Spin Right and Shoot Left

By McPhee, John | The New Yorker, March 23, 2009 | Go to article overview

Spin Right and Shoot Left


McPhee, John, The New Yorker


You're on defense, zone defense. You pick up a loose ball and look for the outlet pass. You see it, throw it, and go down the middle on a fast break, taking the return pass. Now you're looking for a three-on-two or a two-on-one before they can set up their defense. Too late, they're settled--man-to-man. You're still looking for a two-on-one, but it's more complicated. You see and sense everybody--where they are, where they're headed, as things develop in almost constant motion. You watch for a backdoor cut, and for someone posting up. Maybe go for an outside shot. The coach is yelling his mantra, "Look for the open man!" There is no open man. Wary of a double-team, you give up the ball with a bounce pass. One player to the next, the ball moves two, three, four times before you set a pick, roll, take a no-look pass, and go to the hoop for a layup. Are you playing basketball? No.

You could be, of course, every term and move alike. But this is lacrosse, which is essentially the same game--an assertion that loses a good deal of its novelty in the light of the fact that James Naismith, best known for inventing basketball, in 1891, and writing and publishing basketball's original rules, in 1892, was a lacrosse player. A Canadian, he had played lacrosse in the eighteen-eighties at McGill, and also for the New York Lacrosse Club.

Lacrosse and basketball are siblings of soccer, hockey, and water polo. When the rules of ice hockey were written, in the eighteen-seventies, a model they followed was lacrosse. The transfer of lacrosse from Iroquoian to European culture had occurred in Montreal in mid-century, and while the white sport was to emigrate and develop most emphatically in the eastern United States, Canadians would retain it strongly here and there--"here" being southeastern Ontario, "there" consisting of some great leaps over territory unfamiliar in the game. Paul and Gary Gait, twins who played for Syracuse (1987-90) and who constitute in themselves a hall of fame within the Hall of Fame, grew up in Victoria, British Columbia, a hotbed of lacrosse. David Mitchell, Cornell '07, a prestidigitational stickhandler who plays in both professional lacrosse leagues (indoor and outdoor), grew up and went to high school in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Wayne Gretzky, ice hockey's historically greatest star, grew up in Brantford, Ontario. As winters wore on, Gretzky has said, "I could hardly wait to get my lacrosse stick out and start throwing the ball around. It didn't matter how cold or rainy it would be, we'd be out firing the ball against walls and working on our moves."

In lacrosse as in hockey, Gretzky was at home in the power play, also known as "man-up" and "e.m.o."--the extra-man opportunity that results when somebody is sent out of the game for a time as a result of a violation, such as "slashing," an unambiguous term common to hockey and lacrosse. Hockey's power play is still a bit rough-hewn--for example, one player, in close, acting as a screen, the others stitching around him a silhouette of slap shots--and in evolutionary terms has not progressed nearly as far as the fast-weaving passes of lacrosse, which gradually tease apart an open man. Water polo--whose fakes and shots will translate into the other games--uses the e.m.o. to punish various torts, like taking your opponent to the bottom of the pool. In lacrosse, advancing the ball from one end of the field to the other is known as clearing, and the defensive attempt to stop the clear is known as riding. Soccer coaches have said that soccer consists of lacrosse's clearing and riding. The basketball term for riding is "full-court press." The most difficult pass in lacrosse traverses the field from one side to the other while both players are running. Soccer calls that square ball. Of these five games--with their picks and screens, their fast breaks and rotational defenses, their high degree of continuous motion--water polo, in its sluggish medium, is surely the most awkward, and lacrosse, at the other extreme, creates the fastest and crispest accumulation of passes and is the prettiest to watch. …

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