Wedenesday, August 10, 10pm. About to take off from Los Angeles on the red eye to D.C.-Dulles International. After an hour or two of layover I hook up with the connecting puddle jumper flight to Albany, NY. From there it is an easy 3 hour drive to Placid with a few teammates coming from New York City. Including my 2 and a half hour drive from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles I will have traveled for a mere 18 hours. Less than a day. A relatively easy sacrifice for a devout pilgrim.
Growing up on the West Coast in the 1980's and early 90's, exposure to lacrosse was limited to rumor and innuendo, and the occasional glimpse on ESPN during the Memorial Day weekend. Sure there were pockets of players, East Coast Transplants and their descendents usually, who played in club leagues and small tournaments and reveled in their cult-like obscurity, but they were rare. These secret societies were limited to the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego County, and were practically never spoken of unless you were somehow in the know. There was never local media coverage of the sport and chances are if you walked down the streets of Los Angeles with a stick in your hand almost all would mistake you for a butterfly catching enthusiast.
When I entered Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School in 1994 I was no different than those confused Angelinos. Firmly entrenched in the Pacific pantheon of activities I was a typical California kid. When not practicing baseball, football, soccer or tennis I was most likely riding my skateboard or mountain bike or doing my best to convince my sister to drive to me to surf. The only LaCrosse I had any knowledge of was a small city in Wisconsin, and even that was limited to off-ramp markers of a childhood road trip. Gradually, that would change.
After an unsettling freshman year of playing football and baseball, I became drawn to this obscure, off the beaten path activity where beating people with sticks was encouraged and the greater the screwball you were the more you fit in. This strange sport was Lacrosse, and my school was one of the few in the state that had a varsity team. Already 3 of my best friends had become laxers, and I knew I was soon to follow. The game was fast paced, physical and fun- and more than any other team sport in California at the time- had an inherently rebellious, devil may care attitude. It was cool without trying, and for those of us playing football or soccer, provided a much better cross-training activity than the sedentary sport of baseball. And more than anything else, lacrosse players were a family, a fraternity of sport unknown outside our insular arena of cross checks and hi-walls, and roll-dodges in-between.
Thursday, August 11, 10am. Just got my sticks from the baggage carousel of Albany Airport. Though I don't commandeer as many quizzical looks traveling with these sticks that I used to, I still field ridiculous questions from time to time; "Is that for Jai-lai?", "Going fishing with that thing?", "Are you a swordsman of some sort?". Occasionally these questions will incite ridiculous answers, though none will be able to compete with my old Cal teammate Dave Dean's retort too an unknowing couple in the Houston airport. As our team was walking through the terminal to connect with a flight back to the Bay Area they asked what sports team we were, when Dave replied 'lacrosse' they gave him a look of disdain and asked what in the world that was. Dave's reply - "Its like Rodeo on ice, but with Defense".
Retrieving my sticks in Albany obviously produces no such moments. Rather everybody seemed to know where I am headed with my two longpoles and overstuffed gear bag. It is, to say the least, a pleasant little surprise. Though the recognition in Los Angeles and other parts of California is rapidly increasing it is still nice to come back to an area where lacrosse is part of the ingrained culture and not a sport to be grouped with the X-games.
My ride to Placid arrives a mere ten minutes later in the form of Ben Quayle and Chris Korzonkowicz, two teammates for the weekend and previous teammates from tournaments years ago. Though both now live in Manhattan, Ben and Chris come from and represent two distinct and different lacrosse hotbeds, both having grown up and lived with the sport since they were young kids. Ben was incubated in the Washington D.C. prep schools, playing with sons of senators and dignitaries against sons of doctors and lawyers, before moving to North Carolina and plying his trade on the fields of Duke University. A smooth and skillful player, he is an archetype of prep school lacrosse, and a good one to say the least. Chris, who I don't believed has answered to a name other than Zonk for the past decade, is Long Island incarnate. Having grown up in the Sinai Peninsula of the Lacrosse world, then attending its holy university of Hofstra, he is full tilt both on the field and off it. Huge, fast, and with bulldog like demeanor he is blunt where Ben is smooth. As much of a hardnose as he is on the field, he is a character off of it, showing his good nature in being the butt of as many jokes as he makes. With the addition of me, the Oakland bred, Santa Barbara based, lacrosse outsider, we make a strange trio heading north.
