Michael Duke was afraid he'd be harassed by classmates when he first picked up a lacrosse stick several months ago. He was going through culture shock.
"Well, you know, I thought it was a game played only by white people," whispered Duke, 15, a midfielder and eighth-grader at Pimlico Middle School.
"I mean, we saw videos of the game, but I never saw any black legs running up and down," said Duke, whose team recently attended a Johns Hopkins game. "It looked like just a bunch of guys running and beating each other over the head with sticks. Now, I want to grow up and play for Johns Hopkins. Then I want to become a doctor."
The crack in the lacrosse door finally is beginning to open to minorities.
There are no statistics on the number of blacks who have played college lacrosse, but there were few before NFL Hall of Famer and former Syracuse All-American Jim Brown dominated the game in the mid-1950s.
There were few after Brown as well. But that began to change in the early 1980s, and the 1990s could be a decade that produces several black players who have an impact on the game. Essex Community College's Zach Thornton, who is one of the fastest midfielders in the game, is headed to Loyola.
Virginia, which has two black players, also has signed Tommy Smith of Fayetteville-Manlius High near Syracuse, N.Y. Smith, who considered Johns Hopkins and Syracuse, is being called the best high school defenseman in the country.
Johns Hopkins has signed midfielder Ryan Cummings of Nottingham High in Syracuse and is interested in midfielder Chris Lewis of Southern High in Baltimore. Forest Park senior attackman Ronald Foster is waiting to see whether he will be accepted at Towson State.
No. 1 North Carolina has two black players who dominate their positions, goalie Billy Daye and midfielder Ousmane Greene.
"There was a parochialism that was present in the game in the 1950s, '60s and '70s," said Steven Stenersen, executive director of the Lacrosse Foundation. "There was an old guard, 'The Lords of Lacrosse,' that just didn't want the game to grow. But the sport has gone through a renaissance, nearly doubling in participation from the 1980s to the 1990s. I think that period of parochialism is over."
But what took so long? And who was responsible?
"I'm sure finances and exposure had a lot to do with minorities not playing," said Brown, whom some consider the best player in the sport's history. "When I played, I never saw another black player. The great black athletes wanted to get into the money sports. If you didn't play lacrosse, who cared?"
Ron Smith, a former longtime assistant coach at UMBC, said: "Lacrosse has its own little subculture. It's a privileged class of individuals, like doctors, bank presidents and lawyers. They marry and worship within their own. They have five names they choose from to name their kids.
"I didn't experience many racial slurs, but you don't have to call me names to make me feel uncomfortable," Smith said. "They didn't exclude just blacks, but all minorities and poor whites, too."
Morgan State, the only predominantly black school to play lacrosse, was an NCAA power in Division II. From 1970 to 1975, Morgan State was ranked in the top 10 four times, twice reaching the playoffs.
The Bears had trouble scheduling opponents during the early days of the program because other teams feared of being upset. Morgan dropped the sport in 1981 because of financial difficulties.
"To a degree, we were never accepted," said Gene White, coach at Pimlico Middle School, who played attack at Morgan during 1979-81. "As we got better, a lot of schools wouldn't play us. We ended up playing schools like Notre Dame and Michigan State, teams just starting a program."
But there's a new coaching bloodline in the game today, one that isn't blue.
Loyola College coach Dave Cottle's family lived in a rowhouse off The Alameda and Northern Parkway. He played at Northern High and later at Salisbury State. Princeton coach Bill Tierney is from Levittown, a blue-collar suburb of New York. Johns Hopkins coach Tony Seaman was born in Washingtonville, N.Y. His father was a liquor salesman.
A number of coaches, including Tierney, Seaman, Yale's Mike Waldvogel and Georgetown's Dave Urick, are from Cortland (N.Y.) State, not the Ivy League.
"You're getting coaches from diversified backgrounds," Cottle said. "The emphasis now is getting good athletes and players, whether they're green, purple, black or white. I don't think color is still an issue."
Ricky Sowell, who starred as a midfielder at Washington College, says that isn't true overall.
Sowell is an assistant coach at Georgetown who aspires to be a head coach. He points out that there are no black head coaches in Division I and few assistants.
Wayne Braxton is the head coach at Fairleigh Dickinson, which plays Division II lacrosse. He is the only black coach at an NCAA school, according to the Lacrosse Foundation.
"There's still some of the old guard left, an alumnus with a million dollars who can control things at schools where lacrosse is important," Sowell said. "I don't ever see myself being the head coach at an Ivy League school, or Maryland, Johns Hopkins or Virginia, because of the color of my skin."
The financial game
A lacrosse stick costs about $70.
A helmet costs $100, gloves $35, arm pads $20 and shoulder pads $15.
An outdoor basketball costs $20 to $25, and 10 players can use it at one time.
So, if you're an inner-city youth with little or no money, which sport do you play?
