Balls to the Wall: Inside New York City's Thriving Lacrosse Culture

The first time I saw two laxers on the 2 train, I sneakily snapped a photo, giddy with delight that there may be somewhere I could play lacrosse in New York City.

Commonly reserved for suburban, upper-middle class hamlets along the East Coast and prep schools walled off by privilege and padded in money, lacrosse felt out of context for a city consumed by baseball, basketball, handball, and football. But after seeing lacrosse sticks and gear on the subway, it appeared that the sport had broken free from the manicured fields of suburban Maryland, spilling into public green spaces in New York neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Brownsville. Who was behind the the sport's presence here? What was driving it?

A few Saturday mornings ago, I went to a Brooklyn Lacrosse free boys' clinic to give proof to my speculation that lacrosse had been growing as a New York City game since I moved here ten years ago. The turf at Brooklyn Bridge Park was home to a mixture of eager, nervy, and uncertain players. When I arrived a group of first-graders were bring given a talking to about "swordfighting" with their sticks. The standard-issue lacrosse sticks, provided to the clinic by U.S. Lacrosse, a national lacrosse organization, dwarfed the six-year-olds so that they looked like little plastic toys running around, tripping over prop candy canes.

One teenager who arrived late looked like he'd been playing for a long time. The back of his shirt read "ROYALTY" with the number thirteen beneath it. His mohawk was dyed an ombre yellow-orange and he geared up with ease, one of the few to bring his own stick.

"Lacrosse is the greatest sport," he said when I asked what brought him here. He had been playing football and one of his coaches had suggested he try lacrosse, he explained, adding that he was immediately convinced during the first scrimmage. When I watched him shoot on goal, it was evident that lacrosse had been the right choice.

The clinic is run by Joe Nocella, architect, college professor, and owner of 718 Cyclery, a bike shop in Gowanus, and his all-volunteer organization, Brooklyn Lacrosse. The organization was founded in 2012 and in its short two years has grown to over fifty volunteer coaches to spread among 425 co-ed players. Nocella began Brooklyn Lacrosse having played the sport himself all through middle and high school, then at Drexel University for a year after which he moved on to play at City College, where he is now in the hall of fame.

The summer clinics are attended by girls and boys from schools all over the city, kids from each demographic and skill set, purposely held in areas like Brooklyn Bridge Park that are accessible by most subway lines. Brooklyn Lacrosse aggressively canvases parent organizations with blasts encouraging lacrosse as a sport that doesn't rely so heavily on height, build, or any acute athletic skill.

In the first boys' clinic of the summer, Nocella looked relaxed as he guided the sessions, blowing the whistle to signal transitions in play. He ably managed parents with their kids so that the kids could get to where they needed to go; the ones that showed up late were tossed into the fray with a stick and a finger pointed in the direction of their age group. After the players went through half of the sessions, the whistle blew again: break time.

Fifty or so boys ran in our direction, scrambling for water or chatting with their parents, most of whom were sitting on a set of short bleachers on the sidelines, watching the drills, perplexed. The high schoolers ran back on the field after guzzling water and started shooting on goal again. Watching the ease and fluidity of the kids' movements, as it paired with how naturally the clinic was run, made me feel like lacrosse had been played in New York all along.

Balls to the Wall: Inside New York City's Thriving Lacrosse Culture

I broke my foot playing lacrosse in seventh grade. I had turned on it in the wrong way as I twisted to check the ball out of an opponent's pocket, pressing my foot into the hard cement tennis court. I heard the top of my foot crack in three ways, and I knew immediately as I collapsed to the ground that I'd broken something. With two girls holding me up on either side, I limped to the school nurse.

The incident had been part of my short growth as a lacrosse player, which began with my own clinic in fifth grade. It cost my mom $100, and the only reason I attended was because my friend Julia had brought it up in front of her. I figured I'd go because so many people I knew in my town were athletic, and at that young age, the division between "nerd" and "jock" hadn't been established. I still have the tank top printed with SPRINGFIELD LACROSSE and a giant cougar paw, a reward that we were given for participating. My friend stole the tank years later and wears it to bed. I don't blame her—it was really comfortable.