Though exhausted from a red-eye flight, and having hung out with both of these guys all of once in the past two years, the ride upstate is never quiet. Immediately the banter turns to the tournament. I have never been and have numerous questions. Zonk and Ben are veterans, regulars, aces having played with sterling teams like the Crease Monkeys in years past. Though we all talk about it for quite a while, I don't mention the reverential feel I have for all of this, or the anticipation I have in playing in such a respected and competitive tourney. To them this tournament does not hold the same pilgrimage that it does for me, and for obvious reasons. One, Placid is only a mere five hour drive away, if that. Two, these guys have been immersed in the Lacrosse culture I am making a pilgrimage to since they day they were born. Placid has never been the third part of the Lacrosse tourney holy trinity of tourneys, shared with Ocean City and War on the Shore. It has just been a summer tournament, albeit a good one. Playing in the tourney and reveling in its bacchanal evening festivities is just what you did.
Throughout our conversation players' names are dropped in that I recognized publications or Memorial Day rosters. More inanimate objects to me than people, they pepper our conversation with regularity- but not in the name dropping vein, just matter of factly. Feeling more the outsider than usual, I fade off to sleep, drugged by cramped airplane seats and the flowing interstate. Soon I'll be in my mecca, making my steps toward lacrosse divinity.
The funny thing about the lacrosse community is the insularity and protectiveness some members feel in guarding against outsiders and potential infiltrators, combined with the ruling bodies constant effort to expand it. Growing up out west you feel this weird dichotomy more than anywhere else. I would say even more so than the south and Midwest, including Colorado, for a few major reasons. First, the presence of Division 1 programs in those respective areas. Second, the relative geographic isolation between the east and west coasts. Both of these issues limit the influence of top notch lacrosse on the region, specifically the option of being able to see a Division 1 game. As this is still the highest and most competitive level of play it is imperative for young players to be exposed to it at an early age. If anything it sets a water mark for them to strive for. The absence of this level of lacrosse leaves young developing players without that barometer with which to measure themselves, thus leaving their assessment of their ability to be relatively skewed. With the growth of the game literally exploding out west the barometer is rising, though the level of play still has some room to grow. US Lacrosse is pushing hard on both fronts. This past year's First Four exposition in L.A. served as both an advertisement for the game, and a subtle reminder that there is plenty of growing left to be done.
Though this expansion is remarkably positive in almost all aspects, I can understand the traditional areas suspicion regarding this pubescent growing phase. Since lacrosse has always been such a fraternal sport, where everybody knows everybody, or at least you know someone who does, a mass influx of new members can potentially break down this interconnected fabric. This in turn could weaken one of the strongest aspects of lacrosse, the familial feel amongst members. When I have moved to new cities, west coast or east, I have always relied on and embraced the immediate connections made through local lacrosse teams or leagues. And I am sure I am not alone in this.
However, besides the obvious detriment to the familial feel of the sport, there are also grumblings that the sport has not been growing in the proper arenas. As I alluded to before, out in California lacrosse was initially taken as quasi-alternative. Though the physical demands of the game will usually weed out those averse to contact and adrenaline fueled bodily destruction, the sport had not always drawn from the typical football, basketball, baseball, soccer pool of athletes. This was not always the case, but was, and is, a factor. As the sport has progressed in the past decade, this fortunately has been diminishing. Still, sentiments such as those that Denver coach Jamie Munro expressed in this spring's monumental Sports Illustrated article on Lacrosse, grumbling about the influx of kids who see Lacrosse as a team version of Tony Hawks Boom-Boom Huck Jam, remain evident.
