While the college-level game is still overwhelmingly white, a year with a scrappy and diverse high school team reveals a sport on the edge of transformation.
Lyle Thompson dances around the goal just three minutes into the University at Albany’s 2015 Spring Stomp matchup with Yale. He cradles the ball in his stick with one hand and then the other, sprinting left to draw his defender before cutting right and circling around to the front of the goal, his long black braid whipping through the air behind him.
Yale’s defender backpedals into the crease (the eighteen-foot circle around the goal), whacks Thompson in the chest with his d-pole (the long stick used on defense), then cuts one way and the other, sidestepping the goal to follow Thompson on the attack. When the defender catches up with him, Thompson cuts back. Another defender slides over to help, swinging his d-pole down in a hacking motion. Thompson raises his stick over his head and delivers a high to low shot, bouncing the ball past the goalie and into the net for the opening score of the game. The home crowd erupts with applause, a sea of UAlbany fans dressed in purple and gold rising to their feet.
One year earlier, Lyle Thompson and his brother Miles became the first Native Americans to win the Tewaaraton Award, lacrosse’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. The Thompsons hail from the Onondaga Nation in central New York State, and Tewaaraton (pronounced day-wah-allah-doon) is the Mohawk word for the game of their ancestors. They were also the first players to share the trophy, a bronze depiction of a charging Native American player carrying a traditional wooden lacrosse stick and adorned at the head with an eagle feather.
The crowd here in Albany is an eclectic blend of athletes, faculty, college students displaying varying degrees of sobriety, and young lacrosse players. Most of these young players are from private schools or the surrounding suburbs, but there is a significant contingent from the Albany City Public School program, many of whom arrived together by bus.
The Albany team is representative of the diversity of the city, with African-American, Latino, Asian, and Caucasian members. Eboni Preston-Laurent, Senior Manager of Diversity and Inclusion at US Lacrosse, the national governing body of the sport, says, “Albany is right in the thick of changing demographics,” referencing a decade-long trend among urban public schools to start lacrosse programs and compete in a sport that has been dominated by private and middle-to-upper-class suburban schools for the past century.
Three years after the Albany City Public School lacrosse program was established, they do not yet have a varsity squad, just modified for seventh and eighth graders and junior varsity for ninth through twelfth graders. Among the JV players present at the game is sophomore Lateke Murray, who took up lacrosse at the age of twelve when he attended a summer camp run by Mike Banks, a UAlbany alum who was a senior when Miles Thompson was a freshmen on the team.
After a distinguished playing career at UAlbany, Banks went to work as a coach in the newly minted Albany City program, running camps and coaching the modified team. In 2012, his first year of coaching modified, Banks took Murray, a tough yet cerebral player of Caribbean descent, and other young players to see a UAlbany game. Lyle Thompson had just joined the team, and over the course of the next few years, Murray had the chance to see him play on numerous occasions, and to meet Thompson in visits he made to camps at Banks’ request.
“The Thompsons were the first names I knew in lacrosse,” Murray says. Offering a story about Lyle Thompson that relates to his own development in the sport, Murray continues: “He broke his collar bone on his right side, so he couldn’t use his right arm at all. That’s why he developed that one-handed thing. He used to always be at practice playing around and it became a habit. And a collarbone takes almost a year to heal…A year later that’s gonna become a really big habit. So he just created his own way. It worked well.”
Describing the influence this story had on him, Murray says, “For about a month I started doing everything one-handed. So I was in the house, doing my homework, cradling one-handed. Hurt my forearms to death. I still was doing it, ’cause I felt like Lyle. Eating food, I still have my stick in one hand…Put the stick down, pick it back up, cradling one-handed. It’s all muscle memory.”
In the first half of UAlbany’s matchup with Yale, Thompson records three more assists and another goal. But in the second half Yale closes the gap, scoring three goals in the third quarter and another three early in the fourth. Then, with the lead trading back and forth in the fourth quarter, Albany gets the ball to Thompson. He jogs past the goal to the restraining line that separates the offensive end from the midfield. Then he cuts back and charges the goal, cradling one-handed and looking as though he’s about to create his own shot. But as the double team comes, he delivers a shovel pass to Seth Oakes, a first year transfer student from the Akwesasne Reservation in northern New York State. Oakes steps in front of the goal, catches the pass, and hits a sidearm shot to secure a 12-11 victory.
* * *
As UAlbany’s regular season winds down, the Albany City Public School modified and JV seasons get into full swing, with two or three games a week against a rotation of teams from the region. The league they had been a part of recently disbanded, so the Albany teams remain in limbo, patching together schedules of non-league games and awaiting entrance into the highly competitive Suburban Council League, where they will compete with schools like Niskayuna, a nearby suburban high school whose varsity team just won the 2015 New York State Class A Lacrosse Championship.