After the foot-breaking incident I picked up lacrosse again when I was in eighth grade, as if I'd never stopped playing. The bones on the surface of my foot felt tender when I shuttled around on the field, learning how to weave in and out of the huge patch of cleanly cut grass that dressed the soft hills around my middle school. I wasn't that good, and never ended up getting that good, but, like any kid with extra energy to expend and a desire to find her place, lacrosse seemed like a natural use of my time.

My entire town was bonkers over the sport—our girls team was the best in the state several years in a row—and given our football team's horrible record, lacrosse was the default game to rally around and the most exciting to watch. Our Springfield Cougars were the most lauded athletes at our school, and though it wasn't exactly the same as the private prep schools the East Coast is lousy with, it resembled many other suburban high schools in the area: limited diversity, a mild entitlement complex, squarely middle class.

The urban lacrosse boom in New York, as I saw it unfold over ten years since my last game (I traded in my stick for a trombone), had a different face. Previously reserved for the white and wealthy, lacrosse appeared to have grown among athletes of all races and social classes. It was now finally starting to look like a sport for everyone.

Balls to the Wall: Inside New York City's Thriving Lacrosse Culture

New York University started its lacrosse team in 1877, the very first collegiate team to appear in the country. The first college lacrosse game in the United States was played in New York, between NYU and Manhattan College in the inaugural year of the sport in America (NYU won, remarkably).

Lacrosse was a game played by Native Americans hundreds of years ago—with no pads, helmets, or nets—often as a way for tribes to problem-solve without resorting to fighting or violence. When there was a stalemate in decision-making within communities, Native Americans would take to the field and sort out conflicts there. Predictably, when French colonizers arrived and saw the swiftness and grace of lacrosse, they took it as their own, beginning the earliest leagues in Canada and bringing it across the Atlantic for its first games in the mid-1800s. Those leagues then trickled down across the border, from Montreal and otherwise, making young America lacrosse's newest and most supportive home.

In June of 1879, the New York Times reported on the founding of the first National Lacrosse Association in New York:

"A number of delegates from various lacrosse clubs came together at the Astor House last evening and formed a national association." The story goes on to then name each regional club, all based in the Northeast, and give titles to the association's many leaders. Certainly, an image of privilege—white, monied, male, dutifully educated, all old New York qualifiers—but the story ends with a precious quip. "A game of lacrosse between the delegates and 'all-comers' will be played at 4 o'clock this afternoon at Prospect Park, Brooklyn."

Even then, lacrosse was a sport for "all-comers"—anybody willing to give the alien activity a shot. After all, lacrosse was as foreign to elite white men who bogarted it from the Native Americans as it was to anyone else. Lacrosse was exciting and fast and athletically available. It's no wonder that it appealed.

As institutions of higher learning reserved for white, rich men appropriated the sport into their closed-door worlds, lacrosse then ducked back into itself, becoming exclusive and foreign again to many. The Northeastern corridor saw the rise of lacrosse from the National Lacrosse Association's 1800s beginnings into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, dominating in storied universities like Johns Hopkins, Duke, Penn. Lacrosse, with its French name, newly-required expensive equipment, and small but captive audience, developed into the ultimate prestige sport. It was a game for white people—white people with a lot of money.

Lacrosse carries with it the totem of most things American—festering class conflict. Rightfully, news media has covered stories over the years of elite college lacrosse teams' hazing tactics, their entitlement complexes that all but encourage sexual assault on and violence against women, the inevitable privilege system that permits many college-level players to get away with bad behavior, and worse. These stories will rightfully continue to arise, puncturing the joyous bubble that begins to inflate when any young kid finds themselves in love with a sport.