Thursday night, August 11th. About to experience the other side of these gatherings of athletic competition. I woke from slumber as we were driving by the expanse of fields and vendors and I started to get a little amped up for the upcoming tournament. After Zonk and Ben checked in at the venerable Mountain View Inn, conveniently located down street from the three bars of Placid, we made our way to one of the off site fields for an impromptu team meet and greet/practice. Our team is competing in the open 2 division, which meant nothing to me until I got back here. Evidently the Open division has so many teams that 2 separate tournaments are necessary. Naturally Open Deuce is the lesser of the two, which is a little deflating to hear.
The make up of our squad is sort of cool, as the core of the group is based from my home squad San Francisco/Oakland Bay Area Barbary Coast club. Aside from our hyperkinetic middie from Lehigh, T. Marc Jones, and tweener' longstick from Brown, Doug Appleton, no one from the BC entourage played Division 1 lacrosse. Many of the group, including myself, played at large schools that had established club lacrosse teams- Cal, UC-Davis, Texas A&M, California-Polytechnic in San Luis Obispo, Sonoma State, UCSB, etc. We are joined by various friends from tourneys past and a few from the Stu Funk lacrosse club, whose name and spot we are commandeering for the weekend. The practice is quick, painless and goes rather well. Though it feels good to get out and run through a little 6 on 6 and 4 on 3, the team is eager to get it over with so as to take advantage of the other benefit of these tourneys. The beers, barbeques and bars.
We all head en masse to Albany native and Barbary Coaster, Chris Clark's family compound on Saranac Lake. Upon arrival the beers are cracked, the barbeque is fired up, and crews of 4 are heading out on the speedboat to inflict as much pain as possible while riding on inner tubes. As is the case when going to these tournaments, the camaraderie of being on a team unites our Stu-Funk/BC crew immediately. For most of us the mentioning of 'team' now implies our co-workers, which as nice as that sounds does not compare to our former days of playing college lacrosse. Completing a budgetary plan of action doesn't usually incite the same gut emotion as executing a perfect 4 on 3 fast break. Thus our weekend warrior jones and desire to regain that pure team feeling accelerates the friend making process. Guys who may have known each other for all of 3 hours are bantering like old friends, and talking the usual smack that is the mark of thinking someone's alright.
As the night rolls on the party grows. Soon friends from the Crease Monkette and Crease Monkey squads join in our socially lubricating drink fest and barbeque. Since all of the teams are part of one big extended Harry Mazaheri lacrosse family, the barbecue transforms from team get together to tourney friend reunion. For many of us, living so far away from each other limits these types of reunions to one or two per year. Surprisingly, that is ample time to sustain the strange tourney friend relationship, where people you may see or talk to on an annual basis hold a bond with you as tight, or tighter, than those you see every week.
With the beers almost tapped out and the time getting late a decision is made to venture downtown. Evidently, heading out to the bars at Placid is just as much a rite of passage as playing on the fields, although I would argue that drinking here won't have much on previous tournaments in Vegas and New Orleans, where debauchery is guaranteed. Tomorrow brings the first day of competition, the first chance for me to enter my cathedral, and most likely my first hangover. How everything manages to mix together will be the subject of a later quip.
In my experiences growing up and learning the sport in California there was an ever present asterisk for the level of play of Californians. Though there was decent reasoning behind this, the perceived snub by the ruling class of the established East Coast hot-beds generated a disproportionate amount of pride, as well as a substantial chip on the shoulder. As mentioned before in many forums of the lacrosse world, those of us out west always had something more to prove. Not only did we have to fight against our contemporaries in California for respect, we also had to fight the established guard to remove the asterisk. In a sense, out west and in other new, non traditional areas of the sport, we always feel a need to be 'legit' and not just good for where we came from.
For some in the lacrosse hinterlands, legitimacy was found through attendance at an east coast college. However, though the numbers of D1 players of western origin has grown, there has never been a substantial presence on any roster to establish the west coast as a legitimate recruiting ground. More often players from California, Oregon, etc. will find themselves choosing between playing at a small liberal arts DIII school in the east or one of the large universities found out west.