Though the Albany modified team only wins three games on the season, they show marked improvement from start to finish. But the night before their final game, the family of the team’s star player is displaced from their home when a shooting occurs outside. He misses school that day, and as a result isn’t allowed to play in the game.
In the absence of their high scorer, the modified team’s role players band together. Matthew Baker and Maxim Gottlieb, who struggled for playing time at one point in the season, emerge as important contributors, with Baker working at X (an area beyond the goal where the attack is initiated) to receive passes from players in distress and distribute the ball for shot opportunities that result in a couple of goals, and Gottlieb getting significant playing time at midfield.
Gottlieb is a kid with boundless energy who had trouble sitting still on the sideline when he wasn’t getting in the game, resulting in memorable moments, such as the time he could be seen running back and forth behind their bench chasing geese around a field. But his running ability is put to better use in this final game as he relentlessly chases down loose balls, at one point scooping a groundball at midfield and charging the goal, cradling in perfect form, until skipping into a shot that the goalie barely saves.
Midway through the game, Albany’s goalie, Javier Massas, shocks the opposing team when he almost scores on a goalie charge, a feat inspired by a viral video clip of UAlbany’s Blaze Riordan scoring on a goalie charge in an early playoff win against Cornell. As a big, athletic player, Javier easily identifies with the imposing yet agile Riordan.
Javier’s mother, Sharon, talks about the transformative effect the game of lacrosse has had on her son. “We tried football, we tried baseball, we tried basketball,” she says. “Nothing seemed to click for him. When he first started playing lacrosse, I said, ‘Lacrosse? What’s that?’ But then he came to me and said, ‘Mom, this is the best thing I’ve ever done.’ And when he plays, he just lights up. He’ll come off the field and he’s like, ‘Mom, did you see what I did?’”
Sharon hopes that her son’s involvement in the game will help to anchor him through what she knows will be a challenging environment at Albany High. “I just worry as a mom. I don’t want him caught up in some of the negative stuff that I hear about. Because he’s a big kid and people are going to try to test him, and I don’t want that for him.” Sharon recalls an incident shortly before the season when he got jumped and had his brand new pair of sneakers stolen. “I didn’t even hear about this for two months,” Sharon says, “because he was too scared to tell anyone about it.”
* * *
Preston-Laurent, the US Lacrosse diversity manager, notes that proliferation of the game into urban settings like Albany holds the hope of bringing about greater diversity at the college level. She points to the emergence on the national scene of African-American players Myles Jones, who plays for Duke, was a runner-up to Lyle Thompson for the Tewaaraton in 2015 and is considered a frontrunner for the award in 2016, and Trevor Baptiste of Division I defending champion University of Denver.
“It’s always important for kids to identify with someone in a sport, someone who looks like them or comes from a background similar to them,” Preston-Laurent says. “It’s important for lacrosse to represent America.”
The NCAA reports that in 2015, 84.2 percent of players at the Division I level of college lacrosse were white, while only 2.8 percent were black, the largest minority group currently playing the college game.
“Obviously, we have some challenges and some work left to be done,” Preston-Laurent says, “but the dynamic is changing, and I’m excited about the direction and growth of the sport.”
As one of the relatively small number of African Americans to ever play Division I college lacrosse, Mike Banks talks about the impact Lyle Thompson has made for young players of all ethnicities: “The idea of knowing that the number one player in the country is Iroquois, the culture that started the game, that is just huge because…[lacrosse] was identified by many with a certain type of people, with suburban, Caucasian people, but…the game of lacrosse, which is a great game, was created by Native Americans. And you have the number-one player in the country a Native American. That shows a sense of pride, even if you’re not Native American, whether you’re Caucasian or black, that’s just awesome to hear and to even see and be alive to be a part of.
“I believe personally that in order for this sport to grow – people always ask, ‘Will it ever get to the level of the NFL or the NBA?’ – I truly believe that it will. The only way it will is to diversify even more. That’s how the NFL was able to get to where it is and the same with the NBA.”
Banks knows what it takes to play at an elite level, and he also knows what it’s like to come from an underprivileged background and compete for a scholarship to a top college. His journey from a life of crime on the streets of South Norwalk, Connecticut, an urban neighborhood that sits amid one of the wealthiest regions of the country, to standout Division I defenseman was chronicled by Damian Andrew in Inside Lacrosse Magazine.
