A lot of discouraging sounds can be heard in the area around Gilmor Street in the west Baltimore ghetto. You can hear the conspiratorial whispers of drug dealers and the aimless murmurs of the homeless and, sometimes, the screams of violence. But recently, in those same hard streets and alleys, there is an oddly hopeful noise to be heard: the funny metallic clatter of an open-ended tin can as it is speared off the ground and catapulted against a tree. They even have a name for this activity. They call it ghetto lacrosse.
In fact, almost everywhere you look in that blighted neighborhood there are reminders of lacrosse. Plastered on telephone poles, rusting fenders and deteriorating doors are green and white bumper stickers declaring: THIS IS BULLDOG COUNTRY or BULLDOG LACROSSE: THE NEW GAME IN TOWN!
What's going on here? Isn't this the inner city, and isn't lacrosse supposed to be a stereotypically white sport played by prep school students? True enough, but through an unusual combination of corporate largess and personal charisma, all that is changing, in one small corner of Baltimore anyway.
The largess came from the Westinghouse Electric Corp. defense and electronics center manager of human resources, Earl King. In 1985, King convinced Westinghouse to fund a lacrosse program in troubled Harlem Park Middle School (grades 6 to 8) as part of Westinghouse's Adopt-A-School program. The company has put more than $25,000 into the school's lacrosse program over the past three years.
The charisma comes from Earl Banks, 33, a former Harlem Park student and professional box lacrosse player, who was recruited in the program's first year to coach his alma mater's team. Part gadfly, part zealot, part psychologist, Banks has done the seemingly impossible: He has successfully brought lacrosse to the ghetto.
To say that he faced obstacles would be an understatement. First, there was the recognition issue. "People in the neighborhood would see the lacrosse stick and say, 'What is that? A crabbing net? Are you going crabbing?' We got a lot of that," says Banks. Then there was the scheduling problem. Because none of Baltimore's public middle schools has a lacrosse program, Banks's only hope was to schedule the high-powered lacrosse programs at prep schools in the Baltimore area. At first, those schools were very skeptical.
"They said, 'Harlem who? Where? I doubt it,' " Banks remembers. "So I'm saying, 'Who are we going to play?' We're practicing and not knowing whether we're going to get a game." Finally, two private schools—Loyola and Friends—agreed to play the Bulldogs. The ice was broken, and with the help of The Lacrosse Foundation—a nonprofit, Baltimore-based organization that promotes the sport—a nine-game schedule was established.
Through it all, Banks's most serious opponent was the ghetto itself. "Harlem Park always had a reputation for bad things," says Banks. "Kids would attack the teachers, attack a bus driver, attack each other." Two years before the lacrosse program was started, a student was shot and killed right on campus. In fact, Banks was standing in a stairwell when the shots were fired, and saw the victim rush by him on the stairs before collapsing in the hallway outside the school's packed cafeteria.
Friends School, Harlem Park's first home opponent, was well aware of Harlem's reputation. "Their coaches were telling me that their parents don't want to come because they're afraid of having their pocketbooks stolen," Banks recalls, "and, 'Hey, wasn't that the school where that kid got shot and killed?' I said, 'It's not like that.' When they came here for the game, it was like Fort Knox. We had police surrounding the Friends bench. I told my principal that we had to have protection, and we got it."
To everyone's astonishment, some 1,500 people, mostly from the immediate neighborhood, turned out for the game. The area's unlikely romance with the sport had begun. "The neighborhood people had a curiosity about what was going on down on the field," says school counselor William Ruffin. "You know, it's right out where everybody can see it. They came down, and they got excited just like the kids."
Even more surprising than the turnout at that first game was the outcome: Harlem Park 7, Friends 1. Friends had been so confident that it had sent its B team, assuming, naturally enough, that a fledgling program would not be competitive. "Yes, we were surprised," says Friends coach Tod Rutstein. "Their coach had a lot of good athletes who didn't have the stickwork, but who could take control of the ball and run the length of the field with it. I was pleased for them; they had a lot of spirit."
