years. He would have been ACC Rookie of the Year, but coach Dom Starsia wanted to share the wealth and nominated Joe Yevoli, who is on pace to break the Cavaliers' freshman scoring record.

This is Starsia's 10th season at Virginia, and Christmas is the first Cavaliers recruit he offered a full scholarship.

"Everyone's situation is different," Starsia said. "Beyond the fact that he is clearly a special player, John comes from a working-class background."

Christmas is the son of immigrants from Trinidad, and his father is a tailor for a Philadelphia department store. Though 40,000 at the Penn Relays this weekend will watch Caribbean high schools dominate, Christmas wasn't lured by his hometown's attachment to track and field. His brothers, Jason and Clyde, played lacrosse, the former going on to Villanova, so John did, too.

"Growing up, I knew that lacrosse was a predominantly white sport," said Christmas, who might major in sociology. "I don't think I ever would have been involved if it hadn't been for my brothers and Norm Treinish, a club coach who pushed me.

"I was fortunate to go to a school that's affluent and they can afford to have a lacrosse program, but I grew up in a predominantly black community called Ardmore that wasn't that affluent at all."

That school would be Lower Merion, which in 1947 began the Philadelphia area's longest continuous lacrosse program. Kobe Bryant put that school on the basketball map two years before Christmas arrived, but he was already known in lacrosse circles.

"There's no question that John is the best offensive talent to come out of this area," said John Linehan, a onetime Penn defenseman who's in his 31st season as the coach at Lower Merion. "He's been a marked man for a long time. He plays with uncharacteristic poise, even though he took a lot of cheap shots along the way."

Christmas, 5 feet 9, 175 pounds, made the Ashbee youth group's seventh- and eighth-grade travel team when he was in the sixth grade. As a ninth-grader, he played in an unlimited men's league and attended Starsia's camp.

"We put him in with the high school seniors," Starsia said. "The one thing that was exceptional, other than the fact that he was smaller than everyone else, is that he played at such a high level. He saw the game with a sophistication beyond his years. His color and his quickness jump out, but if you look closer, John's understanding of the game is what impresses me the most."

Christmas said he's been "a lacrosse rat a long time." He has always admired the Baltimore Bayhawks' Mark Millon , while Harrison's hero changed with the seasons at Friends School.

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