Andrew’s story describes how, when Banks was fifteen years old, he got arrested for burglary and did a four-and-a-half-month stint in a high-security prison for juvenile offenders. When he got out, he was placed on probation for five years. And it was in that period, as a sixteen-year-old struggling to get his life on track, that he was introduced to the sport of lacrosse.
Today, Banks credits the game with saving his life, and he doesn’t hesitate to incorporate that narrative into his promotion of lacrosse in Albany. “I would be lying if I tell you that every kid that I deal with, just because they live in the inner city, is in poverty, or they’re African American, or they are routinely struggling. That is not accurate and that’s not all the kids we get,” Banks says. “But is there that one or two or three kids that are going through the predicament that I went through? Yes. Is there a unique way that I approach dealing with them? Yes. I’m able to help them see that I’ve gone through it…They’re always surrounded by teachers or counselors or people in their community telling them how to live, how to walk, how to talk, how to dress…but when I give it to them in the language they understand and the language they speak, they’re more receptive to realizing the change.”
* * *
In summer 2015, Banks leverages his position as Program Coordinator for the Albany Department of Recreation to start the city’s first pickup box lacrosse league. On Thursday evenings, players from local colleges mix in with players from the Albany High School program for box lacrosse, the primary version played by Native Americans. Firmly rooted in their own Haudenosaunee culture, the Thompson brothers grew up playing box lacrosse at the Onondaga and Akwesasne reservations. It’s a rougher, faster-paced version of the game, played in a more confined area, and it influenced the Thompsons’ playing style at UAlbany. Lyle Thompson departed Albany for the pros right after graduation, as the number one draft pick for Major League Lacrosse, which is the field game for professionals. But upon hearing of the box league that Banks is starting up, he offers a bit of insight on what the game can do for Albany’s young players:
“Every major athlete will tell you: ‘play multiple sports.’ It’s going to benefit you in tremendous ways. I see box lacrosse and field lacrosse as two different sports…Being in the inner city, those kids are going to play other sports. And that will help them. But with box lacrosse, it’s going to help their stick skills…It’s going to help the way they play the game…And if you look at the NCAA, a lot of coaches are looking for those players that have that box lacrosse style. So playing the game will only improve their chances to advance to the next level.”
The mood is intense among the Albany High players as they gather to play box at Swinburne, an ice rink that sits at the center of an inner-city park where children play before sunset and sojourners gather afterwards. An oval-shaped concrete floor surrounded by walls that give slightly on impact serves as the arena.
Lateke Murray takes the opportunity of playing box in the ice rink to further model his game after Lyle Thompson. Having emerged as his team’s high scorer in the 2015 season, Murray displays his range of skill in the frenetic box game. He dodges, flips unconventional passes and gets the ball back from his teammates as soon as he gives it away, in a dizzying circle of play, until he finally releases a shot like a homerun swing, revealing his background as a baseball player before he switched over to lacrosse.
Toussaint Santicola (this reporter’s nephew) is the youngest player to show up at Swinburne. A midfielder for the modified team, Santicola picks the brain of players like Murray whenever he gets the chance. Recently, Murray made a point of sharing some of Thompson’s secrets to finishing around the goal. Recounting the lesson passed on to him, Santicola says, “It’s all about quick-sticking, because if you draw the stick too far back for a big shot, the defenders will strip the ball. That’s why Lyle does those high to low quick-stick shots. And I’ve been trying more of those lately.”
As with Murray and so many of the Albany players, Santicola’s first experience with lacrosse was at a camp run by Mike Banks in a city park. Banks did not coach the JV or modified teams in the 2015 school season, instead working with the pre-modified fifth and sixth graders to ready the youngest generation of Albany players. Yet this group is part of the first wave he sent through the ranks to build a program, and he believes in their ability to take Albany to the next level and compete with schools in the Suburban Council League.
* * *
Banks suspends pick-up box at Swinburne for a short break at the end of the summer. In the interim he gets married, then resumes the league in the fall, during the same week that Lyle Thompson returns to Upstate New York to play for the Iroquois Nationals in the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships (indoor is the same as box). The following day, Thompson is selected by the Georgia Swarm as the first pick in the 2015 draft for the National Lacrosse League, which is the box game for professionals. As he looks forward to making his mark on the pros, he reminisces about Albany and offers a bit of insight on the kids he took the time to work with there. “I see those kids as the same as I see kids from the reservation,” Thompson says. “They have similar struggles…You need something to help you get on a good path…I think where lacrosse makes a bigger difference than any other sport is there’s not a lot of people doing it…You learn the game, you get good at it, you’re going to get recognized…especially with those kids…They have the athleticism. When I was down there I saw it. The only thing that was missing was their stick skills, and they looked like they were having fun with the game, so it’s only going to grow…Once they realize, ‘I can dominate this sport,’ it will help them move on and then hopefully pass it right down just like Mike’s doing.”