"I think finances have a lot to do with this sport in urban areas," said Atholton coach Wendell Thomas, an All-American defenseman at Towson State in the early 1970s. "For the most part, it's just too darn expensive. I grew up in northwest Baltimore, and there were few fields and few programs. There seemed to be a basketball court in every neighborhood."
But White says he believes it could become a city game. At Pimlico Middle School, he watches the kids' reaction when they pick up equipment for the first time.
"Their eyes get real big," White said. "It's like they're getting new toys at Christmas time."
Sowell said: "One of the biggest problems was that because of the shortage of black players, we never had enough role models to come back and teach the kids. I've heard about the middle school program in Baltimore, and that's a start."
Program pays dividends
It all started when a 14-year-old male student at Harlem Park Middle School was shot in the neck and killed by a fellow teen-ager in November 1983.
The Baltimore City Middle School Lacrosse League was born.
"Westinghouse came in with its Adopt-A-School program, and they wanted to boost morale at Harlem Park by building a program," said the Lacrosse Foundation's Stenersen. "We had some tough times initially, but the program has really taken off."
Almost all of the program's objectives have been accomplished, especially in the classroom. Eight hundred players have gone through the middle school program, and there are now 13 schools and one native American club team involved.
Players are required to maintain a C average, have a 90 percent attendance rate and pass every class. Figures from 1991-92 showed a 91.0 attendance rate for middle school players, compared with 82.4 for regular students. The players had a grade average of 74.8, compared with 70.9 overall.
The biggest difference was in the promotion rate: 94.2 percent of the players were promoted, compared with 78.1 for the rest of the students.
But the middle school program still is dealing with one sensitive issue: Not many of the private schools have come looking for its players.
The BCMSLL is working on a tracking program to follow players after they leave the program, but only a few are known to have attended private schools. Defensemen Derrell Bradford and Carroll Ford went to St. Paul's. Bradford later enrolled at Dartmouth and Ford at Bates College in Maine. Another graduate of the middle school program, Arthur Chen, is a ninth-grader who plays goalie at McDonogh.
"Athletically, these kids can play with anybody," White said. "I don't know what the criteria are, but here at Pimlico, I would say about only 25 percent could make it academically in private schools, and that might be a factor."
Yet the same private schools are eager to have potential basketball and football players from the public schools.
"The MSA [Maryland Scholastic Association] bylaws say we can't recruit," said Bob Shriver, lacrosse coach at Boys' Latin. "Most of the private schools belong to BEST [Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust], a program that brings minorities to the school and that school pays some of the tuition. Because the middle school program isn't that old, a lot of the players aren't aware of the avenues available for attending private schools." "
Middle school league commissioner Jerry Schnydman said one of the concerns is that some members of the black community didn't want the program to become a feeder system for the private schools.
"There was some concern the private schools would take the best and brightest kids," said Schnydman, whose program has been copied in Hartford, Conn., and Wilmington, N.C. "I understand their concern, but I also understand if a player thinks he can get a better education elsewhere, he should have that choice. Our feeling is lacrosse is a means to an end, but not the end itself."
The BCMSLL, meanwhile, has improved the quality of play in the city public schools. Southwestern and Lake Clifton no longer have trouble finding players. Forest Park is a city power thanks to the Pimlico and Greenspring feeder programs.
"We now average 20 to 25 players, and we get experienced players," said Forest Park coach Obie Barnes. "Without them, I'd be begging football players to come out. I'm very pleased that we have the middle school league because it keeps lacrosse alive in the city."
In addition to the middle school program, St. Paul's coach Mitch Whiteley has established a lacrosse camp for inner-city youths. McDonogh coach Jake Reed will hold one this summer. So will Cottle, and Johns Hopkins is interested in running one, too.
"Minority athletes have always shied away from lacrosse until recently," said Jim Brown, who starred at Manhasset (N.Y.) High. "But the sport is growing in places like California and Colorado. I played for the fun and because it was available to me. Can you imagine the beauty of the sport once it takes a firm foothold in the urban areas?"
It's getting there.
"If it wasn't for lacrosse, I'd be walking the streets with my girlfriend, maybe sitting outside watching drugs being sold," said Stacey Leach, 14, an eighth-grader at Pimlico Middle. "In the city, lacrosse is no longer considered an off-brand or generic sport. It's now being mentioned in the same breath with basketball."
Some outstanding black lacrosse players (year indicates final season):
Player ....... ....... P ... School ... Yr
Jim Brown .... ....... M ... Syra. .... '57
Wendell Thomas ....... D ... Towson ... '74
Joe Fowlkes .. ....... A ... Morgan ... '78
Syd Abernathy ........ A ... Navy ..... '81
Ray ....... ....... M ... Rutgers .. '82
Curtis Roundtree ..... D ... Md. ...... '84
Fred Opie .... ....... D ... Syra. .... '85
Rick Sowell... ....... M ... Wash'n ... '85
Dan Williams ......... D ... Army ..... '86
Brian Jackson ........ D ... Md. ...... '87
Rodney Dumpson ....... M ... Syra. .... '90
Billy Daye ........... G ... N.C. ..... '93