Big Lax Attack

The arrival of lacrosse legend Gary Gait could make the sport Mammoth in Colorado.

If you lived in upstate New York in the late 1980s and early '90s, as I did, there was really only one sports story worth paying attention to. No, it wasn't the Buffalo Bills, a team on the cusp of setting a record for Super Bowl futility, dumping four straight between 1991 and 1994. Rather, the buzz from Albany to Niagara Falls was, improbably, over lacrosse.

Upstaters were, and are, no strangers to the sport. Syracuse University had won a Division I national title in 1983; Hobart College, a small liberal-arts school on the shores of Seneca Lake, has dominated Division III (and, more often than not, any Division I team it played) for several decades. But what briefly turned a minor sport with a tiny (though fanatical) following into first a regional, then a national obsession, were the stunning performances of two players over the course of three remarkable years.

Gary and Paul Gait, twins from British Columbia born a minute apart, arrived at Syracuse University in 1987. After a decent freshman year, the two hit their stride with a vengeance. With a team that is still considered one of the juggernauts of any sport, Syracuse went on to dominate lacrosse for the next three years. In 1990, the Orangemen won their third straight national title, with a 20-9 thrashing of Loyola that set a still-standing record for margin of victory in a championship game.

During the same years, SU basketball, the school's highest-profile sport, packed the Carrier Dome. After all, in 1987 Jim Boeheim's team had come excruciatingly close to the national title, losing to Bobby Knight and the Hoosiers by a single point in the finals. Yet anyone who was in Syracuse at the time can tell you that the thing that really got people's blood pumping was watching the Gait brothers.

Attendance at lacrosse games, which prior to the brothers' arrival attracted only a few thousand dedicated fans, ballooned to an average of 11,000. True, it was the whole team that won championships. Yet any doubt that people came mainly to see the Gaits play was usually dispelled sometime around the start of the third quarter, when, with Syracuse holding an insurmountable lead, the brothers were taken out of the game and the stands began to empty. Many fans then hung around to wait for autographs -- from college lacrosse players! It was unlike anything that had ever happened before in the sport.

The brothers were a thrill to watch in every game they played. They were stick wizards who at times seemed capable of scoring goals whenever and however they felt like it. The NCAA record for most goals scored in a single game (nine, in a May 1988 shellacking of Navy) and the record for the most goals ever scored in the NCAA tournament (fifteen in three games) still belong to Gary Gait.

"They're in a different stratosphere," Brown University's lacrosse coach admitted in 1990. Suspiciously, several lacrosse teams actually dropped Syracuse from their schedules, agreeing to play the Orangemen again only in 1991, the year after the twins graduated.

While the Gaits' never-before-seen moves were bound to attract some level of attention, their sudden jump to national prominence can actually be traced to a single shot. Even today, it is a moment that resonates through the sport, a Keatsian frozen tableau akin to Willie Mays's over-the-shoulder catch of a fly ball in center field or Franco Harris's "immaculate reception."

It happened in the 1988 NCAA tournament. The field of teams was down to four. Syracuse, which had gone undefeated in the regular season, was playing the University of Pennsylvania in one of the semi-finals. Gary, who was positioned behind Penn's goal, received a pass, bobbled it, and then, as a defenseman lunged, scooped it up again and faced the back of the net.

Like hockey, lacrosse goals have a crease, a protective space around the net and goalie. Unlike hockey's, lacrosse's eighteen-foot-in-diameter crease extends behind the net, as well as in the front, and no player other than the goalie is permitted to enter it. This had prohibited players from making a direct attack on the goal from behind.

Until that moment. Gary rushed the back of the net, leaving his feet just before the crease line. As he flew in the air past the goal, he angled his stick over the front of the goal and, using the crossbar as a fulcrum, jammed the ball into the net -- the equivalent of lacrosse's first-ever slam dunk. Although he landed inside the crease, it was ruled a legal move, because play had officially ended when his shot entered the net.

Rather than going wild, the Carrier Dome crowd, usually one of the most raucous venues in college sports, fell into a strange silence. Everyone had simply stopped talking and was straining to see the replay. It was a showstopping athletic achievement -- and Gary did it again during the same game. Both times, the shot tied the score. With three seconds remaining and the score tied yet again, Paul Gait scored the winning goal. Syracuse easily beat Cornell in that year's final and went on to win the next two NCAA tournaments.

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