Levine, CityLax Holding the Door Open
Mat Levine took up the sport of lacrosse back in the 1960s under a young, energetic youth coach named Richie Moran, and used the sport to fulfill his dreams. He founded CityLax in hopes of providing teenagers in New York City with the same opportunities he had. Levine, along with Max Seibald, Kristen Kjellman and others will be hosting their annual fundraising gala on Thursday night.
It's easy to walk through the door and never look back.
Millions of lacrosse players have walked through the sport's gateway, prospered from its life lessons and mentoring, and kept moving. There's no shame in it. It's not easy or natural to have an appreciation for those things we take for granted.
When Mat Levine walked through that door by picking up his first lacrosse stick in Manhasset, N.Y., in the 1960s, he knew someday he would hold that door ajar for others who didn't have his same opportunity.
As with many kids who grow up in Manhasset, located on Long Island and 22 miles from Manhattan, Levine was drenched in lacrosse. The youth program was started by his father and an energetic young coach named Richie Moran, who would later go on to build the Cornell dynasty of the 1970s, and Levine utilized every lacrosse tool at his disposal. When it was time to choose a college, he followed his high school coach, Renzi Lamb, who took the head coaching job at Williams College.
Fast forward three decades. Levine, now living in New York City, has three kids of his own. Sure, he played club ball for a little while after college, but then life started happening. His stick collected dust in a Manhattan apartment until the day it was time to push the door open for his children to walk through. Unfortunately, the door only led to an empty room.
Where would they play? On a rooftop?
Undaunted, Levine started his own grassroots program in 1996. He called it "Doc's NYC Lacrosse," an homage to his friend, Bernard "Doc" Schoenbaum, a dentist and Levine's teammate on the New York Lacrosse club team.
"We started out on a lonely patch of grass in Central Park with dogs running around. We had 20 boys the first year," Levine said. "We got a little more popular even though a lot of the kids were playing baseball and the other sports. We doubled that in the second year and really started to grow nicely. We started to flourish. We added girls as quickly as we could."
It wasn't long before Central Park wouldn't cut it. Doc's Lacrosse numbers swelled to the point where they needed far more field space. The youngsters who came out for Doc's filled the sport's typical demographic – middle to upper-class white kids whose parents had played the game – so what better place to move than City College, located in the middle of Harlem.
With that decision came diversity.
"Kids from the neighborhood started dropping by and asking, 'What is that game?' or 'Can I join in?' We said, 'Sure,'" Levine said. "We tried to outfit them, waive fees and get kids from the neighborhood involved."
There was an issue, however. For as much interest as the sport would draw from the local kids, it was never sustained. The attrition rate among minorities that tried Doc's was very high. Levine spent nights trying to figure out the problem. Why weren't these kids sticking with the sport that was such a muse to him?
The answer came quickly: there was no future in it. Doc's Lacrosse finished in eighth grade, and unless a player was headed off to a prep or parochial school, that was the end of the line. Barely any of the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) schools sponsored the sport, and the ones that did were all out in Staten Island, another borough of the city.
So Levine approached the board of advisors for Doc's Lacrosse and made a proposal.
"Let's turn the paradigm upside down," Levine said. "Instead of developing from the bottom up like you would normally do in any sport to get the kids exposed early, we said, 'Let's go from the top down and try to get high school development and programming visible, so these kids see that they have a place and a team to play.'"
In 2005, CityLax was born.
It started with Levine sitting down with the Department of Education and then several principals and athletic directors at PSAL schools. The first institution to show interest in adding lacrosse to the curriculum was A. Phillip Randolph High School in Harlem.
"I threw 40 sticks in my car and hauled them in," Levine said. "I grabbed a few volunteers who were able to take time off from lacrosse, specifically guys who ran the Doc's program. We conducted gym class. From there, the kids that really gravitated toward it, we invited them to our weekend clinics. The gym class sessions were in the fall and the weekend clinics were in the winter."
One of the first clinics was held in the gym, and when Levine was about to start things up, many of the boys were using basketballs. He told them to shelve the basketballs.
Except for one.
He told the youngster holding the basketball to take it to the rack as Levine guarded him. Effortlessly, the teenager did a lightning-quick crossover move and laid the ball into the basket. Proud of himself, he walked back to Levine, who proceeded to trade out the ball for a pair of sticks. Levine then instructed the teen to guard him.