Balls to the Wall: Inside New York City's Thriving Lacrosse Culture

It had been at least ten years since I had held a lacrosse stick, let alone played the game, and somehow the ease of using it never left me. Cradling one on a Monday night a few weeks ago felt as natural as it did when I was fifteen.

"The intimidation factor is what stops people," Deanna Culbreath, the organizer of Central Lacrosse NYC, a women's post-collegiate team in New York, told me that night at practice. "They'll say 'Oh but I only played two years in middle school, or I'm not very good.' And I tell them to come anyway." Culbreath has been involved with Central Lacrosse since it began in 2005. The group costs $5 to join when you sign up on Meetup.com, a site for local hangouts.

I'd come to practice with Central Lacrosse when I realized a gaping hole in my research: there appeared to be way more men in supply to talk about the sport than women. Organizations like Brooklyn Lacrosse, CityLax, and the Brooklyn Crescents all give equal support to their girls' teams that they gave to their boys', but I speculated that, perhaps in the same way that baseball dominates while softball is played (and poorly paid) in the shadows, mens' lacrosse was given priority. After all, girls lacrosse is fundamentally different than boys lacrosse: less equipment, less brutal, but swifter and more like a game of soccer than a game of football.

Whitney Thayer, a program manager at CityLax (where she works her day job before volunteering to play for Central Lacrosse at night), explained the ethos of their team: "We like to win, but we play more to let everyone play." The twenty or so women around me heartily agreed with this sentiment as we huddled together—a hodge-podge of neon colors, fading pinnies, and worn sticks, many which the team constantly fiddle with. It's a habit most lacrosse players display that comes off as a persistent nervous tick: the pocket, the thatched head of the stick that cradles the ball, must be perfect. They admitted that they don't often win, but that doesn't necessarily dissuade them from playing hard and often.

As we stood around post-scrimmage, I asked the women if they thought there was any kind of competition between men's and women's lacrosse in the city.

"There are so many more opportunities [for men]," Culbreath explained. "They have more money and more time. Their programs are so much more expensive, too. It's an investment." She paused. "But we just get to play."

"We try to keep it really affordable," she added.

By the end of the night, covered in dust and sweat and high off excitement, I reached the lacrosse vanishing point of my story and vowed to become a voluntary member of the team myself.

Balls to the Wall: Inside New York City's Thriving Lacrosse Culture

"I was told that lacrosse is a great equalizer. You can be fast and just be fast. You can be big and just be big. You can have amazing stick skills and just have amazing stick skills. It's a sport where anyone can find a niche and be productive at it."

In early July I sat outside a coffee shop in Bushwick with Connor Wilson, publisher for lacrosse media outlet Lax Allstars and volunteer at CityLax, and Joe Williams of Throne of String, a custom lacrosse stick maker that operates out of Bushwick. Williams, a practical celebrity in the lacrosse world for his innovative stick designs in the more lucrative corner of the lacrosse industry, had been in love with the sport since he was a kid.

"As I often say," Williams began, "it's always a beautiful day for lacrosse."

Wilson is a lacrosse coach at a school in Brownsville whose program was initiated by CityLax and Williams told me countless stories about his giving out free gear to dozens of curious kids in Bushwick and beyond. As of a 2009-10 NCAA report on student athlete race and ethnicity, an overwhelming 91% of male lacrosse players were white, while 90% of female lacrosse players were white. Wilson and Williams are both white, and both went to prestigious universities (Wesleyan University and Pratt University, respectively). But their enthusiasm for "growing the game" is unmatched.

Across the street from the cafe are the enormous graffiti murals that Troutman Street have begun to become known for; a girl in short overalls struts past, long bleached hair tucked behind her ears. Wilson's blond hair is pulled back into a bun, his clothing the armor of an at-the-ready athlete: sweat-wicking long-sleeve shirt, loose gym shorts, and sneakers. Williams is a tad more laid-back in "hangover chic," sunglasses dutifully pressed to the crooks behind his ears. Their vibe is Northeastern bro with a job: athletic and confident.

