This is the 25th-anniversary season of the NLL. There have been plenty of ups and downs during that quarter century and in the coming weeks we’ll look at some of the highest highs, the lowest lows, and the memorable moments in between. If you have a favourite pro lacrosse story that you’d like to hear straight from the horse’s mouth, send me an email and I’ll try to track down the major players to tell us more about the most interesting ones. After the jump, find out how close the league came to not even making it out of its first decade. Here’s a hint: it was really close.
Russ Cline and Chris Fritz started the league as the MILL in 1986. As Cline says, “The interesting part was neither of us had ever played the game and to be candid with you we hardly knew how to spell it.” But they saw a tape of the game, fell in love with it, and decided to use their marketing and entertainment savvy to start a pro circuit.
Nineteen years later they were part of the inaugural National Lacrosse League Hall of Fame class, along with legends Gary and Paul Gait and Les Bartley. Pretty good company for a couple of guys in Kansas City better known for truck pulls and the X Games who initially considered putting the lacrosse players on roller blades.
So how and why did the league come so close to being buried about eight years in? The simple answer is money. Unlike the truck pulls and X Games, lacrosse wasn’t making money, Cline says. The MILL initially had four teams—Philadelphia, New Jersey, Baltimore and Washington, all of which Cline and Fritz owned—and they wouldn’t play two games the same night because “we didn’t have enough money to buy two carpets,” Cline says. “We’d take the carpet from Philadelphia at midnight, after it was rolled up, put it on a truck and take it to New Jersey. One time it didn’t get there because of a snow storm, so Chris and I went out to a remnants store on a Saturday and bought a bunch of remnants and laid them down, and it looked like a bunch of mentally challenged people were trying to do a painting.”
Cline says the players thought he and Fritz were making boatloads of money off the league and they were ready to strike for higher pay. He says he offered to let the Professional Lacrosse Players Association choose an accountant and he would pay to have them go through the books. He got his back up when the players refused on the grounds that the league would find a way to cook the books; that went from accusing him of underpaying them to accusing him of cheating them.
The standoff came down to a discussion between Cline and PLPA president Peter Schmitz. We’ll let Cline recount what happened next.
“I said, Peter, I’m gonna tell you…it’s Wednesday, and if you guys don’t accept by Wednesday noon this league is over. So I got in my car and I went home to help my wife get Thanksgiving dinner ready for Thursday. So Peter calls me and he says okay, if you’ll give us another 20 dollars or 5 dollars or something… I said Peter, I will not give a penny. Not one penny. You either play or it’s over. He said ‘You can’t tell me eight years now in this you’re going to walk away from it.’
“I stole a line and said, ‘Peter, make my day.’ My wife is standing here and she’ll be delighted. We won’t have to travel three or four months a year and not make any money.”
A hard line like that is not likely to make you a lot of friends among the players. Nor does Cline’s approach to the game sit well with lacrosse traditionalists. As he says about when he first discovered the game, “We weren’t married to a history,” so he and Fritz weren’t squeamish about bringing new elements to the pro game to make it an event. He may not have known how to spell lacrosse at first, but “I do know entertainment,” he points out.
Cline took his experience and expertise derived from 10 years with the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, along with what was working with monster trucks and what would eventually work with the X Games, and he blended it with lacrosse. The result was a loud, flashy spectacle that drew in a lot of new fans and made many old ones shake their heads. But as Cline quotes former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle as saying of America’s most successful sport, “There’s nothing sacred about football.”
So whether you like music during play or not, the fact remains the league is still around 25 years later. Love him or hate him, Russ Cline is a major reason why. And the game he grew to love has shown him some love back. Asked his fondest memories of a quarter century, Cline recalls several, but perhaps one stands out above the others.
“We were in Buffalo one time and we had a number of Native Americans playing for us. A Chief, I can’t even remember his name now, had one of his sons or nephews playing in the game. He came up to me before the game and had tears in his eyes. And growing up in an Indian nation, I have a lot of respect for the First Nations. This man, with tears in his eyes, said thank you for respecting and honouring Baggataway, and allowing our people to play it and showing to the rest of the people a game that we love so dearly.”Stamp is a TV sports announcer and lacrosse lover whose skill set made him a defender but who always dreamed of being a goal-scorer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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