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During the warmups before every game at the World Lacrosse Championships in Netanya, Iroquois Nationals offensive coordinator and University at Albany head lacrosse coach Scott Marr would pace the field with a traditional lacrosse stick leaning on one shoulder, a cane-shaped length of heavy handcrafted wood ending in a pocket sewn out of leather and rope. The stick, he explained, was a gift from the father of Lyle Thompson, a former player of Marr’s and the star of the Iroquois team. Thompson also has three siblings and a cousin on the Nationals roster. The Thompsons had a relatively traditional upbringing on the Onondaga reservation just south of Syracuse, and are in many respects the face of the Iroquois program. Fans stuck around for photos after every game, and a couple of admirers would usually be wearing T-shirts with the Thompson family logo on the front: a long braid hanging from an eagle feather, forming a large T. Marr says the wooden stick’s pregame presence is enough to prepare him for the fight ahead. “It’s all part of the mindset and the vibe—anything that can bring you a little bit of help,” he said.
When Marr went to Standing Rock with Thompson, he brought the stick with him. Thompson played in a traditional lacrosse game at the 2017 protest encampment, which formed to opposing a planned oil pipeline across Lakota tribal lands in North Dakota. With his coach along for the 1,300-mile journey, Thomson used lacrosse and his own stature within the sport to draw attention to the issues of indigenous rights and environmental preservation that Standing Rock quickly came to represent. “I want to stand up for what’s morally right,” Thompson recalled of his trip to the protest camp. “I wanted people to know what was going on, and a lot of people didn’t know. I took a stand for what I thought was right.”
Before the world championship, Palestinian advocates called on the Iroquois Nationals team to boycott the tournament. They contended that the Iroquois had a moral responsibility to stand with the oppressed Arabs people of Palestine, whose lands and homes had allegedly been stolen in much the same way as the Iroquois’ had. The BDS appeal was a miscalculation on the activists’ part. Calling on the Iroquois not to play lacrosse anywhere for any reason is tantamount to asking them not to practice and share a revered part of their culture. There were other factors making a boycott unlikely: Playing in Israel meant that an additional country would recognize the validity of the Haudenosaunee passports on which the team travels. Skipping the tournament would deny the Iroquois Nationals of a chance to compete at the sport’s highest level and sideline the team for the second time in three world championships—Great Britain refused to accept the Haudenosaunee passports in 2010, and the Iroquois didn’t make it to the tournament.
There was a certain presumptuousness to the BDS demand: Have a conscience on our terms, the activists seemed to say, or you’ll reveal yourselves to have no conscience at all. The Iroquois decided they were better off finding the good that is possible under ambiguous circumstances. The Iroquois team insisted they were on a mission of peace. “We play the game for the Creator,” said coach Mark Burnam. “We do whatever we can for Him to represent Him well … t’s a medicine game and we play for peace.”
The Iroquois played eight games in nine days but still made the most of their jam-packed time in Israel. They visited the Western Wall and ran a lacrosse clinic for both Arab and Jewish youth in Jerusalem. Everyone on the team seemed to be pleasantly surprised at the country’s normalcy, even during a week where hundreds of rockets fell on communities along the border with Gaza. There’s a possibility of players and coaches being sent to Israel as part of future exchanges, now that the team knows that their passports will be accepted here. The tournament also gave the Iroquois a chance to meet teams from emerging lacrosse-playing nations, and to show them everything that could be possible even with a small pool of players and resources. “We’re here to represent the Iroquois nation and spread the game,” said Burnam. “We did it with Israel and we did it with the Arab kids and we did it with Uganda. That’s why we’re here. We try to be ambassadors of this game.”
Ansley Jemison, the program’s executive director, said the team was a “beacon of hope” both for indigenous communities and for aspiring lacrosse-playing countries—at the world championships, an all-star team from Iroquois communities of only a few thousand people beat nations with populations in the tens of millions. “I think it certainly is something that we can share and give to the world and also be that representative for indigenous peoples throughout the world—to be that voice and to be that face. It’s an important thing, and it’s a role that we certainly embrace but it also comes with a lot of challenges. We have to be as respectful as we can and respect the opportunities and appreciate these opportunities.”
In Israel, the Iroquois team made lacrosse a vehicle for something positive, just as the sport was for Thompson and Marr at Standing Rock and as it has been for indigenous and nonindigenous communities in the centuries since the game was first played. Maybe it takes newcomers to the Jewish State, or people with no real preconceptions or complexes about the country, to show that there’s good to be done there without having to take a maximalist position on anything, and that there’s a life beyond the politics and crises of the moment even in places where that doesn’t seem possible.
