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.
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.
"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.
Indeed, two years ago, lacrosse seemed sufficiently popular that a second, outdoor league, Major League Lacrosse, was started. Only a handful of stars play year-round. Naturally, Gary has been one of them. And naturally, the two teams he has played for in each year of the outdoor league's existence have won titles.
Gait has been called the Michael Jordan of his sport, yet the comparison is too generous to His Airness -- by a long shot. What Jordan did on the court was simply a superior version of what everyone else was doing. Gait, by comparison, was playing a different game than his contemporaries and so changed it in the process.
"There weren't kids out there doing fancy trick shots for fun," he says. "To use a basketball analogy, they were shooting free throws. We just brought some creativity into it and showed that you could actually do that sort of thing during a game." Today, everyone is playing -- or trying to play -- lacrosse as it is practiced by the Gait brothers.
Gait is also the rare athlete whose impact on his sport goes well beyond what he has accomplished on the field. In fact, he probably has influenced the modern game more than any other person has managed to influence his or her sport of choice, Jordan included.
As youngsters, he and Paul would steam their wooden sticks and bend the shafts slightly -- a trick they imported to Syracuse. The design allowed the ball to be thrown so much harder that the NCAA eventually banned it (the second rule change the brothers inspired). But it has become common among professionals. Recently, Gary, who also works for the sport's main equipment manufacturer, SDX, invented an adjustable helmet that will be used exclusively in the professional league next year.
Also unlike Jordan, Gait has actually gotten out into the world and convinced kids to play lacrosse, and not just as a distant role model or shoe salesman. Last year, one of his other companies, SDX Lacrosse Camps, held sixty clinics around the country for young players. Sure, it's self-interest; it's part of how he manages to make a living at lacrosse. Yet his willingness to spread the word personally has given the sport an immeasurable boost.
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Nor has Jordan approached Gait's accomplishments as an owner -- or player/coach, or simply coach, either. In 1993, Gary was hired as an assistant coach for the University of Maryland women's lacrosse team -- which, by the time he quit last year, had won seven national championships.
Last year, he acted as both offensive coordinator and star player for the outdoor-league Baltimore Bayhawks. That team, you will not be surprised to learn, won the Major League Lacrosse title this fall. The team he partly owned, as well as played on most recently, the Washington Power, made it to the semi-finals the last two seasons.
All this is of interest to Denver because this past summer, Gary Gait and the other owners sold the Washington Power to Kroenke Sports, owners of the Avalanche, the Nuggets and the Pepsi Center. Now installed in Denver, Gait's team is known as the Mammoth.
The team begins its season on January 3. In the past, Coloradans have always appreciated a good athlete. They'd be foolish to miss a great one now.