Mark Macyk | @markmacyk
They were playing lacrosse in Brooklyn before it was cool.
In 1893, 10 years after they built the Bridge, when Brooklyn was still its own city, the fourth largest in the U.S., the Crescent Athletic Club sponsored a team. It played in the U.S. Amateur Lacrosse Association and dominated college teams like Johns Hopkins and other championship-caliber clubs.
But after World War II, the suburbanization of the sport left a void in New York's most populous borough — a void that's only now beginning to be filled by two programs making the most of US Lacrosse resources.
“You’re seeing people on the subway with a lacrosse stick,” said Joe Nocella, director of the Brooklyn Lacrosse Club. “It’s a boom town.”
The revival began in the late 1990s, when Kevin Graham founded the Brooklyn Admirals with an assist from US Lacrosse’s BRIDGE Program, a precursor to the current First Stick Program. The Admirals found success as Brooklyn’s first inner-city youth program. After Graham passed away, eight Admirals got together in 2006 to continue his legacy and formed the Brooklyn Crescents.
The Crescents had just 30 players that first year. Today they boast over 300 boys and girls, many of whom will play collegiately. And keeping with Graham’s original vision, it’s a diverse lot.
“It’s Brooklyn Heights meets Bed Stuy,” co-founder Dan Sheff said.
The Crescents do little advertising and have grown through word of mouth. Finding willing players isn’t an issue. Finding space to play is another matter.
Kings County, which encompasses the entirety of Brooklyn, is the second-most densely populated county in the U.S.
“Turf fields, lined fields are gold,” Sheff said. “They just don’t exist.”
The Crescents have succeeded by partnering with Poly Prep, a high school that is positioning itself as a hub for lacrosse in Brooklyn. They’ve been able to double practice time by playing at night under the school’s lights.
Elsewhere, the Brooklyn Lacrosse Club has taken an innovative approach to that lack of open land by playing at sea — on a pier stretching out over the East River.
It’s far from the stereotype of lacrosse being played solely by white kids on suburban fields.
“We wanted to look like Brooklyn,” said Nocella, a former coach with the Crescents. “And Brooklyn looks like a lot of different people.”
The BLC applied for a First Stick grant last year based solely on a vision to make lacrosse accessible to the youth of Brooklyn. Since then, the program has grown to include over 750 participants.
“US Lacrosse believed in us,” Nocella said. “It was fantastic just knowing there was someone I could call and ask a question.”
The BLC’s advisory board features Shamel and Rhamel Bratton and John Christmas, who have helped show that lacrosse players don’t have to look any certain way. The two Brooklyn lacrosse organizations also are showing kids they can play anywhere. Unlike the suburbs, you apply to high school in Brooklyn.
The Crescents’ connections go beyond Poly Prep, with members affiliated with nearby programs at Xavier, Xaverian and others. Sheff spent recent summer afternoons calling seventh-graders about their high school plans and seeing how the Crescents could facilitate them.
One new scholastic option for Brooklyn lacrosse players is Bishop Loughlin, where Brendan Rooney started a boys’ lacrosse team this year.
Rooney, a former national junior college champion at Nassau Community College, is a mechanic at the Catholic school in the Fort Green-Clinton Hill neighborhood. The school president would see him wearing lacrosse t-shirts and inquired about starting a team, the first contact sport in the school’s 162-year history.
Rooney held an interest meeting and wound up with 30 kids. Two were basketball players; the rest had never played a sport before.
“They’re good athletes, but they were never given an opportunity,” Rooney said.
Loughlin has no fields, but Brooklyn Tech down the block does. A custodian would open that field every day at 6 a.m. for the Lions to practice before school, at a different school. They ate lunch together in Rooney’s office. Teachers commented that they had never seen these kids so organized. When the season ended, they hounded Rooney to let them play on the handball courts.
They didn’t win a game, but that didn’t matter.
“Even if we were losing 13-0 kids were still diving out of bounds,” Rooney said. “So I preach that they never give up on themselves. ‘Nobody did what you did. You started playing a sport and within three months you were going against kids that have been together for years. That’s not normal.’”
Little about lacrosse in Brooklyn is normal. They like it that way.
“People see us and ask ‘You have lacrosse in Brooklyn?’” Sheff said. “Yeah, we have lacrosse in Brooklyn. And we’re actually pretty good.”
Mark Macyk is a frequent contributor to Lacrosse Magazine.
Photo Credit: Brooklyn Lacrosse Club
An edited version of this story appeared in the September 2013 edition of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. To start your subscription, become a member of US Lacrosse today.
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