Harlem Lacrosse product Idriss Traore played goalie at Saint James School in Hagerstown, Md., and is a sophomore midfielder at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y.

Harlem Lacrosse, Two Words Worn Like a Badge of Honor

It is a privilege to play for Harlem Lacrosse. 

Waking up every morning in inner-city New York and taking public transportation to a large public school was a hassle. Growing up in the city had both ups and downs. In school and life, there was always stimulation in the Big City — lots of it. Everything was happening all at once. Oftentimes, it could be hard for our teachers, all of whom were trying their hardest to capture our interest and get us to learn. It was a daily struggle.

School lunches offered some kids their primary meals of the day. During that lunch period though, kids in the lacrosse program would take the hour out of their day to sit and eat quietly and do homework. 

Why? We did it because it’s what we had to do to play lacrosse — the sport we loved.

One of the main ways for coaches to connect with us was during daily study halls. Coaches hosted these sessions during lunch and were able to connect with us, support us and push us to be our best selves in the classroom too. During these times, student-athletes would sacrifice the time spent in the cafeteria to eat quietly and work on their academics in a library or classroom. Coaches would then supervise and act as tutors.

There were incentives like study-hall points that could be redeemed for new lacrosse equipment. We all wanted to show up to practice flexing the newest gear — new sticks and stringing kits were always worth the extra time spent on classwork. 

When the academic day was over and the bell rang, that's when the real fun started. Kids from all ages would make their way to the adjacent handball court. A 100-foot long concrete pavement with a fence on one side and a 20-foot-high wall suddenly transformed into an arena — a place where 50-75 kids of color were given the opportunity  to let loose from all the stress of the environment. The lacrosse sticks and gear may have been used and worth next to nothing, but the smiles on all of our faces were priceless as we learned to scoop a ground ball, pass the ball down to a teammate, set a pick, roll off and then score.

The practices would go on for about two hours and the air buzzed with cheers of support and competitiveness. Everything was about competing to the best of our ability. Everyone took their reps seriously. It was a game to some but quickly became a way of life for others. Kids would eventually get scraped knees from falling on the pavement. We learned to shake it off quickly and carry on with our pursuit of getting better each day. 

The weather never affected us. There could be snow and sludge on the pavement, a hot sun scorching our necks as sweat drenched our bodies or pouring rain. We didn’t care. Thoughts of scoring goals at Duke and throwing takeaway checks at Syracuse occupied our minds. We were filled with something that is very rare and precious in this day and age.


We believed in our little lacrosse community that was so rich in culture. We believed that we could accomplish whatever we wanted and make new and different futures for ourselves.

We believed in our little lacrosse community that was so rich in culture. We believed in the power of sport and experienced the benefits of what our sport’s Native American originators call the medicine game. Lacrosse allowed us to experience something new. We believed that we could accomplish whatever we wanted and make new and different futures for ourselves. The sport brought us on trips to Massachusetts and New Jersey for tournaments and sleepovers at host families houses. We started our own summer team, and we believed we could take on anyone. We played that same gritty and ferocious style of lacrosse we learned on those handball courts at tournaments. We won some, we lost some but we believed all along the way. Knowing we left everything out on the field was the real reward. 

We had one goal, to put the lacrosse community on notice. Going to summer camps and showcases, we made sure to tell everyone we played for Harlem Lacrosse. We wore it like a badge of honor. We knew that the two words were never put together in history, and we were proud to be trailblazers at such a young age.

My teammates and I fully embraced the adversity we faced while being on predominantly white teams. We made sure that everywhere we went, we showed out, displaying the same competitiveness on grass and turf that we learned on pavement. At one point, you couldn’t mention New York City lacrosse without hearing names like speedster Mamadou Meite (now a sophomore at Hobart), “Big Shot” Davon Johnson (now a freshman at Albany) or the scrappy Jyasi Watson (a freshman at Hofstra). All these guys are alumni of the program who helped lead their teammates to hard-fought victories in the summers.

As we grew older, some of us were accepted to boarding schools through Harlem Lacrosse. We experienced new communities, made connections and brought that same level of belief that will positively impact us for the rest of our lives. 

The kids who stayed in the city, meanwhile, continued to grow the foundation of Harlem Lacrosse. Eventually, the program grew into many schools around the city — including P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, where names like Tyler Bryan (Nazareth) and Souleymane Ballo (Hobart) still echo throughout the halls.

The original powerhouse, Frederick Douglass Academy was where it all started. FDA won back-to-back city championships with guys like Dy-Jae Pearson (Bryant football) and Clifford Pollard (Nazareth) leading the pack. They practiced with a goal set up in the corner of a parking lot behind the school, honing their craft to face off against more established teams from Staten Island like rival Tottenville. All the while, they maintained a standard of excellence in the classroom to stay eligible for the team and carry out their mission of becoming city champions.

“Winning those two championships was bigger than just winning a game. It was more like a symbol. It showed the kids growing up in the program that with hard work, goals are possible to achieve,” Pollard said. “It showed the city that kids from Harlem can play lacrosse, a moral uplift for sure.”

For the first time in history, Harlem Lacrosse helped develop a championship-winning team in what remains widely regarded as an upper-class white sport. We flipped the narrative with a program comprised almost entirely of Black and Hispanic student-athletes.

It was a beautiful pleasure playing for Harlem Lacrosse. Truly a privilege.