For those who choose to attend and play at the small DIII school a certain sense of legitimacy is ascertained regarding their lacrosse ability. Those that choose to stay close to home forgo that luxury, (though it may be made up for in what I call the Foot Locker Affect- i.e. going into a Foot Locker across the country and seeing your school's jersey or hat for sale, or highlights of your schools football games on ESPN) and the level at which they compete comes under that much more scrutiny. With the number of USL MDIA Club teams growing and becoming more organized, the latter option is becoming more and more popular. Whether or not this is good for the growth of lacrosse is another debate entirely. However, no matter the efforts the MDIA, and in some cases in spite of them, the quizzical looks and inherent skepticism felt when wearing a helmet of UCLA or University of Texas origin will always be there, for better or worse. Legitimacy would become something to be earned, not granted.
Friday, August 12th, 7pm. Day One of competition is over and we went 1 and 1. Though my first thoughts regarding playing in Open Two were dour I realize my initial impressions were misguided. Our first game was against Sothoron Homes, and helmet scanning saw their team stacked with Towson, Loyola and a few Maryland players. As would have been expected from looking at the teams on paper our team fell in rather inglorious fashion 10-3. Paper trail or not, the efforts put forth by our team was substandard and as expected the game left a sour taste in everyone's mouth. Fortunately that feeling carried over to our second game of the day against Tri-City. With the team a bit ornery from an initial poor showing, not to mention feeling a bit better from having played off the morning's hangover, we emerged triumphant with an 11-9 victory.
During these two games however, an interesting exchange took place between myself and a few of the opposing players. As we trotted out for face-off after face-off, joking about being tired and what not, the quips eventually got to where your team is from or where'd you play. Usually during these exchanges I get great satisfaction from the look in my opponents eyes when I tell them "Oakland, California", or "Cal". Often this is because most are taken aback by the thought of a West Coast based team holding their own. Sometimes I can see the panic through the facemask- as if he knows he'll have to add an asterisk to the game should our squad beat them, i.e.- we weren't playing well/didn't care/half asleep/puking, etc.
Yet today I didn't get to experience my little pang of smug satisfaction. Not because there were no exchanges between myself and the opposing teams, but rather that the results were so nonchalant. If anything they were too pleasant, too comforting, too accepting. All I heard that even alluded to the fact that we were from California was "man, that's a heck of a flight." Then it was back to 'Man, we got a good game', or something of that nature. Where was the shock? Where was the slight stare of befuddlement? If anything it was now on me, as the idea of just being good for California seemed to dissipate with any subconscious respect being given.
Again it is off to the bars tonight to associate with the legions of fellow weekend warriors and college kids and huddle around the seemingly 1 or 2 girls for every 10 guys. What is to be expected when you dump 3,000 guys into a small, quaint little town? It ain't Vegas.
Often I wonder how much money I spend to play this deliriously addicting sport. In the last year alone I would conservatively estimate $5000, and I know I am not alone in dropping at least that much cash to continue my lax-jones. The sport, and the culture surrounding it, is my addiction - and there are times I feel like I am going through withdrawal.
How this came about is also a topic of internal debate as other sports I played certainly did not do this to me. I could never imagine spending this much time and energy to keep playing football, or traveling all over the world just to meet up with friends and play baseball. Part of me believes that the initial culture of lacrosse I was exposed to caused this devotion. Because it was so obscure out west, lacrosse became a fraternity for those who played it. It was more than just another sport, a la baseball or basketball, it was a true devotion as the opportunities to get out and get a run were relatively scarce. As a result, you would not think twice of hopping in your car and driving 50 miles to play some pick up on a Saturday morning, cause you knew there'd be others just like you doing the exact same thing. If I had been raised in my fathers' hometown of Baltimore and attended Gilman instead of Bishop O'Dowd, would I still have felt the same bond with my lacrosse playing peers? Would my perception of lacrosse be completely different had there been goals on every field and a Lax World in every mall? Would my friends, also drawn to this sport due to its inherently rebellious nature out west, been the same in the established areas out east?
