Spin Right and Shoot Left

Nathaniel cutting into the slot in a game against Merrimack

“You’re on defense, zone defense. You pick up a loose ball and look for the outlet pass. You see it, throw it, and go down the middle on a fast break, taking the return pass. Now you’re looking for a three-on-two or a two-on-one before they can set up their defense. Too late, they’re settled-man-to-man. You’re still looking for a two-on-one, but it’s more
complicated. You see and sense everybody-where they are, where they’re headed, as things develop in almost constant motion. You watch for a backdoor cut, and for someone posting up. Maybe go for an outside shot. The coach is yelling his mantra, “Look for the open man!” There is no open man. Wary of a double-team, you give up the ball with a bounce pass. One player to the next, the ball moves two, three, four times before you set a pick, roll, take a no-look pass, and go to the hoop for a layup. Are you playing basketball? No.”

This paragraph opens John McPhee’s essay “Spin right and Shoot Left,” one of a series of three pieces McPhee published on lacrosse in the New Yorker, and later included in the collection Silk Parachute, that I read when they appeared in print. Mcphee joined the Princeton University lacrosse team on a trip to play the English national lacrosse team at the La Manga sporting club near Cartagena, and in Ireland. He was traveling with the  team as a “Faculty Fellow,” an official position, as he puts it, “not unlike shaman, that was thought up some years ago by the university’s athletic director, Gary Walters, who can think up just about anything.” In his article, McPhee also mentions the reading he did for the series: the magazine Inside Lacrosse, the book The Lacrosse Story, by Alexander M. Weyand and Milton R. Roberts (1965), Lacrosse: A History of the Game, by Donald M. Fisher (2002), Lacrosse: Technique and Tradition, by Bob Scott and updated by David G. Pietramala and Neil A. Grauer (2006),  American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War, by Thomas Vennum, Jr. (1994), and the unpublished The Lacrosse History of the Boys’ Latin School, by Mac Kennedy (unpublished).

This spring Nan has taken up the game of lacrosse and we are  learning a bit more about the game. What we call lacrosse is an autochthonous activity played by native North Americans Groups of 100 to 1,000 men on a field that stretched from about 500 yards to a couple of miles long. The ball was thrown about from the rise to the fall of the sun for two to three days as part of ceremonial ritual to give thanks to the Creator.

Ball-play of the Choctaw, by George Catlin, circa 1846–50

The French Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, saw Iroquois tribesmen play it in 1637 and was the first European to write about the game. He called it la crosse (“the stick”). McPhee writes, “A player’s stick is also called a crosse. It is said that when the black robes of the seventeenth century saw the sticks of the Iroquois they thought of ecclesiastical crosiers. In some parts of France, cricket has been called la crosse. A game more or less like field hockey developed in France and was also called le jeu de la crosse. Prairie La Crosse, where the La Crosse River enters the Mississippi, is where the Winnebagos played, and where La Crosse, Wisconsin, is now.”

It would make sense that Nathaniel would take up this field game. For it has affinities with the other game he loves, ice hockey. Wayne Gretzky, McPhee reports, growing up in Brantford, Ontario, would look forward to getting his lacrosse stick out and start throwing the ball around every spring. “It didn’t matter how cold or rainy it would be,” Gretzky said, “we’d be out firing the ball against walls and working on our moves.” In lacrosse as in hockey, McPhee writes, “Gretzky was at home in the power play, also known as “man-up” and “e.m.o.”-the extra-man opportunity that results when somebody is sent out of the game for a time as a result of a violation, such as “slashing,” an unambiguous term common to hockey and lacrosse. Hockey’s power play is still a bit rough-hewn-for example, one player, in close, acting as a screen, the others stitching around him a silhouette of slap shots–and in evolutionary terms has not progressed nearly as far as the fast-weaving passes of lacrosse, which gradually tease apart an open man.”

Next spring Nathaniel says that he will go out for the JV lacrosse team. Spin right and shoot left. Sounds as good advice as any for parents, too,  as they follow the path of a fourteen-year-old boy.

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