A shaman finds magic in an ancient game

Men’s lacrosse faculty fellow John McPhee ’53, with defenseman Rob Castelo ’14, describes the sport as “football, basketball, and ice hockey in an advanced state of evolution.”
Men’s lacrosse faculty fellow John McPhee ’53, with defenseman Rob Castelo ’14, describes the sport as “football, basketball, and ice hockey in an advanced state of evolution.”
PHOTO: MICHAEL SONNENFELDT p’13

Writer and professor John McPhee ’53 often has written about sports, most famously about the grace Bill Bradley ’65 displayed on the basketball court (A Sense of Where You Are) and the unlikely rise of African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe (Levels of the Game). These days, the sport that stirs his imagination is lacrosse.

McPhee describes lacrosse as “football, basketball, and ice hockey in an advanced state of evolution.” He admires its speed — it boasts “the fastest and crispest accumulation of passes” of any game, he says — and is fascinated by the way this Native American game has been adapted by the rest of America. 

McPhee played lacrosse, but only briefly. He picked up the game at the urging of a coach at Deerfield Academy who recruited him off the basketball court in 1949. Assured that lacrosse was just “basketball with sticks,” McPhee spent a single season happily scooping up balls and passing them to his more experienced teammates, helping Deerfield to an undefeated season. “I never had a better experience on any athletic field,” he says. 

McPhee didn’t go out for the lacrosse team as an undergraduate, and pretty much forgot about the game until 1992 when, for reasons he can’t explain, he decided to go to a Princeton men’s game. “This affection for lacrosse was just sleeping there in my head,” he says. 

It was a good year to become a Princeton lacrosse fan. Under coach Bill Tierney, the Tigers won the first of six national championships, and McPhee fell in love with the game.

These days McPhee serves as faculty fellow to the team, a somewhat nebulous role “not unlike shaman,” as he puts it in “Spin Right and Shoot Left,” one of the three stories about lacrosse he has written for The New Yorker during the past few years. 

At home games McPhee stands, silent and focused, at one end of the long, loud line of Princeton players and coaches. He attends many practices and even sits in to study film of opposing teams. He has “a high athletic IQ,” says Princeton head coach Chris Bates. Still, McPhee knows better than to offer advice. “Hell, no,” he says emphatically. 

The game appeals to the writer in McPhee. Its jargon intrigues him — a “wormburner” is a low shot, an “elevator” shot starts low and ends high. He is especially fascinated by the “cryptoscience and voodoo” of stringing sticks, listing, in The New Yorker, examples of the players’ unusual stick maintenance: “They boil their mesh. They use Jergens lotion on their mesh. They buy pocket pounders and pocket screws that shape the mesh and hold it in place, like blocking a hat.” 

Lacrosse has been hailed as the fastest-growing sport in the country. To the game’s insiders, McPhee’s articles were a validation of sorts, proof that the game really had arrived. 

“They were big news, widely read and discussed,” says Bob Carpenter, the publisher of Inside Lacrosse. “It meant a lot that someone like John McPhee had decided to write about the game.”

Lacrosse has brought McPhee a great deal of joy, and he has paid it back in the best way a writer can.

Merrell Noden ’78
Merrell Noden ’78
PHOTO: FRANK WOJCIECHOWSKI

Extra Point explores the people and issues in Princeton sports.

Merrell Noden ’78 is a former staff writer at Sports Illustrated and a frequent PAW ­contributor.