Is there anything more beautiful than watching a perfectly executed fast break? A blend of spontaneity and calculation, a fast break from inception to completion is an absolute work of art. As soon as the outlet pass hits a streaking stick you can feel the anticipation and energy build on the field and in the stands. The crowd knows something spectacular is about to unfold before their eyes — the crescendo begins.
My lacrosse journey has been a very lucky one. I was extremely fortunate to grow up surrounded by some of the game’s most important figures and learn a lot from each and every one of them. I immediately think of the backyard sessions with my brothers, who just so happened to be two of the greatest lacrosse players in recorded history. What a cool way to learn the sport. It was because of their success in the sport that I was given access to this incredible league of lacrosse heroes. I was raised inside of a special culture that shaped the way I feel about lacrosse and will forever.
One of the most influential moments in my lacrosse upbringing happened when I was 13. I was still in my incubation stage in terms of lacrosse development when my Brother Casey invited me down to stay the night with him at Syracuse. He was a freshman at the time and he brought me to my first Syracuse University lacrosse practice so I could meet the players and the coaches. (Little did I know at the time that I would be walking through the doors of this building for the next 10 years.)
We walked into the dome (which was an absolutely incredible experience in itself) and he told me to watch practice from the stands. He said that after practice was over he would introduce me to the team and I could get my favorite players Rob Kavovit and Jim Morissey’s autographs. So I made my way up the bleachers and took a seat at the 50 yard line.
I watched the team stretch and go through a short series of stick work drills. And then suddenly a man in white ball cap appeared out of the tunnel. It was Roy Simmons Jr.. At this point I had only seen him on VHS highlight tapes from the late 80’s and early 90’s. He was my Rolling Stones, Beatles and Dylan all rolled into one. I remember getting nervously excited as I watched him walk out to midfield and huddle up his team. They gathered around for a short talk that started with roaring laughter and then ended in pure excitement. They broke the huddle and got into position.
Coach Simmons stayed on the midfield stripe and blew his whistle only one time. For the next 2 hours I watched the 1995 National Champion Men’s Lacrosse team run fast breaks. One after another after another. It was the most important 2 hours of my lacrosse life. I watched every movement they made with full attention. I watched the plays develop, how they were defended and how fast it all happened. It was like jazz — half improv half premeditation. And of course I closely watched Roy Simmons Jr. conduct the entire process like they were a world class orchestra.
After practice ended Coach Simmons waved me down to the field and I finally had a chance to talk with him for the first time. I remember being struck by the way he carried himself, his sense of calmness and eccentric disposition. He talked with me about the Native Americans, fast breaks, music and art. He even joked with me by saying (in front of Casey), “the only reason we recruited Casey was to get to you and your Brother Ryan.” Which we all laughed about and still laugh about to this day.
Casey brought me back to his dorm that night and I thanked him for bringing me to practice. I didn’t realize it at the time but my 10 minute conversation with Coach Simmons would influence the rest of my life. From that moment on I have been obsessed with the art of a fast break. I could sit and watch a fast break highlight tape for the next six days straight and love every minute of it. So individually intricate yet fully team focused. So many things need to go right and no two are the same.
In the years to follow I immersed myself in Roy Simmons Jr.’s prolific art scene and became a huge fan of his work. I felt like we were riding the same vibration in many ways. He was the first person I’d ever met that looked at a lacrosse field the same way he looked at a canvas. Everyone I grew up around in school looked at sports and art as two completely separate entities. You were either a jock or an artist or a band geek. But I was always interested in all three and saw the art in sports and the sport in the arts. In my mind, my approach toward everything is always the same no matter what the medium. Be artistic, take pride, no fear and deeply care about what you’re doing.
Fast forward the clock 20 years and I find myself having coffee at Coach Simmons’ cherry dining room table on a Wednesday morning. We sit and talk for hours, mostly about our favorite artists, woodworking, and music. He is still one of my heroes and I seem to learn so much from him each interaction and encounter. Not too mention he is just fun to be around.
One of the things I admire about Coach is his giving nature. I’ve watched him over the years just constantly giving things to people — advice, pins, pendants, stickers, books, posters, etc. He truly cares about people and loves adding light to the world.
On this particular Wednesday I brought a small table (left) to give to him that I had made and thought he would enjoy. (Sidenote: I obviously also gave him an Orange and Blue Carrier combo Powell Stick) He loves organic shape and asymmetry. The front leg on my table I hand carved and was heavily inspired by my favorite woodworker Wharton Esherick whom Coach turned me onto years ago. I handed him the table and he said “I will only except this if you will consider a trade.” And he disappeared into the other room. What he returned with blew my mind. It was an African stool (below) made over a hundred years ago using an ancient carving tool called an Az. The most remarkable thing about it is that it was carved out of one piece of wood. Someone had taken the time to hand carve this entire piece — that is artistry, ambition and courage.
Once again, be artistic, take pride, no fear and deeply care about what you’re doing. –Mike