A Good Sport Spoiled

New York gets a sweet-faced pro lacrosse team

Thirteen thousand people showed up to Madison Square Garden on Saturday night a few weeks ago. It would have been a sign of the apocalypse if that had been the total attendance at a Knicks game, but on January 20, those numbers were a solid success: It was, as all 13,000 were repeatedly reminded, a historic day, as "the fastest city in the world collides with the fastest sport on two feet."

A mayoral announcement was read, officially declaring New York Titans Day; the lights were dimmed; small fireworks went off (dramatic, but sulfury); the visiting Chicago Shamrox were booed, as were the referees, preemptively; and the

players dashed onto the field to robust applause, then shifted and bounced nervously while a woman from one of the Law & Orders sang the national anthem.

Mike McLellan of the NY Titans
photo: Filip Kwiatkowski
Mike McLellan of the NY Titans

It's not every day you get to witness the birth of a franchise, even if it is in a sport whose existence you weren't aware of two weeks earlier. The National Lacrosse League, or NLL— not to be confused with the independent and outdoor Major League Lacrosse, or MLL, which includes your Long Island Lizards— consists of 13 teams, from Rochester to Edmonton to San Jose. They play indoors, on hockey rinks; at the Garden, workers simply laid green carpeting on top of the ice.

The team got its share of press in the days leading up to its debut, though I wouldn't go so far as to say the whole city was buzzing about it. When I told friends I was going to the Titans' historic home-opener, their responses varied widely, from "New York has a lacrosse team?" to "There's indoor lacrosse?" to "Is lacrosse the one with the sticks that have nets on the end?"

The Titans themselves weren't sure what to expect. As an expansion team, they'd only had a grand total of two games and three practices together, none of them at the Garden, before heading into lacrosse history. But their two biggest stars—Casey Powell, 30, a lacrosse legend who made his name at Syracuse, and Ryan Boyle, 25, who dominated at Princeton—were looking forward to the challenge.

"We're gonna try to be the 51st best moment in Garden history," said Powell, a true lacrosse evangelist. He's determined to "launch it into the mainstream"—if possible, one day, to the level of baseball or football.

The Duke lacrosse scandal "certainly didn't help," said Boyle. It's not easy to market an up-and-coming sport when the first terms its name brings to mind, for wide swaths of potential fans, are "rape allegations," "withheld DNA evidence," and "simmering class and racial tensions."

"I'm not one to judge on the case," said Powell. "It's . . . publicity . . . ?"

I think it's safe to say we've found the limit of that old adage.

Powell always knew that he wanted to spend his life in the game, though before he realized playing professionally was an option, he thought that would mean coaching. "Professional lacrosse was never something we dreamed of," he says. "I'm not sure why, but I think it's because there's no money in it, there's no fame in it, and it wasn't televised."

Boyle, on the other hand, was initially less focused. A psychology major at Princeton, he was pre-med for a time ("That didn't go through") and was contemplating culinary school when he found himself drafted by the MLL Philadelphia Barrage. He didn't consider indoor lacrosse until the assistant GM of the San Jose Stealth "basically called me every week, like I was his girlfriend."

Lacrosse has had a longstanding image as a rich, prep-school game—but as far as professional sports go, it's decidedly blue-collar. Tickets at the Garden range from $15 to—for a premium front-row seat—$50. The average NLL salary is in the $12,000-to-$15,000 range, and the league minimum is considerably less. Well-known names like Powell and Boyle can play in both pro leagues and supplement their income with other lacrosse-related ventures and endorsements, but most of their teammates have day jobs.

The January 20 Shamrox game featured a stellar performance from the Titans' goalie, Curtis Palidwor, a solidly built, mustachioed man who flies in to join the team every weekend from Vancouver, where he works as an electrician. "It does make it a little bit tougher," he says of the five-and-half-hour flight, "but my boss back home gives me enough time off, so I usually fly in a day early to get over the travel." Forward Roy Colesy teaches in Chappaqua, and Pat Maddalena is a chiropractor.

The players live all over the country and only get to practice as a group the night before a game. They fly coach and don't have any groupies (yet). Even Powell and Boyle are only recognized in public once in a while, though they were both approached at the 2006 Lacrosse World Championship by members of the team from Japan, where they are, apparently, big.

Indoor lacrosse expects big things from this team. A previous foray into the tristate area in the form of the New York Saints—three words the Titan players are instructed not to mention—failed in 2003. NLL teams tend to relocate often; the Baltimore Thunder became the Pittsburgh CrosseFire and then the Washington Power before taking on their current incarnation as the Colorado Mammoth, all in less than two decades. But the Titans, playing half of their home games at the World's Most Famous Arena, are supposed to be different. "The lacrosse world sees this team as having the ability to transcend the sport," as Boyle put it.

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