I mentioned to Jemison that there were people who didn’t think the Iroquois team should have showed up to the 2018 championship. “When people don’t want you to be there, maybe there’s something that they’re worried about, maybe they’re concerned about, maybe they’re afraid of,” he replied. “So that only kind of pushes you when somebody tells you you can’t do something. You want to do it anyway.”
As the Iroquois Nationals marched in a double-file line into the main field at the Wingate Institute before their bronze medal match against Australia on Friday night, defender Johnson Jimerson led the team in a low call-and-response, a ritual chant called the Shaking Quiver Dance that used to be intoned before war or hunting parties set out. At the front of the line of players, an assistant coach carried the Eagle Staff, a long leather belt held under an L-shaped wooden rod with six eagle feathers representing the nations of the Iroquois hanging from the top. In all likelihood, this would be the last time this team would ever play together in its present form. Because the Iroquois Nationals don’t really have the resources to practice, scout, or do advanced game-planning (and will probably start raising money for the 2022 championship as soon as this coming October) the team was essentially a pickup squad that had existed for only a couple of weeks—and even then, they just barely made it to Netanya because of a last-second passport-related delay. Despite all that, on Friday night they still had a chance to leave Israel with only the second medal in the program’s history—in 80 minutes of lacrosse, these 23 players could turn the hardships, uncertainties, and structural disadvantages they’d faced into arguments for just how good they really are.
In the first half, the offense was as frightening as it had been all tournament. Lyle Thompson flung a no-look assist to the wing, and still had his back to the play when Frank Brown banged home a goal. A backhanded dive from Brendan Bomberry found daylight inside a congested stretch of the crease—the Iroquois were beating the defensive slide and rocketing the ball to high-percentage shot areas with total impunity. Still, the Aussies never played as if they were getting blown out, even when they were trailing 7-1 in the second quarter. They played as if they were in a different game than the one the scoreboard said they were in. And they were right.
It was 12-7 at the start of the fourth, after a third quarter where the Iroquois had been badly outshot and outhustled. Twenty minutes away from a medal I suggested to Jemison, who was at his usual spot at the top of the substitution box. “We’re not talking about that shit right now,” was his wise reply.
Lacrosse games can turn very quickly: Australia started winning faceoffs. They scored on a man-up. They scored on a runner from the wing. At some point boxes of bronze medals were brought to the scorer’s table, just a few feet away from both teams’ sidelines. Aussie defender Jeffrey Melsopp started flinging cannonballs that nobody could stop. The Iroquois scored their last goal of the tournament on a possession so long and patient that the Australian fans got a “stall” chant going. It wasn’t the last goal of the game: Australia scored immediately on the ensuing faceoff, cutting the lead to 14-11. Iroquois goalie Warren Hill deflected two point-blank shots with the shaft of his stick in the final minutes. As Hill explained afterwards, during a game a lacrosse goalie is too wired to experience fear. “Practices suck but when you’re out there on the field and the adrenaline kicks in you don’t even feel it,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
The Iroquois held on, securing the bronze with a 14-12 victory. Mark Burnam and Aussie coach Glenn Meredith traded shirts. Over 100 people from Japan, Germany, and seemingly every other country at the tournament crowded the barrier behind the Iroquois sideline, begging for relics of their victory—Warren Hill threw his undershirt into the crowd; an especially lucky well-wisher got a pair of dirty socks. The coach of the Japanese national team, which was playing England on the same field in a placement game, politely asked the Iroquois to wrap up the party. No one wanted the moment to end.
“It happened so quickly,” Jimerson said, reflecting on the tournament. “It’s crazy it’s all over.”
At the risk of being ungenerous to the Jewish State, I am mildly surprised and gratified that Israel bore no responsibility for the ruination of the tournament final. It wasn’t rockets or war or the weather or corruption or BDS or slapdash planning that sent this one straight into the annals of lacrosse infamy (to be clear, everyone says Israel did an excellent job hosting the tournament on relatively short notice. Look, I’m as shocked as you are). The first 79 minutes and 58 seconds of the U.S.-Canada final were a thrilling back-and-forth, as one would expect from two teams who have been preparing for this game ever since Canada stunned the home team in the gold medal match in 2014. With the possible exception of women’s hockey—which also has a fun and vicious U.S.-Canada rivalry—there is no other sport in which the top two are this closely matched and also this far ahead of numbers three and four. In a very real sense, Saturday morning’s fixture had been on the schedule for four years. It was really, really important, both for the health and reputation of an emerging sport and for whatever part of the human soul craves a sense of certainty for the result to be as exciting and uncontroversial as possible.
