Sports

Myles Jones Is the Future of Lacrosse

Jones was the first overall pick in this year's Major Lacrosse League Draft. The league's founder, (Body By) Jake Steinfeld, sees him as a transformational figure: an African-American superstar in an overwhelmingly white game.

by Matt White
Feb 24 2016, 1:30pm

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Reginald Jones remembers the day he realized that his tall, gifted son was going to need a new sport.

"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."

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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 lacrosse, but didn't know much."

Now, a decade later, Myles Jones is a senior at Duke, an All-American, and a leading candidate for the Tewaaraton Trophy, lacrosse's Heisman. A 6'5'', 240-pound midfielder with track-star speed, Jones scored a team-high 77 points last year. In an early-season test for the No. 3 Blue Devils last weekend, he led the team with a hat trick and two assists in a 14-12 loss to No. 2 Denver.

Late last month, he was the No. 1 pick in the Major League Lacrosse college draft. The Atlanta Blaze, an MLL expansion team that will begin play this spring, made Jones their first-ever selection—the instant face of the franchise and, to an extent, the league.

Jones is expected to make an immediate impact on the field for Atlanta. Beyond that, MLL officials view the Duke All-American as a possibly transformative figure for the sport: an African-American superstar in an overwhelmingly white game.

Which is exactly what Jones wants 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 public interest is well understood by MLL's founder, Jake Steinfeld, the eponymous pitchman and self-made fitness guru behind "Body By Jake." Steinfeld built a fitness and media empire in the 80s and 90s based mostly on his face and buoyant personality.

"He's got a lot riding on him, not for us but for him, for the brand of Myles Jones," Steinfeld says. "Because it could be huge. I hope he knows he can be the beginning of something great in terms of diversity in our sport."

Like Jones, Steinfeld played high school lacrosse on Long Island before taking up bodybuilding at the dawn of the fitness era. His big break came when Ted Turner, a fitness client, asked Steinfeld to do one-minute fitness spots for his new network, CNN, which Steinfeld cast with Playboy Playmates, provided by another client, Hugh Hefner. In 2001, after selling much of his fitness interests, Steinfeld launched MLL with a partner, believing that his boyhood sport had reached a cultural tipping point.

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 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.

While lacrosse continues to grow as a college sport, the explosive growth in youth and high school participation has shown signs of leveling off in recent years. To reverse that trend, Steinfeld says, the sport needs new faces for a new audience.

"If the sport succeeds, MLL succeeds," he says. "In order for the game to grow, it has to reach everywhere, and 'everywhere' leads us to Myles Jones."

Lyle Thompson, left, in the NCAA quarterfinals last year. Photo by Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

If Jones arrives in MLL as a ready-made role model, it will be because Reginald raised him that way.

"He comes from a family of giants," Reginald says. "I'm only 5-foot-11, but both my family and his mother's family are giants. His grandfather was 6' 7''."

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.

These were the stories Reginald made sure Myles heard over and over. There was Derek Brower, who led North Babylon High School to a state title in 1983 and who played at Syracuse but by 1990 was in prison for trafficking cocaine. And his Babylon teammate, Russell Pierre, who washed out of both North Carolina State and Virginia Tech before pleading guilty to charges of federal housing fraud.

"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."

Jones at the 2013 championship game. Photo by Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

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.

"But what's fun is it provided like 9,000 teachable moments. I would tell him, 'It's me and you against all of them. I got your back, what are you going to do?'"

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.

Myles with the next generation of lacrosse players. Courtesy Reginald Jones.

"My whole thing was to see the bigger picture," Myles says. "If there was someone who came to watch me for the first time, or if they saw it without sound and understanding the emotion, all they would see was me reacting."

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?"