A Good Sport Spoiled
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.
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 starsCasey Powell, 30, a lacrosse legend who made his name at Syracuse, and Ryan Boyle, 25, who dominated at Princetonwere 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 gamebut as far as professional sports go, it's decidedly blue-collar. Tickets at the Garden range from $15 tofor 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 Saintsthree words the Titan players are instructed not to mentionfailed 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.
There are still a few production kinks to be worked out. The team announcer insisted fans wave their complimentary Titan towels with a fervor bordering on hostility ("Wave those towels! Is that the best you can do?! This is supposed to be New York City! Celebrate that goal!!"). And the mascot resembles a peppy, neon-orange Darth Vader. The Titans Dance Team was selected just two weeks before the first game (by an odd panel of judges that included Titans defenseman Matt Alrich, Jets safety Kerry Rhodes, former American Idol contestant Constantine Maroulis, and Christie, captain of the Knicks City Dancers), and has only had time to learn two routines, though they plan to debut a third at Nassau Coliseum this weekend.
That said, the game itself is fast paced, energetic, and easy to follow, even for the uninitiated. Lacrosse evolved from a centuries-old Native American game, but Canadians put the finishing touches on the indoor version, and in its essentials it's extremely similar to hockey, with a little soccer and a touch of basketball thrown in.
As in the NHL, indoor lacrosse teams usually have a "goon"hockey players prefer to be called "enforcers," but NLL defenders don't get to be so pickywho'll fight opposing players when necessary in order to protect their more talented teammates and fire up the crowd. The best offensive players aren't supposed to fight, because their team can't afford to have them get injured or land in the penalty box, but for those same reasons, opposing teams are constantly trying to provoke Boyle and Powell. "You'll get gooned up, but you have to keep your composure," said Boyle, which led to the following conversation:
Boyle: You hope that your goon comes in and messes with their goon, and they goon each other out.
Powell: And you hope your goon is tougher than their goon. Or you will get gooned.
Boyle: Right, exactly. Because otherwise their goon's gonna beat up your goon, and then that goon's just going to keep beating the hell out of you.
"We don't have a certified goon yet," added Powell. It turns out that this is just one of the many interesting wrinkles that come with being an expansion team. Oddly enough, no one had volunteered.
The Titans won their home debut 11-9, a close, tight game that put their season record at 1-2"Everyone talks about how historic this game is," said Boyle, "but we just needed a win."and afterwards they endeared themselves to their newborn fans by staying on the field to sign autographs for more than half an hour. It's amazing how much goodwill an autograph can generate; kids who couldn't have named a single player on the team were thrilled beyond words. Powell estimated that he signed a few hundred, while Matt Alrich complained good-naturedly that his wrist hurt (passing teammate: "That's not from signing autographs!" Alrich: "I walked right into that one").
In their small, spartan locker room, down a long hallway from the Knicks' and Rangers' areas, the players buzzed happily about the game, the turnout, and the Garden crowd (which had included hundreds of friends and family members, as well as a wide selection of Roy Colesy's students). Everyone admitted to having some variety of "jitters" at the outset.
"This is my seventh year in the league and I actually had a bunch of butterflies," said Palidwor. "When I found out we were going to play our home-opener here, I was so excited, and so were the guys." Asked by bemused sportswriters if goaltending was more stressful than his weekday career, he smiled. "It's slightly more stressful, but at the same time, I play with live power, so . . . that can be stressful too."
They were still goonless, and the Titans would be heading back to their day jobs bruised, with ugly scrapes and burns from hitting the unforgiving playing surface, like something out of Fight Club.
In the same drab room where all Garden head coaches hold forth, Adam Mueller was asked if this game had been a "must-win." Welcome to New York, Adam. "My goal is to get these guys to compete in every game this season, and to limit their mistakes. We're still learning," he repliedsounding, actually, not unlike Isiah Thomas.
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