Harlem Lacrosse Fosters Love of the Game in Unlikely Places

Over the last year or so, there has been a lot of attention paid to Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard — and for good reason. He’s an interesting guy — he has built a huge consumer brand while not really trying all that hard. He’s a zealot for environmental sustainability, and he actively preaches for people to buy less — including his own garb. He takes off half the year to go to places without cell service and to hike, fish and climb. He’s a walking, talking contradiction: a wildly successful businessman who doesn’t like doing business.

In a recent New Yorker profile, Chouinard while railing against globalism, argued that  “anything of any seriousness that happens has to happen on a local level.”

The quote stuck with me. In many ways, it gets at the heart of why Harlem Lacrosse has had so much success over the past few years.

Go to a handball court on 150th and 7th Avenue in Central Harlem at 7 p.m. on a random Tuesday, and there’s going to be a kid throwing a lacrosse ball against the wall there.

Often, when diversity in lacrosse (or the lack thereof) is discussed, folks are quick to peg the reasons for the game’s lack of reach in the inner city as being the result of broad non-local issues.

“More kids in the inner city would play if they could go to camps.”

“More kids would play if gear was cheaper.”

“More kids would play if there were lined fields.”

“More kids would play if there were more players that looked like them and they were being marketed at.”

“More kids would play if there was a more viable professional league.”

I’ve heard some version of this for years. And there are some good points. There’s certainly a resource imbalance where kids in wealthier communities have better and more access to gear, club teams, pay-to-play events, trainers, fields, college access tours and much more. It’s an issue.

But I don’t think it’s THE issue. Take a drive to Darien, Conn., Cockeysville, Md., or Shove Park in Camillus, N.Y. You’ll see that kids love the game, and the game loves them back, and not primarily because they have better gear or went to a summer camp.

They love the game because they have been taught it the right way. There are legions of local parents who grew up playing and who double as quality youth coaches. People in and around town know what skills to teach and when. The kids grow and have fun, and the culture of lacrosse is reinforced wherever they go. When they get home, they see mom’s All-American awards or Dad’s old Bacharach helmet. They talk about “Doug Knight’s Dive in ’95” at the dinner table and remember Maryland’s dominance in the women’s game. Kids go to their local rec center, join town leagues or local clubs, and they play pick-up lacrosse with their friends on neatly manicured lawns at home.

And the benefits to those communities are enormous. Lacrosse has helped numerous youngsters become better students, better people and eventually better employees and parents. They gain entry to elite colleges and join a broader network that will benefit them for the rest of their life.

So Chouinard’s thesis rings true here: Things of substance happen because people on the ground insist on making it that way.

This vision informs our approach at Harlem Lacrosse. We think less about buying equipment or renting fields, and instead invest in talented people to work on-the-ground and full-time as program directors at the most hyper-local place of all: schools.

Harlem Lacrosse staff embed themselves, becoming part of the day-to-day pitter-patter of a single school. Program directors make it clear their investment is in the kids as people first. The only rule to being on the team is that students must come to study hall. Program directors know who is showing up on time to school, who is struggling with integers and who is on autopilot in science class. They develop deep relationships with parents. On the field, relationships are strengthened through high expectations. Most of the program staff are former college lacrosse stars themselves, and they teach the game the right way. Practices are intentional, fast-paced and fun.

Through this marriage of lacrosse, sports-based youth development and in-school wraparound support, we have built a strong culture. Go to a handball court on 150th and 7th Avenue in Central Harlem at 7 p.m. on a random Tuesday, and there’s going to be a kid throwing a lacrosse ball against the wall there. Go to the library down the street, and you’ll see the same number of participants working on homework. Ask a Harlem Lacrosse student who their favorite players are, and they’ll casually namedrop Aust, Wolf, Jones and Schwarzmann.

We’re building culture not with sticks, gear, fields, or pipe dreams of a professional lacrosse career. Instead, we have talented staff who know how to teach the game and build rapport with students. And it’s working! Hundreds of new kids are joining our teams. Seventy-five kids have earned more than $24 million in scholarships to independent and boarding schools. Our older students are being recruited to play in college. We have club teams competing against great teams from all across the country. We’re just getting started.


But Chouinard didn't get everything right here. Because as much we have benefited from the hyper-local model, the larger lacrosse community has believed and supported our program every step of the way. Placing talented staff to work full time in schools is an expensive undertaking, and there’s been no shortage of generous donors, partner towns, independent schools, colleges and manufacturers who believe in providing access and finding ways to create equal opportunity for Harlem Lacrosse student-athletes.

This is no more evident than at our Annual Benefit at The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers in New York City. On Thursday, legendary athlete Jim Brown — arguably the greatest lacrosse player ever — will accept our Trailblazer Award and be honored for paving the way for a generation of Harlem Lacrosse alums to follow in his footsteps. Current lacrosse stars like Paul Rabil, Alex Aust, Casey and Ryan Powell, Myles Jones and Jordan Wolf will attend as VIP guests and to lend their support. We’ll have more than 20 Division I colleges coaches in attendance who have helped spread the word.

As much as we believe in local support, we know it takes a village, and we’re proud to have the lacrosse community pushing us to achieve and our students to believe. We hope you consider making the trip to Chelsea Piers to celebrate with us.

Joel Censer, a former All-American defenseman Haverford College defenseman and occasional US Lacrosse Magazine contributor, is the chief program officer for Harlem Lacrosse.