No bat, no skates -- just the fastest game you ever thought you saw

April 11, 2005|By DAN RODRICKS

I heard someone from upstate New York who now lives in Maryland - two hotbeds of the sport - comment that he didn't think lacrosse was much of a challenge, that it did not require a high level of athleticism to play, that anyone could pick it up and compete reasonably well.

I hadn't thought of this before. In fact, I hadn't thought about lacrosse much at all. I didn't grow up with it and regarded it as a niche, preppie sport (like fencing and crew). Until I moved to Baltimore, my awareness of lacrosse was limited to two facts: 1. Native Americans invented it. 2. The football legend Jimmy Brown played it at Syracuse.

Although I am cursed with an interest in almost everything (except bluegrass music and cats), I hadn't paid much attention to lacrosse until recent years.

FOR THE RECORD - A column by Dan Rodricks in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated the distance on a baseball diamond from the pitcher's mound to home plate. It is 60 feet, 6 inches. The Sun regrets the error.

Which is the case with a lot of Americans, now that the "fastest sport on two feet" is said to be the fastest-growing sport in America (next to Texas Hold 'Em).

So back to this comment about lacrosse and athleticism.

When I pressed the person making this statement, he structured his argument as a comparison between lacrosse and other sports, and he started with ice hockey.

Lacrosse does not require the player to skate, he said, and was therefore inferior.

Of course, ice hockey might be the most challenging sport of all since it requires the athlete to skate at top speed (backward or forward) while having great skill with the stick and puck. But I found the argument unfair - hockey is in a class by itself; in a sense, no sport (except maybe water polo) is more difficult because of the surface on which it is played.

But, of team sports played on fields, I asked, what could be more challenging to individual athletic skill than lacrosse?

Baseball, he said. Hitting a baseball thrown at you from a guy on a mound 90 feet away has long been thought to be the hardest single hand-eye challenge in any sport.

OK, I gave him that to end the argument.

But too bad he wasn't with me the other night, at Homewood Field, for a major college lacrosse game between Johns Hopkins and Duke. I saw a Hopkins player - not sure which because he was moving so quickly - run at top speed, catch a hard pass from a teammate and in one fluid and blurry motion nail a stunning goal.

This happened so quickly that a friend of mine, who had turned his head slightly to the left to relieve mild neck strain, missed it.

There was another time when Hopkins midfielder Kyle Harrison moved his feet like LeBron James driving the lane from the top of the key, carried the ball against nagging defenders to the right of the net and whipped a shot that seemed to slip through an inch-wide opening between goalie and pipe. At least, that's what I think I saw.

A good measurement of the difficulty of any sport is the degree to which video replay is necessary for the human eye to see a particular feat, an explosive moment.

For me, that would mean hitting a Pedro Martinez curve ball into fair territory, deflecting a 100 mph Al MacInnis slap shot for a goal, snagging a Brett Favre pass at the deep corner of the end zone, and catching and putting away a lacrosse pass from a sharpshooting Hopkins midfielder are all in the same category of spectacular individual accomplishments in American sport.

But look, this exercise in comparative athleticism is going to end here, before a fight breaks out.

All sports (basketball, soccer, even curling) have something to offer the athlete in challenge and the spectator as entertainment.

And speaking simply from a spectator's point of view, I need to acknowledge genuine appreciation for lacrosse. Watching the game played at the highest level requires almost absolute concentration. Even in the Duke-Hopkins game, with its 21 goals, it seemed to my untrained eyes that the defensemen for both teams performed well, matching the dance of opponents, step for step, as they attempted to breach a human rampart and get a shot at the goal. This game, like most lacrosse games, looked at many times like playful keep-away, but with the pace of movements building slowly and carefully toward a crescendo, as in good theater.

The game was tied at 10-10 and went to its second overtime. It ended when Hopkins freshman Kevin Huntley took the ball from a corner, rocked on his feet, then drove, zig-zaggedy, and dodged his way to the Duke net, then drilled the winner as he fell to the ground under the Friday night lights. At least, that's what I think I saw.

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