DENVER - He has been called the Michael Jordan of lacrosse, a player so gifted he invented moves that wound up being banned, broke scoring records and led teams to championships at the college and professional levels.
But Gary Gait’s contribution to the sport goes beyond highlight reels and record books. Gait, who plans to retire at the end of the season from the Colorado Mammoth, has helped change what for years was considered an East Coast prep school activity into one of the fastest-growing team sports in the United States.
“He’s more than Michael Jordan,” said National Lacrosse League commissioner Jim Jennings. “He’s probably the person who’s contributed the most to the sport of lacrosse.”
He hasn’t done it alone, of course. For most of his career, Gait played alongside or against his identical twin, Paul. The younger Gait, by 3 minutes, even came out of retirement last month to help 38-year-old Gary try for one last NLL championship when the playoffs begin later this month.
Lacrosse is a niche sport by almost any definition, with a small but rabid fan base. For decades, the game has been most popular in New England, where it has a long tradition of being played at high schools and Ivy League colleges, and in Canada, where its similarities to hockey and relatively inexpensive equipment made it a popular indoor diversion. Like hockey, players rely on speed, agility and stick skills to defend and score.
When Gary and Paul Gait came to Syracuse in 1987 from Victoria, British Columbia, coach Roy Simmons Jr. knew he had something special.
“What I saw was spellbinding. Not one, but two identical twins with unbelievable talent,” said Simmons, who coached the Orangemen to six NCAA titles — three with the Gaits — before retiring in 1998. “They were physically strong, but better than that they had great skills.”
The Gaits stand 6-foot-1 and weigh about 225 pounds, bigger than typical lacrosse players — but they were fast and seemingly could score at will. Rather than making them goal-scoring attackers, Simmons let them run the entire field as midfielders, playing both offense and defense. And they often put on a show.
During a game in the 1988 NCAA tournament, Gary Gait twice pulled off what still is considered one of the most spectacular moves in lacrosse history, leaping over the crease line and slamming the ball home into the 6-foot net from behind. The “Air Gait” is now banned in high school and college lacrosse, as well as in the NLL.
By the twins’ senior year, Syracuse was so dominant that opposing teams were dropping games for fear of being embarrassed. Simmons often benched the Gaits during blowouts.
The brothers were NLL first-round draft picks in 1990. Gary Gait quickly succeeded, winning the first of his three championships and being named rookie of the year. But there were no endorsement deals and little national exposure for the sport’s best players.
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