Reginald Jones remembers the day he realized that Myles Jones, his tall, gifted son, was going to need a new sport. Reginald urged him to give lacrosse a try in middle school. It was a chance, he said, to stand out. Once he realized that lacrosse used many of the same skills as football and basketball, Jones was convinced to pick up a stick.
“Myles’s last AAU tournament was at Rutgers,” said Reginald. “I looked around and we have 300 black dads in the stands, and everyone thinks their kid is going to the NBA. I was looking around, thinking, ‘I got up at 5 am and drove to Jersey for this?'”
Myles, then in junior high, was playing with kids two years older in Long Island’s famously stacked AAU leagues. But no matter how well Myles played, Reginald could never get comfortable with the sacrifices basketball demanded.
“The culture of basketball and football had very low graduation rates,” said Jones. “The reason I know this is I was a part of that culture.”
In the stands at Rutgers, he had a vision of Myles going on that same path. “After the game, we usually would stop for dinner. I kept on driving back to Long Island,” said Reginald. “We needed a new sport. We had heard about lacrosse, but didn’t know much.”
Now, more than a decade later, Myles Jones has graduated Duke, became a lacrosse All-American, and won the Tewaaraton Trophy, lacrosse’s Heisman. A 6’5”, 240-pound midfielder with track-star speed, Jones scored a team-high 77 points in 2015.
In 2016, he was the No. 1 pick in the Major League Lacrosse college draft. The Atlanta Blaze, an MLL expansion team that began play that spring, made Jones their first-ever selection—the instant face of the franchise and, to an extent, the league. Jones was traded mid-season to Major League Lacrosse’s Chesapeake Bayhawks, based in Annapolis, Maryland. They have played in the MLL since the 2001 season.
Jones made an immediate impact on the field in MLL. He is a dominant black athlete in a game that, at the NCAA Division 1 level, is only around three percent African-American. Beyond that, MLL officials view the former Duke All-American as a possible transformative figure for the sport: an African-American superstar in an overwhelmingly white game.
Which is exactly what Jones wanted to be.
“It’s always been something I had this vision of, what I would mean to the game of lacrosse and what I would mean to the kid from an urban area who maybe was kind of discouraged by lacrosse or didn’t have the opportunity to play,” Jones says. “I think the African-American community in urban areas is really excited about the game, but seeing a face that’s like them will give those kids some energy to want to go out and throw a ball against the wall.”
The power of a superstar to drive
Lacrosse has indeed grown quickly in recent years, particularly in the South and West. In 2015, 22 states sanctioned lacrosse as a full varsity high school sport, including North Carolina, California, Florida, and Colorado.
MLL, meanwhile, has had hits and misses: franchises in California failed to find an audience, but the league has a stable core of teams in New England and a thriving Western team in Denver. As the league follows the sport’s migration South, Steinfeld says, it needs stars who can resonate in lacrosse’s new, diverse markets.
“I run into people, they’ll say, ‘Oh, you founded the MLL, isn’t that just a Northeastern game?’ I wanna hit somebody when I hear that, you know?” Steinfeld says. “With what is happening with football and the concussion issue, we have a real opportunity to grow the game in these new areas.”
Atlanta is MLL’s third Southern expansion team, joining clubs in Charlotte and Boca Raton, but the players who pick up the game as kids, fill out elite college rosters, and make it to the pros still tend to emerge largely from affluent, overwhelmingly white leagues in the Northeast.
“It’s as bad as the Academy Awards,” Steinfeld says. “It’s silly, but you know what? I was just out at a tournament my 14-year-old son played in. Thousands and thousands of people were there in Palm Springs. And maybe there were 20 black families. That’s wrong. It’s really wrong.”
Jones is not MLL’s first potential non-white superstar. Last year’s No. 1 draft pick, Lyle Thompson, is Onondagan and, along with his brother Miles, is among the sport’s most popular players. Kyle Harrison, a former Johns Hopkins player and a MLL All-Star in 2015, is black.
As early success in sports came easy and Myles grew bigger and faster than his peers, Reginald peppered his son with cautionary tales from his own youth. During the mid-1980s, as Reggie worked his way up in Long Island basketball circles, he says he watched a handful of his peers get recruited by Division I schools. None ever got a degree, Jones says, or made the NBA. Several wound up in jail.
“I call them the Long Island Class of ’85 and ’86,” Reginald says. “There were about 10 cats from Long Island. None of them graduated. And nobody cares, because they have the next new freshman coming up behind you.”
After that AAU tournament in junior high, Myles picked up lacrosse—a sport his friends were already playing. As he moved up through club teams, the sidelines where Reginald found himself looked nothing like the Rutgers gym.
“We’re walking into wherever the tournaments were, in Pennsylvania or wherever, we’re the only black family in the hotel,” Reginald recalls. “And my son is 6’2”, so he’s the target. There were certain things you notice with refs, with head checks or whatever. Those things were subtle and you’re going crazy because your kid is getting slashed to the face and no one is calling it. I mean, I’ve gotten thrown out of games and tournaments.”
Myles thinks Reginald probably dealt with more off-color comments on the sidelines than he ever had to on the field, where, after all, both the rules and physics of lacrosse provide 6-foot-5, well-built midfielders with a wide range of responses to mouthy opponents. But he knew that with dominance comes attention.
By the middle of high school, Jones was a three-sport star in Huntington. As the school’s quarterback, he was named All-County as a junior; in basketball, he graduated as the school’s all-time leading scorer. But knowing it was better to be a big fish in lacrosse’s smaller pond, Jones skipped his senior year in football to concentrate on lacrosse and, despite scholarship offers from most lacrosse powers his senior year, he spent a post-grad year in prep school to improve his grades for admission to Duke.
In Durham, Jones sparked the Blue Devils to national championships in both his freshman and sophomore years, and was named the country’s top midfielder as a junior. Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of Vines and YouTube videos of Jones bulling his way to a goal past three, four, or five defenders from what in his path looks like a harmless youth team but is in fact, say, Harvard.
During the off-season at Duke, Jones has headlined camps and clinics in Harlem, Brooklyn, and inner-city Baltimore, where majority-black high schools with no lacrosse programs sit within a few miles of elite private schools cranking out dozens of Division I prospects a year.
“Being from Long Island, it’s easy to go to the urban areas of New York and bring my experience and talk to them about playing the game,” says Jones. “One thing I always tell them is what an opportunity this game can be. Someone asked me to play in sixth grade and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try.’ Fast-forward seven or eight years later, here I am. I always try to tell them there are lots of schools adding teams and when one pops up, that’s 45 slots. Why not you?”
He is also a dominant black athlete in a game that, at the NCAA Division 1 level, is only around three percent African-American. Jones is breaking the mold.
“Lacrosse is a predominantly white sport,” he says, “but I haven’t changed who I am. It helps me stand out, even physically, from other kids. I’d still dress the same and act the same if I didn’t play lacrosse.”
BLACK HISTORY FACT
Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball Player
Born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, Jackie Robinson became the first black athlete to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century. While serving in the military, Jackie Robinson was arrested for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and throughout his decade-long career, Robinson distinguished himself as a talented player and a vocal civil rights activist. In 1955, he helped the Dodgers win the World Series. He retired in 1957 with a career batting average of .311. Robinson died in Connecticut in 1972.