Saturday August 13th, 7pm. About to head out to Tail O'the Pup, another Lake Placid institution. Today's game was against F&M title, which had the usual smattering of Loyola, Maryland, Towson and Princeton helmets. The game was great, back and forth to the end until F&M pulled off the 9-8 victory. Again I failed to receive any sort of response to the questions of where my team was from or where I played. This time however, I wasn't surprised. From going out last night and speaking with more players from other teams, the aspect of playing lacrosse out west just isn't that foreign anymore. Nor is it maligned. Most of these preconceived notions I had about coming out here have turned out to be off base.
Having now spent a full 2 and a half days up here it is starting to dawn on me that lacrosse players are remarkably similar, wherever they are from. First off, no matter how bad you feel from drinking the night before you manage to always get the gusto to play. Secondly, lacrosse still is a relatively small pond- though growing every day- and still an outside sport compared to the mainstream. Unless you are in Baltimore, Long Island, or Upstate New York, lacrosse is still not a mainstream sport a la foot ball or basketball.
The final night of is now upon us and there are rumors of a wet t-shirt contest at one of the local bar's. As it is tradition, I feel it would be criminal not to experience this part of the Lake Placid experience. As a pilgrim, I feel it necessary as part of my baptism into the entirety of the tournament. As a lacrosse player, what better way to bond with fellow players than through the soaking of girls t-shirts?
Sunday August 14th, 3pm. Just finished off the tournament by defeating of the Buffalo Soldiers. More a game of attrition than anything else as both squads were missing players- casualties of the late nights drinking and early mornings playing.
Now that the tournament is over I can comfortably say that my reverence for playing out here in Placid, though not subsided, has been tweaked a bit. I would compare it to someone who's at the end of a long vacation on a gorgeous tropical isle. After having spent their time at first taking in every bit of scenery and soaking up as much atmosphere as possible they are now comfortably numb to the breathtaking vista outside the cabana door. Having seen it everyday, it now bears appreciation but not the initial feelings of awed worship. This is how I feel here in Placid. Gradually losing the aura of some far gone exotic gathering of fellow lax-heads, now feeling like it should be- relatively normal.
Whether it is the fast pace of a two game a day tourney or the headache from being whacked all day after drinking all night, something has caused the timetable to accelerate, and for me to go from taking every photo I can, to merely soaking it in. Is it the weather? The teammates? The crew of people I look forward to seeing at every tourney I go to, west or east? I would venture to say that is none of these, but rather subtle revelations that occurred over the week.
First, as much as I have tried to remove the chip of the West coast off of my shoulder it will always be there in some form or the other. Thus going to tourneys has always been more than a weekend warrior event- it has been another proving ground. Coming back here, to the Mecca of tourneys with experienced pilgrims from all over the Holy Land of Lacrosse- Maryland, Princeton, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, etc., is another test of your mettle. Holding your own is even greater and means more for those of us who grew up and played at schools more associated with football (Michigan), basketball (Arizona), surfing (UCSB) or protesting (Cal), than those whose lacrosse pedigree is never in question. So coming back here and playing well brings a certain sense of satisfaction.
Secondly, and more importantly, is the stark realization that I am not so unique in this world of lacrosse. Unlike any other game, this sport both polarizes and unites its followers. Expand or keep it reigned in? Grow like crazy in every possible arena or pick and choose which areas to concentrate? USLIA is great or Damn the Clubbers? West coast or Worst coast? (Run and gun or ball control?) Yet despite the relative differences within the population there is an undercurrent of devotion that brings us all together. Any concerns about a disconnect with lacrosse players from the West Genny's or St. Paul's of the world were greatly exaggerated in my own mind. As lacrosse players there is that common bond of knowing you play the greatest game in the world, as if it is a relative secret just now being unearthed by the rest of the populace.
Why else would we travel from all over the country, Seattle to Miami, to hamlets far and wide so we can beat the crap out of each other by day and drink beers by night? Surely there is something else that makes it that worthwhile? Beyond the games there are the friends and bonds that bring you back and at least for one weekend out of the year lacrosse is the norm, not the irregular. How much money we spend or how much time we waste is inconsequential, as the sheer joy that comes from playing the game and reveling with fellow players makes up for any financial burden incurred. Any monetary or professional issues are petty and meaningless for those on a pilgrimage.
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