The best lacrosse player in the country, perhaps the finest to ever play the game, walks into the room. His coach beams. "I'd like to introduce Paul...."
"Gary," the player interrupts.
"Ah, yes," says the coach. "Gary Gait."
This is no way to treat a star, but it's understandable, for Gary Gait is the identical twin of Paul Gait, and both are sophomore midfielders at Syracuse, which carries a 12-0 record, a first-round bye and the No. 1 seeding into this weekend's second round of the NCAA tournament. The Gait twins are near equals on the field. If Gary, who led the nation's colleges in regular-season scoring with 56 goals, is the alltime best, then Paul is No. 1-A. "Gary's the best since '57, when Jim Brown played here," says 87-year-old Roy Simmons Sr., who coached the Orange from 1931 to '70. Brown was as dominating in lacrosse as he was in football, and, Simmons says, "Gary may be as good as Big Jim, and Paul may be as good as Gary."
The Gaits insist that Paul is as good. "We do everything the same, always have," says Paul. Adds Gary, "In our league back home, Paul was MVP last summer, I won the award the summer before that, and Paul won it the summer before that." Paul finishes the thought: "We take turns having great seasons."
Back home is Victoria, B.C., and the league is part of Canada's box-lacrosse circuit, which uses out-of-season hockey rinks as the sites for six-man games. The Gaits, who first picked up sticks when they were four, were weaned on the indoor game. "Box is a lot of fun," says Gary. "It's tighter, faster, rough along the boards. Cross-checking's legal, and we're pretty good-sized, so we did well."
The brothers wound up playing at Syracuse, 3,000 miles from home, because Canada has no college lacrosse and virtually all the U.S. lacrosse powers are strung along the Eastern Seaboard, from Massachusetts to North Carolina. And when it came time for the Gaits to choose one of those schools, Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr., who inherited the Orange team from his father 18 years ago, had an edge.
"A while back we played some practice games against the Canadian national team as a favor," says Simmons. "Their coach, Bobby Allan, said, 'Roy, I owe you one.' He called two years ago and said, 'Here's the tip. There are two kids in B.C. who are going to be stars for our team in a couple of years, and they want to go to college. Get 'em!' "
"A few colleges got in touch," says Gary. "But Coach Simmons was the most persistent. He told us the weather in Syracuse was beautiful, nothing but sunny days. Our first day here, we had a huge snowstorm." Paul chimes in: "In Victoria there are billions of flowers. I'm still looking for some color around here. Coach lied. We're bummed."
Actually, the twins are very happy playing for the Orange. They like their coach's relaxed style—"We're serious about winning, but we smile all the while," Simmons says—and have become campus heroes. The Gaits are at home in the classroom, too; they take all the same courses in the College of Arts and Sciences and have twin averages of 2.8. "We're here for four years, definitely," says Gary. "We came for an education, not for lacrosse," says Paul.
With Gary scoring five goals and Paul three, Syracuse opened the current season by thrashing defending national champion Johns Hopkins 19-7. The Orange followed that up with a 12-11 overtime win over North Carolina. Since then only Rutgers, which fell 12-9, has come within eight goals of Syracuse. "This is perhaps the best-balanced squad I've coached," says Simmons. "Our defense is solid, and lots of people can score. We're getting tougher because opponents worry about the Gaits, and our other guys are able to do more."
As opponents concentrate on shutting down the twins, both brothers—Gary, especially—have started to dish off more. "Defenses are running up to meet our line at midfield now," says Gary. "They're collapsing on me right away, so I'm getting others into the action. If I have two guys on me, then I know someone's free and I just toss the ball." In Syracuse's regular-season finale, Massachusetts tried to smother Gary from the opening face-off. He scored only three of Syracuse's 23 goals, but Paul had six.
"I don't think they're the kind of players you can stop," says Hopkins's All-America defenseman, Dave Pietramala, who, if the seedings are accurate, will get another opportunity at the Gaits in the NCAA title game. And, as if Syracuse needs any advantages, the semis and final will be held over Memorial Day weekend in its Carrier Dome.
"And, really, the only good game we played was the first one, against Hopkins," says Paul. Gary interrupts: "We were totally psyched for that, and we haven't been totally psyched since. There'll be no problem getting totally psyched for the tournament games." Again Paul finishes the thought: "It's not our nation, really, but it is the national championship."