By Juan Martinez
In the past decade, the sport of lacrosse has grown exponentially in the greater Bay Area at both the high school and Division 1 college levels. In 2002, there were roughly 40 – 50 high school lacrosse teams. Today, there are well over 100.
Despite this, the sport remains rarefied. According to 2010 data from US Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, over 90 percent of lacrosse players, officials, coaches, and administrators are white.
Now, Kevin Kelley, who works as a goalie coach for the University of California, Berkeley men’s lacrosse team, wants to change that. In 2012, Kelley created the nonprofit Oakland Lacrosse Club (OLC), with the specific mission of bringing the sport to kids who would normally never get a chance to play it.
“Lacrosse is a suburban sport,” Kelley said. “It costs a lot of money to play. I just want to create a culture and environment for Oakland kids through a game that I love and grew up playing.”
Compared to baseball and football, lacrosse remains one of the most expensive high school sports – more than twice as expensive as baseball or basketball. The start-up cost for a team can be anywhere from $5,000 to $7,000. In addition to equipment, each team must pay an additional $1,000 to rent a field for both practice and tournament purposes.
“There are so many different layers to the diversity challenges in our sport,“ Eboni Preston-Laurent, the senior manager of diversity and inclusion at US Lacrosse, said. “For one thing, it’s expensive, especially for boys, because of the full set of gear they require – the stick itself can run you about $100 these days. I think lacrosse in general is a growing sport, but there are still kids on the West Coast and in the Midwest who have no idea what the sport is.”
Through OLC, Kelley offers free clinics to interested students for eight weeks in the fall and spring every year. He and his team of assistant coaches and volunteers, which include UC Berkeley men and women lacrosse players, meet with a group of kids for two hours. The clinics are intended to give boys and girls the opportunity to learn the fundamentals, and also learn how to play at a high level.
Lacrosse is unique in that it has the spacing of soccer, gamesmanship of basketball, and the physicality of hockey.
“Most of the teams we play have more experience,” Kelley said. “We want our teams to battle with and beat top teams from the state.”
A big component of the OLC is teaching the lessons inherent to team sports, like how to be a good teammate, the importance of positive communication, and developing the habits of persistence.
To launch the program, Kelley partnered with six Oakland middle schools (Claremont, Brewer, Oakland Military Institute, Westlake, Urban Promise Academy, and Life Academy), with the goal of recruiting students from a diverse array of backgrounds. Last year, 40 percent of Kelley’s players were African-American, and 29 percent were Latino. Just 5 percent were white.
“People told me Oakland was a basketball town,” Kelley said. “They told me that I could never get kids to play lacrosse because it wasn’t culturally relevant to them. That pissed me off. It made me want to prove them wrong!”
In practice, Kelley focuses on resiliency and preaches that to his players. He wants them to be seen as athletes and not as victims. Such support can make a difference in a city like Oakland, where only 67 percent of kids graduate high school.
Children growing up in East and West Oakland have a life expectancy 12 years less than children living in Piedmont, and are five times more likely to develop type II diabetes than children living in Piedmont.
Assistant Principal Dennis Guikema of Urban Promise Academy appreciates that the OLC promotes a happy, healthy and positive lifestyle for kids by giving them another option to perform physical activities.
“It was very interesting to see kids, who I had not seen involved in sports before, get really engaged in lacrosse,” Guikema said.
Overall, the OLC’s retention rate is around 90 percent. One-third of the kids are returning players, but almost all of the rest have only recently learned the sport.
“Every sport in America was once like lacrosse before it got diversified and integration took place,” said Lanon Gillins, OLC Director of Individual and Team Development. “Kids ask me all the time, ‘Isn’t it a white sport?’ And I say, ‘Yeah but so what?’”
This article is Part 1 of a 3-part series.