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."