The miracles never ceased that year as Harlem Park rolled to the unofficial middle school lacrosse championship, going 7-1-1 and defeating the Friends A team later in that first season, a 9-8 double-overtime win in a driving rain. "Their overall team speed was just so great," recalls coach Randy Cooper. "They had one really dominating player [Bobby Anderson]. He was clearly a standout, sizewise, speedwise and skillwise. He had a really hard shot. We just couldn't stop him."
Of course, Banks's squad was a far cry from the blazer, tie and Top-Sider crowd against which his team was competing. "We had some hard-core kids," says Stanley Holmes, who came to Harlem Park as principal in 1985 and is credited with giving the school a stronger emphasis on academics. "These were failing kids, streetwise kids, older kids because they had failed so many times. We were sort of steering them toward lacrosse, hoping that it would motivate them." Banks says it more simply: "We had a bunch of knuckleheads."
Holmes remembers Anderson as one of the tough ones. "I was on the verge of putting Bobby out of school," says Holmes. "He was that type of kid. It was a constant battle in terms of getting him to do the things that he just wasn't motivated to do."
Banks also has no trouble in recalling Anderson, nor in understanding the youngster's attitude. "His mother was a barmaid," Banks says. "She didn't get to see him until she finished work at three o'clock in the morning. When Bobby went home, he didn't have any supervision. He'd go out in the streets; he could do anything that he wanted to do."
Banks knows all about the streets. Just seven years ago his sister was murdered on one of them. Now he jealously guards "his kids," as he calls them, urging them to go home straight after practice and to stay off the streets. He visits their homes, talks to their parents, pushes them hard—sometimes yelling at them, sometimes patting them on the back—but always bringing a fierce commitment to the task, to which the kids have responded.
Anderson is a different person now. "Once he got involved in lacrosse," says Holmes, "his grades came up, his attitude changed, we didn't have discipline problems with him anymore. I saw him come in the other day [Anderson is now a ninth-grader at Edmondson High and is playing lacrosse there]. It's just amazing to see the transition he's made. It's a tribute to lacrosse. I would definitely say that had he not gotten involved in lacrosse, he would have been another statistic in the street."
Banks is hoping Anderson can bring up his grades enough to get a prep school scholarship for next year. He believes that Anderson has the potential to one day become a collegiate All-America. Sometimes sport can truly be more than a game.
Banks doesn't win them all, on or off the field. He had to cut one player from last year's team because he suspected that the player was dealing drugs. Some have fallen by the wayside, unable to motivate themselves sufficiently for Banks"s stringent program. Others just haven't had the talent to make the team. In just three years, lacrosse has become so popular at Harlem Park that Banks had 400 students trying out for 30 places this spring.
But Banks doesn't lose many. Some of those who don't make the team can become a manager, or a member of the field crew, or part of the booster team, or try out for the cheerleader squad. Altogether, Banks figures, 100 boys and girls are involved with the team in some capacity. Many of them refer to him as "father" or "uncle," which in some ways he is.
Banks has an almost entirely new team this year with only four players back from last year's squad. Even with his emphasis on academics—there's an hour of study hall before each practice, and players are required to maintain at least a 75 average—the task is as challenging as ever. In fact, it may be even more so this year because the school has added sixth-graders instead of just seventh-and eighth-graders, as had been the case in the program's first two years. Half of this season's squad is made up of these younger players, a fact that was all too evident in Harlem Park's opening-game 13-5 loss to Loyola.
But, in truth, the addition of sixth-graders just gives Banks a chance to break some kids' bad habits at an earlier age—youngsters like Tito Bassig, who chose to transfer to Harlem Park from another public school and whose grades have dramatically improved since his involvement with lacrosse.
Banks sees these changes all the time. "They might have nothing at home," he says, "but if they're on the team, they can say, 'Hey, I'm part of something, I'm part of the Harlem Park Bulldog lacrosse team.' There's just such a pride associated with the program. I mean, sometimes I walk around and say: 'Is this for real? Is this Harlem Park?' "