Big Lax Attack

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

The Gaits continued to invent other spectacular shots, sometimes alone, sometimes together. In one, a lacrosse version of the alley-oop, Paul would toss a high pass to Gary as he shot across the front of the goal. Gary cradled it high above his head, and then, while still airborne and with his back to the mouth of the goal, he would bring his stick down and whip the ball between his legs and into the net. At times, it was like watching Kobe Bryant play in a basketball league in which everyone else took only set shots.

But none ever achieved the notoriety of The Shot -- quickly dubbed "Air Gait" -- and its impact on lacrosse cannot be overstated. Naturally, it became an instant myth within the tight-knit world of lacrosse. (Like Woodstock, if everyone who claims to have been at the event actually had been there, the site would have been as crowded as Times Square on New Year's Eve.) As with Wilt Chamberlain's dunked free throws, Air Gait eventually forced a change in rules to level the playing field for less spectacular athletes. Fifteen years later, the first Air Gait remains the most famous moment in the sport.

Yet, more than any other single event, Air Gait also sent the until-then amateur game into a climb that has culminated in two professional leagues. Sports Illustrated wrote about the brothers; even People magazine, previously unknown for its rapt fascination with lacrosse players, gushed over the Gaits in a lengthy profile.

Gary Gait is ready to score for Colorado.
Gary Gait is ready to score for Colorado.

"The media attention is unlike anything there has ever been in lacrosse," an astounded Syracuse official said at the time. A bronze statue of Air Gait stands in the U.S. Lacrosse Hall of Fame in Baltimore.

Roy Simmons Jr., the legendary Syracuse coach, liked to point out that lacrosse is a game where athleticism, and not necessarily size, carried the day. "We're not," he observed, "driven by pituitary glands."

Yet today, Gary Gait still looms large, both in physical appearance (at 6'2", 200 pounds, he and Paul were unusually large and strong for lacrosse players, although neither lifted weights until after leaving Syracuse) and as a continuing presence in the game. At 35, he has prematurely gray hair; other than that, and a bit of arthritis in the ankles, he says he's in as good physical shape as he's ever been.

"I've been working just as hard as I when I started," he says. "With age, you gotta be wiser. It's a matter of giving your body a rest when it needs rest, working out smart." He lifts weights four times a week and runs five. "Lacrosse players now are different. They're much more athletic; the average guys are bigger. You try to find the edge."

He adds, "These days, I can't wait to go out there and show the young guys."

If anything, showing the younger guys is harder for Gait than for others his age, for the simple reason that most of today's young professional lacrosse players once had his picture plastered on their bedroom walls; they've been studying his moves since picking up a stick. "Just about every current player idolized him growing up," says John Jiloty, editor of Inside Lacrosse magazine. "He is arguably the best player ever and is still unbelievable to watch today."

Like many star athletes, Gait left the university a celebrity. Unlike star football or basketball players, though, who can look forward to lucrative signing bonuses and continued fame in professional leagues, it seemed as though his best days were behind him.

"I never thought I'd be making a life out of lacrosse," he says. He started out working for a central New York food-brokerage company, selling dry goods. Even when he began playing in the four-year-old professional lacrosse league the year after graduation, he was a professional only in the strictest sense of the word.

"We were playing for $100 a game -- $80 after taxes," he recalls. "The opportunity for the players wasn't really that great. I still didn't have the illusion I could do it for a living."

The indoor, box-style game promoted by the new league -- akin to arena football -- was actually old hat to Gait; it was the game he'd grown up with in Canada, starting at age four, and he made the transition easily. He was named the Major Indoor Lacrosse League's rookie of the year in 1991, the league's MVP every year from 1995 through 1999, and a member of the First Team League All-Pro team each of the twelve years he has played. He still owns a half-dozen different scoring records.

More important than his individual accomplishments, though, is the immediate impact Gary (and Paul, who retired earlier this year) had on the young sport of professional lacrosse. As the first true star known outside the sport, Gait allowed lacrosse to grow in his reflected light. Attendance at games surged when Gary's team came into town as the visitors. In their first year in the league, the Gaits, who had been drafted as a package, led the expansion Detroit Turbos to a national title.

Now the league (it was renamed the National Lacrosse League several years ago) is robust. It has twice as many teams -- twelve -- as when the Gaits joined. Salaries, while not spectacular, are livable -- up to $20,000 for six months' work.

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