One out of two ain’t bad, right? So: Two seconds left. The U.S. had rainbowed its last three shots over the goal but retained possession by stationing a player deep downfield (bit late in the game to be explaining lacrosse basics, but if a shot goes out of bounds over the backline the team with a player closest to the ball as it left the field of play is awarded possession). Rob Pannell brought the ball in from deep behind the goal and immediately found Tom Schreiber, who through some flabbergasting Canadian defensive breakdown had succeeded in planting himself directly in front of Canadian keeper Dillon Ward. Ward had been a brick wall in net during the world championship, but ShotSniper, a nifty and intuitive shot-tracking app developed by Keith Robertson (an affable Scotsman with the highest lacrosse IQ of anyone I met in Netanya), revealed that 61 percent of the goals Ward allowed had been in the upper third of the net. Whether he was relying on advanced analytics or his own finely honed field vision, the Princeton-educated Schreiber found the upper-left quadrant of the goal—and with it, lacrosse immortality. He’d scored the game-winning tally of a world championship with just a second left on the clock.
Or had he? The Canadians believed the final whistle had blown before the goal and that the referees had started the clock way too late in the play. I am a proud American, so forgive the following highly biased analysis: Even if the refs blew it, gaming the clock is an intrinsic part of sports. No contest comes down to just one play—Canada led by multiple goals for long stretches of the second half and still lost. There’s no reason to dispute a last-second goal if you stop the goal from being scored in the first place.
The Canadians were understandably furious. The game expired to cataclysmic anger on the sidelines and a smattering of boos from the stands. “What a terrible way to lose,” Team Canada’s Twitter feed observed. “The boys gave it their all. Lost at no fault of their own. Terrible clock management from the officials. Seems the game was over whenever USA scored.” The Canadian Lacrosse Association added, “Une contreverse entoure la défaite 9-8 que le Canada subit aux mains des États-Unis à la finale du Championnat du monde.”
I have no idea just what the hell happened. It’s possible Canada was jobbed by a fateful discrepancy between the scoreboard-displayed time at Netanya Stadium and the on-field time. But one team’s screwjob is another team’s miracle. Sports, at their highest level, are mercilessly zero-sum.
Which is one reason sports can be so much more enjoyable a few rungs down. On Friday afternoon, the biggest international swap meet in lacrosse history took place under the tent at the vendor village in the Wingate Institute. Gloves, jerseys, jackets, T-shirts, stick-heads, stick shafts, hats, helmets and backpacks were heaped on top of a row of picnic tables as a United Nations of beer-clutching lacrosse players from happily middle-of-the-table countries circled around. A player from the Colombian team prowled the table-top and bellowed like a carnival barker. “We’ve got everything! Luxembourg shooting jackets! This sombrero! China pinnies! Tenemos! We have two sets of Argentina gloves! We got a bunch of Wales stuff!” “Sheep, sheep, sheep, sheep!” nearby members of the Welsh team started chanting. “Someone find me a Danish helmet!” By the end of the day it was impossible to tell who was with which team anymore—everyone had traded T-shirts. If I were a lacrosse player rather than a mere observer of lacrosse players, I would have traded for a sweet Hungarian jersey. During games, the Hungarians would shout at each other in their throaty and arresting native language, which translates nicely to the lacrosse pitch.
This will be the final world championship to which every Federation of International Lacrosse member will be invited. The FIL is implementing a qualification round for the 2022 finals. The tournament will never have 46 countries in it ever again. The next championship might not have the feel of one big international summer camp. Israel hosted an unprecedented moment of global lacrosse harmony, never to be repeated in the same way.
“Austin Staats isn’t the most skilled or the most famous player on the Iroquois Nationals roster,” I wrote at the very begining of my July 17th post. Turns out I was wrong: The fiery midfielder was the only member of the Iroquois Nationals and the only player not from the U.S. or Canadian teams to be named to the tournament’s All-World roster. Staats was a monster the entire tournament and the honor is richly deserved. Mazel tov to him and to the rest of the Iroquois program on a hard-fought world championship.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.