"Stick, Ball, Breakthrough"

Adding Diversity to Lacrosse in New York City

(New York Times, 9/27/13) By Liz Robbins

When Joshua and Jordyn Whitley walk out of their apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, on Sunday mornings, carrying lacrosse sticks almost as tall as they are, they often draw questions from neighbors.

“They say, ‘Is that like tennis?’ ” said their mother, Shekeithra Foster.

Her children’s father, she added, was blunt when Joshua, 8, began playing last summer. “He’s like, ‘What are we putting him in lacrosse for, that’s a white person’s sport!’ ”

It is a perception that still resonates in urban communities. But across New York City, the image of lacrosse is shifting. Nonprofit groups have been attracting a racially and economically diverse population to play a sport, created by Native Americans, that has long been associated with elite prep schools and colleges.

Fall is the sport’s traditional off-season, but last Sunday, Joshua and Jordyn, 6, joined 300 other children on a turf field at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 5, for practice with Brooklyn Lacrosse.

The club is a two-year-old nonprofit group offering instruction at a reduced cost. It broke off from the Brooklyn Crescents, the borough’s longest running club, which has been playing since 2006 at Poly Prep Country Day School, in Bay Ridge. The Crescents, still thriving, enrolled 250 players this fall.

Mat Levine, 61, known as lacrosse’s godfather in New York City, started his club, Doc’s NYC Lacrosse, in 1996, when his children were playing. Since then he has expanded the club from Manhattan to the Bronx and Queens. Mr. Levine, who grew up on Long Island and played lacrosse at Williams College, also founded a nonprofit group, CityLax, eight years ago to introduce the sport to high schools in underserved neighborhoods.

Harlem Lacrosse and Leadership, founded in 2008 by Simon Cataldo, a Teach for America fellow, operates in two middle schools, Frederick Douglass Academy and Sojourner Truth, incorporating academics, leadership training and academic advising. To pay for a girls’ program, the group recently ran an Internet campaign that raised $22,000 in less than a week.

Participation in lacrosse in city high schools has nearly doubled since 2009, mostly because of girls’ teams, said Eric Goldstein, the chief executive of school support services for the Education Department (who played in the city’s first public program, at Jamaica High School in 1985). In the last school year, 1,169 public school students played varsity or junior varsity lacrosse, up from 679 in 2009. In the same period, girls’ varsity programs grew to 21, from 10; only girls’ wrestling is growing faster, Mr. Goldstein said.

With the proliferation of social media and ESPN broadcasts that increase the visibility of sports, Mr. Levine said, all the elements were there for growth. “All you need is a ball and a stick, add on a field and kids gravitate toward its action and competitiveness,” he said.

To be sure, city club programs display nowhere near the skill level or participation of programs in suburban strongholds like Long Island. For youths learning the game at Brooklyn Bridge Park, though, at least the view is privileged: the Queen Mary 2 sailing in the harbor, helicopters taking off, and the office buildings rising across the East River in Lower Manhattan.

In the huddle, children from Astoria, Queens; Crown Heights and Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn; and even Jersey City raise their sticks, in a rainbow of colors, shouting, on three, “Brooklyn Lacrosse!”

The group began with a free summer clinic in Prospect Park in 2012, after Joe Nocella and Khalid West, coaches, broke from the Crescents, clashing over teaching methods.

Mr. Nocella, 43, a former architect and lacrosse player at City College who now runs a bike shop in Gowanus, Brooklyn, said even he was surprised by his club’s exponential growth: he started with 30 boys and predicts that 450 girls and boys will play this spring, the traditional lacrosse season. The practice sessions at Brooklyn Lacrosse, for ages 5 to 15, cost $99 for the season; they started on Sept. 8 and are to run through November. In the spring, teams will play tournaments.

“The last couple of weeks, it feels like this has taken off on its own,” Mr. Nocella said, adding, “I see the huge confluence of people on the sidelines.”

With any breakthrough sport, there are growing pains. Brooklyn Lacrosse is crowded onto one of three fields at the park and, like other sports programs in the city, needs more space.

There is still some backbiting between the clubs in Brooklyn. Mr. Nocella of Brooklyn Lacrosse and Daniel Sheff, 39, one of the founders of the Crescents, acknowledged that they were still trying to patch up bad feelings from the split; they organized a joint event last summer, recognizing their common goals.

More youth clubs are coming.

The Public School Athletic League’s lacrosse commissioner, John Murphy, started a free clinic for students in grades three to eight in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, this fall. For equipment, all they have are sticks, which Mr. Murphy bought himself.

Yet Mr. Murphy, 42, who in 1988 played on the first boys’ lacrosse team at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, is optimistic. “The more kids that have sticks in their hands at an early age, it will only make high schools better,” he said. “I’ll train this little piece and then we put all the pieces together like a puzzle and it will come together.”

Cost is the primary deterrent. Because the boys’ game permits some body-checking, there is more equipment to buy than for the girls’ teams; a helmet, shoulder pads and a stick cost more than $200, with girls’ equipment only half that.

The relatively low cost may partly explain the 120 girls registered with Brooklyn Lacrosse this season, but there is another force: Shari Appollon, 28, the girls’ head coach. She starred at Syracuse University, coached in Britain, in California and on Staten Island, and is on a mission to involve the black community. After her day job as a social worker in the Bronx, Ms. Appollon visited seven community board meetings in Brooklyn this winter to pitch lacrosse. “There was a lot of distrust,” she recalled. “Mothers would say, ‘I’m concentrating on my kid getting good grades, how is this really going to help me?’ ”

She related her own experience, growing up on Long Island, the daughter of a single mother from Haiti, and earning an athletic scholarship to Syracuse. Maybe the pitches worked; Ms. Appollon said girls from as far away as East New York were coming to Brooklyn Bridge Park.

“I get like a chill whenever I see a kid with a lacrosse stick in the city,” she said. “I am hoping that what happens will inspire somebody in small towns in Texas or maybe St. Louis.”

The boys’ coaching director for Brooklyn Lacrosse, Mr. West, 43, is a quiet advocate. A lean, 6-foot, gray-bearded former lacrosse player from the University of Massachusetts, he is still a skateboarder and an avid martial arts practitioner. Mr. West, black, Muslim and a Cobble Hill parent, dislikes stereotypes.

“When a parent sees me conducting a practice, I think all of the notions that they might have: ‘O.K., this is a prep school sport, my kid is going to become white-ified or whatever,’ all that stuff goes out the window,” he said. “Because I am teaching their child the way I would teach my own children. We’re teaching more than just the sport.”

Attrition is a concern for lacrosse leaders, who know that for a still-fringe sport to take hold alongside football, soccer and basketball, it needs a steady infusion of passionate volunteers like Ms. Appollon and Mr. West, space and money.

The future is still developing, as 8-year-old Nicholas Haynes, from Bushwick, Brooklyn, proclaimed as he ran off the field last week. “I’m going to be a star,” he said, grinning.