Though he had not played lacrosse competitively in 30 years, Levine, in his mid-50s at the time, summoned up what remaining agility he had. He ran a split-dodge on the youngster, swung to his left and ripped a shot into the makeshift net set up in the gym. The teenager, eyes wide open, looked at Levine and then the stick in his hands, and back to Levine, a smile spreading across his face.
"It was breaking the ice," Levine said. "Comparing lacrosse with a sport they were more familiar with was an effective tool. The physicality and everything else really sold itself."
A. Phillip Randolph was the first school to add lacrosse, and the next year CityLax went to the Bronx, adding boys' and girls' lacrosse at Lehman and Columbus High School. They slowly moved around the five boroughs, building PSAL lacrosse participation to 30 teams in 20 schools, with all of the boroughs represented.
"The phone starts ringing, 'Hey, we heard that lacrosse is a new sport to the public schools. Can you help us?' Now there is quite a demand for it. I get calls for it almost every day."
-- CityLax founder Mat Levine
"All of a sudden, the phone starts ringing," Levine said. "'Hey, we heard that lacrosse is a new sport to the public schools. Can you help us?' Now there is quite a demand for it. I get calls for it almost every day."
Not only are teams popping up all over New York City, but the success stories about those kids walking through the door held by Levine are starting to appear.
There's Billy Nguyen, a high schooler of Vietnamese descent, who picked up the sport and quickly became the best player on the Columbus team, helping the Blue Steel win the PSAL championship in 2010. There was interest from new NCAA Division III programs in the Midwest and Utica College in Upstate New York, but Nguyen decided to utilize the academic and financial scholarships he received to go to St. John's in Queens.
Levine encouraged Nguyen to try out for the club team at St. John's, but "Billy from the Bronx," as he introduced himself to St. John's head coach Jason Miller, got a tryout with the Red Storm and made the varsity team as a reserve defensive middie. Unfortunately, Nguyen had to leave the team.
"Billy told me, 'Coach wants me on the team, and I think I can add value as a d-middie, but I'm taking pre-med courses now and my labs conflict with a lot of practices," Levine said of his conversation with Nguyen. "'I just said I've got to keep the academics first.'"
That also involved transferring to a school with a better pre-med program: Ohio State. Nguyen is toying with the idea of trying out for the Buckeyes next fall while he pursues his medical education.
Then there's Khalif Yisrael, who saw his friend walking to school one day with a lacrosse stick, and promptly went home to ask his parents if he could transfer to Frederick Douglass Academy in Harlem because they sponsored the sport. Yisrael was a very good lacrosse player and an average student, but one of his assistant coaches at Douglass was a graduate at Trinity-Pawling, a prep school north of the city.
Yisreal was encouraged to enroll at Trinity-Pawling for a post-graduate year, where he played lacrosse but was also introduced to a more rigorous academic structure in which he excelled. After graduating, he received his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. Although he didn't make the Navy team, lacrosse made it all possible.
"If it wasn't for him going to school with his friend and saying, 'What's that in your hand? I want to play that,' he would not be where he is," Levine said.
Every year, CityLax keeps open the door through which more and more inner city players walk. It's not easy. It demands countless hours from hundreds of volunteers and requires an influx of funds. On Thursday, Levine and CityLax supporters will host their annual gala at the Yale Club in New York City in hopes of reaching their financial goals.
"We're trying to raise $250,000 out of this event," Levine said. "That covers the operating budget and almost all of what we have planned and what we would like to do. We're not there to start an endowment yet, but hopefully we'll get there.
"Some of the money will be for an initiative to build up a scholarship fund where they'll send a public school kid to go to a boarding school for a PG year. We're also announcing that we're staging a fundraising tournament to also fund that scholarship. We're going to announce the establishment of a mentoring program to incorporate the coaching of lacrosse, as well as getting the kids more focused on their academics so they are graduating on time and getting off to a college education."
Former Tewaaraton Award winners Max Seibald and Kristen Kjellman will be in attendance, along with former North Carolina attackman and Tewaaraton finalist Billy Bitter. ESPN play-by-play man Eamon McAnaney will be the evening's host. They all hope to take turns holding that door open for boys and girls who can use lacrosse to achieve great things.
When will it be your turn to hold the door?
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