"The principal at our school has been very accepting," Wilson said of the team he has built at the Eagle Academy in Brownsville, a program available to all students. "He may have been even more involved and invested in us getting a lacrosse team started than my suburban lacrosse coach had been back in Massachusetts. Some of the parents say to me, 'I don't understand this sport. I don't know why my kid likes it. But he likes it. And he's doing well. He's a better kid when he plays lacrosse than when he's out of season.'"

Wilson told me his Brownsville team went 13-0 in an undefeated varsity season this year. "You're walking through Bushwick and you see a kid who doesn't look like a prep school kid or a banker, and he's carrying around a lacrosse stick," he said. When I ask for clarification on what it means to not look like a prep school kid, Wilson gives anecdotal evidence of the sports' changing faces ("A lot of these kids were heading for a life in gangs or impregnated girlfriends"), which he says can only be achieved through confronting the privilege issues directly.

"I think it's important to talk about that stuff head on. To pretend that there are no issues within lacrosse, you'd have to pretend like there were no issues in Western society. Are there issues of privilege? You bet your ass there are. Of course there are issues with it. If you have a sport that has historically been highly privileged, will you see privilege issues in lacrosse? Of course you will. I think that's why the Duke case got as much fervor around it as it did," he said.

Wilson motioned with emphasis while he talked, and we sweated through our clothes in the 90-degree heat.

"I think there are things that need to be looked at. When I look at a site like Deadspin covering lacrosse, am I shocked that that's all they're talking about? Not really. I expect that from the media. When you try to put your head in the sand like an ostrich and say it's going to go away, I think that that's unfair. It is an issue in Western culture. It is an issue in big-time sports. For the lacrosse community to forget about it and say it doesn't exist is folly," he said.

As a volunteer with CityLax, Wilson works with the intricate nuances of building lacrosse out of its privileged shell every day. He runs the program in Brownsville out of love for the sport and "his kids," as he affectionately describes them, and so far he says it's enabled the sport to grow organically for those who've never even seen a stick, where the base price of to put on the pads, gear, and helmet that are needed to play is at minimum $200.

The CityLax programs are paid for by fundraising and sponsorships that come from the private Docs program, a sister organization of CityLax that holds paid clinics, camps, and a league for a number of wealthier New York athletes. The cost of some of the Docs clinics can run as high as $350 a session. Nocella's Brooklyn Lacrosse league, which runs during the spring and fall seasons, is $99 for kids, and scholarships are available as needed.

In an annual progress report released by CityLax, the non-profit details the ways in which they've advanced the sport's growth since its inception in 2005. They've helped with funding 32 public schools' lacrosse teams in undeserved communities, by largely supplementing schools' small sports budgets, and having spent over a million dollars in eight years, they've grown CityLax's involvement to all five boroughs.

The number of leagues, organizations, and resources available to get into lacrosse in the city is almost dizzying; the opportunities seem endless. But as we sat and chatted, Williams reminded me of the primary statue of the sport: simplicity. "All you need to play is a wall and a ball," he said, motioning down Troutman Street at the dozens of places any potential lacrosse player could get into a catch.

"There are brick walls all around us. There is no reason why you can't use them."

Balls to the Wall: Inside New York City's Thriving Lacrosse Culture

Back at the Brooklyn Lacrosse clinic that afternoon, I spotted a wily, energetic kid who couldn't have been older than seven wearing a pea green shirt printed with "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of lacrosse." He batted his stick at the boys around him, occasionally belting out primal screams that came from somewhere deeply buried.

When the drill whistle was blown, the kids in his group pulled back their sticks like they were anchored to an imaginary fulcrum, and shot multicolored rubber balls at the cage. The tiny ruffian with the the big yell made the movement, as well, but hadn't realized his pocket had no ball in it. Giddily, he ran around scanning the turf for a ball to claim as his own, stopping only to do more yelling and spazzing in the direction of his friends, swinging his stick like a machete.

It was a beautiful day for lacrosse, after all.

[Photo via BrooklynLacrosse/flickr]