Fall box at Swinburne attracts a much smaller crowd than the summer session. With local college students occupied by their school teams, the players from Albany High are left to scrimmage amongst themselves. Due to the demands of school and extracurricular activities, they are lucky to get ten guys on any given night to make it an even five on five. Twice a week they run for two hours in the evening, taking breaks between games, with players flopping onto the ground from exhaustion while others get drinks at the water fountain.
Lateke Murray is a regular attendee at fall box, as are defenseman Nick Rosado, goalie Nazir Tingling, midfielders Will Kelley, Jahkhar McIntyre and Kalair Marshall, and attackmen Christian Maldonado and Taylor Fields.
Murray is at his best when he’s paired with Maldonado and Fields. The three Albany attackmen led their JV team from a 4-8 record in 2014 to an 8-4 record in 2015. Relating all things back to the Thompsons, Murray talks about the importance of chemistry and creativity to a strong attack, saying, “The reason why Lyle and Miles play so well together is because they’ve been playing with each other for so long. But if you play with someone for even one year, you learn how they play. Like Taylor, for instance, he likes his stick on the right side. He does this right-handed rip shot. He’s a big boy, so he’s a dodger, a heavy-step dodger. I usually play my man in a way to roll away so that when Taylor dodges and my man slides, I’m always open.”
Rosado models his game after Banks and dreams of following in his mentor’s footsteps by playing for UAlbany. “Banks taught me everything I know about lacrosse,” Rosado says. A big, athletic player, he moves well and hits hard in the box game. He seems to strip anyone who comes near him of the ball, yet says he feels awkward switching over from his d-pole to the standard short stick used in box.
On some nights, Banks dons his gear and gets into the mix, demonstrating for Rosado how a defender aptly switches to the short stick. An imposing six feet three inches tall, Banks is as quick-footed as anyone on the court, and in between beating his players to the ball he barks out coaching instructions, constantly challenging them to play a faster, tougher, smarter version of lacrosse.
Sometimes he brings the players together for a short talk either before or after the box session. On one night he extolls them to avoid bad habits in the off-season, like smoking cigarettes or marijuana, warning, “If I’m coaching you this year, and you do that stuff, I can promise you that your lungs are gonna be burning in my practices.” This is one of the first hints Banks has offered his players that he will join the coaching staff of their varsity team to help ready them for competition in the Suburban Council League.
On another night, Banks takes a somber tone when he calls the players together to share a story that is burdening his mind. “I just found out,” he says, “that someone I know, a young guy from my neighborhood back home who I communicate with and who recently put some bad things behind him and turned his life around – I just found out that he took his own life.”
Banks is clearly broken up about the news, but his willingness to share the information in a teachable moment exemplifies why he commands such respect from these guys. “I’m telling you this story,” he continues, “because I know there’s a lot of peer pressure at your age, pressure about who your friends are, bullying, drugs, what clothes you wear, what sneakers you wear. And if you guys ever know anyone who you think is having a problem, I encourage you to reach out to them. Because I don’t want you to ever have to go through losing a friend like this.”
Then he sends them off to play the game that saved his own life, the game his Native American former teammates know as medicine for its ability to heal the soul when played with the right spirit.
Despite Banks’ efforts to cast lacrosse in a life-changing and healing light, at times the games at Swinburne seem to fall short of the spirit needed for such medicine to work. Players revel in the opportunity that the box game provides to deliver harder hits, sometimes standing over an opponent they just knocked down and laughing at their pain or high-fiving teammates. Cheap shots foment grudges, which erupt into fights and bring the entire team together to peel players apart.
On some nights, Banks isn’t able to make it due to scheduling conflicts, at which point a supervisor steps in and the sessions become less structured, with undisciplined play and longer breaks in between games. On one particular night, play is suspended for over half an hour when it is discovered that someone’s cell phone was stolen. They speculate that the phone was taken by an acquaintance who wandered in from the park to watch the games. Players pull their phones out, declaring the ability to track the missing phone down with an app, and a futile search ensues.
Thereafter, the doors of Swinburne are locked once play begins. But this prompts someone who’s locked out, perhaps the same thief, to break the glass of the locked door during the following session.
On the last night of fall box, a girl from Albany High arrives to announce that one of the team’s players has gone missing. It is quickly ascertained that the box session two nights before is the last time anyone saw him. Banks goes off to investigate and returns a little while later to report that the player is not missing but was arrested for burglary and is sitting in jail because his mother hasn’t bailed him out yet.
Players express relief that nothing worse happened to their teammate, but also concern over how long he has been left behind bars. Banks tries to calm their fears before heading off to the jail to visit the player and see what can be done for him.
It is under the cloud of these concerns that they resume their final scrimmage at Swinburne. It is late fall and a heavy mist emanates from the mouth of each player as he gasps for breath in the cold night air. Bone-crunching hits elicit groans as the ball dribbles out of one player’s stick while others sprint to the ball in the hopes of making a dash up the court for a score. Hard hits prompt retaliation in the form of stick checks that sting the arms where the limited padding does not provide protection. Arguments ensue, leading to even rougher play, vicious crosschecks against the walls, players dropping to the ground writhing in pain and sometimes tears.
As they pack their pads away at the end of the session, they take a moment to reconcile differences that came to a head on the court, with some receptive to such overtures while others retain grudges. Then they depart Swinburne for the last time before it returns to its original purpose and is iced over for the winter. A few players pile into a car while others wait for rides or walk off into the night to reach their homes on foot.
* * *
On April 7, 2016, five months after the last box session at Swinburne, the Albany High School boys’ varsity lacrosse team takes the field in their first-ever game. It’s at home, and the visiting team is Shaker High School, which has a 35-year-old program with players regularly recruited to Division I, II and III colleges.
Shaker gets off to a fast start, scoring eight unanswered goals. Then, at the end of the first quarter, Christian Maldonado works his way inside for a quick-stick goal at close range. In the second half, Albany inserts Nazir Tingling at goalie. He takes command of the defense, constantly talking to his guys, calling out, “Top right! Top left!” to let them know where the ball is. Tingling allows only two goals in the third quarter, and suddenly it looks as though Albany can compete with this team. But lacrosse is a game of possession and momentum and the more experienced Shaker team holds the advantage throughout.
After showing Albany respect by giving them a tough game, the Shaker team meets them at midfield. There, Shaker Coach Shawn Hennessey addresses the Albany team. “Congratulations,” he says. “Being on the field for the first time is absolutely amazing. Shaker was in the same spot 35 years ago. And 35 years from now, when people talk about the Albany program, they will always look at you as the first. So take a picture, enjoy it, be proud of yourself, walk off with your heads held high.”
Two days later, the Albany team ventures to a rural area east of the city to play Averill Park High School. Like Albany, Averill Park is fielding their first varsity lacrosse team this year. The fastest growing high school sport in the country is expanding beyond suburbia not just into urban areas but to rural schools as well. This matchup presents the greenest opponent either team will face all season.
Three minutes into the game, Lateke Murray emerges from a scrum at the restraining line and charges the goal. Running at full speed with the defense in tow, he lifts his stick high and shoots the ball over the goalie’s shoulder for the opening score of the game.
A few minutes later, they get the ball to Taylor Fields, who takes the pass with his back to the goal and whips a shovel shot off his right hip without even turning around, netting a goal in classic quick-stick box lacrosse style.
Averill Park answers with two more goals, then they open the second half with another goal to take a 3-2 lead over Albany.
Banks calls to his defense from the sideline, instructing them not to be baited all the way out to X where they can more easily be beaten, and they close ranks, managing to force several turnovers.
Rosado repeatedly strips the opponent of the ball, scoops it in his d-pole, and charges up field to deliver a pass that starts the offense and helps create momentum for Kelley, Maldonado, and Marshall to strike for Albany in the third.
Toward the end of the third quarter, with the Albany lead at 5-3, Murray takes the ball from the corner of the field and charges at an angle toward the goal, releasing a sidearm shovel shot between the goalie’s legs for a score. Minutes later, Murray gets a pass from Kelley, feigns a charge, then steps back and rips a shot for another goal. In the fourth quarter, Murray scores his fourth goal of the game, a close-range quick-stick shot off a Maldonado pass to seal Albany’s first varsity win.
That same week, Mike Banks’ wife gives birth to their first child, a son. Taking inspiration from the Thompsons and the Native American tradition of giving a “family name” in addition to a legal name (Lyle Thompson’s family name is Deyhahsanoonedy, which means “he’s flying over us,”) Banks and his wife give their son, Michael Raymond Banks, the family name Kibwe, which means “blessed” in Swahili.
Asked about his future with the Albany High School team, Banks says, “I’ll stay here and help build this program for as long as they’ll have me.” Regarding the immediate future – a matchup with defending State Champion Niskayuna is scheduled for Albany’s final game, Banks says, “These guys are going to learn fast. They don’t like losing. It’s not that they don’t respect the loss. They learn from it. But even when they’re losing, they don’t stop fighting. So buckle your seatbelt. It’s going to be a fun ride.”