It’s not hard to pick out Myles Jones, Duke’s top lacrosse player, in a crowd of his teammates. At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, he’s taller and bigger than anyone on the field. He wears a Mohawk with a dark blonde top.
And he’s black.
In a sport where it is common to see all-white teams, Jones is not only one of a few black athletes playing lacrosse at the collegiate level, he’s also the very best, many former and current coaches say. In January, Jones was the No. 1 pick in the Major League Lacrosse draft, selected by the Atlanta Blaze, an expansion team starting its first season.
When asked why the Blaze made Jones the top pick in the draft, coach and general manager John Tucker felt the answer was obvious: “Have you ever seen him?”
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“He’s physically imposing,” Tucker said. “I think his skill set speaks for itself, and he’s a great character kid from what I’ve heard. It was an easy pick.”
Jones is also a black athlete playing for the Duke lacrosse team, a program that’s perhaps best known for a 2006 scandal involving three white Duke lacrosse players being falsely accused of raping Crystal Mangum, a black woman, at an off-campus party. The charges were dismissed more than a year later. But during that time, racial tensions surrounding the program were high.
“I didn’t want to bring him to Durham if it was going to be difficult, because of what happened in 2006,” Duke coach John Danowski said. “But I thought that (with) his personality and his strength of character, that he could maybe elevate this sport, not only here on campus but in our own community here in the Triangle. And I think he’s done that.”
Jones said the case did not factor into his decision to come to Duke.
Since Jones’ arrival in 2012, he’s helped Duke win back-to-back national championships in 2013 and 2014. Duke had won only one prior to that, in 2010. A native of Long Island, Jones was the 2015 Donald MacLaughlin Jr. Award winner, given to the nation’s best midfielder.
“If you ask kids, ‘who is your favorite player,’ it’s Myles Jones,” Danowski said. “If you ask adults on campus, ‘who is your favorite player,’ they’ll tell you Myles Jones.”
With a 10-7 record this season, the Blue Devils were ranked No. 14 in the country as of May 1.
It’s also very motivating now that I know some kid wants to play lacrosse because he saw me play it. It makes me want to play a little harder.
Myles Jones, Duke lacrosse star
But Jones, a senior, is more than just a great player on a national powerhouse team. He’s a role model for young black boys interested in a sport, where they are desperately searching for someone who looks like them. Duke has two black incoming freshman next year, Jones said. It’s something he’s proud of.
When black lacrosse recruits visit Duke and meet with Jones, they often ask what it’s like to be the only black player on the team. Their parents ask the question too. He’s always felt welcome at Duke, he tells them.
“I feel kind of responsible for changing the face of the program,” Jones said. “With more minority kids coming to play, it’s a special feeling.”
Few blacks in LAX
Of the more than 3,100 lacrosse student-athletes on NCAA Division-I teams last season, only 2.83 percent were black. That number was 1.89 percent 10 years prior.
“It’s hard,” Danowski said of recruiting black athletes to come to Duke. There just aren’t that many playing, he said.
Hampton coach Lloyd Carter can attest to that. The Virginia school became the first Historically Black College and University (HBCU) to field a Division-I varsity lacrosse team when it started play this season. Each of its 22 players are black, and a few had never played lacrosse before joining the program, Carter said.
“The African-American community is completely untapped,” Carter told The News & Observer’s HBCU Voice podcast recently.
The number of blacks playing professional lacrosse isn’t much different, said Tucker, the coach and general manager of the Blaze.
“I think the league needs to reach out to the minority base of possible players,” he said. “I think that is key to the future growth. I think that is something Myles has a very good opportunity to affect that part of the population.”
Professional lacrosse is also among the lowest paid sports, coaches and former players say. Many lacrosse players hold second jobs.
Bill Daye, a former North Carolina lacrosse player, former professional player and former coach with the Boston Cannons, says increasing minority participation must start at the youth level.
He said there are a variety of reasons black youth have not played lacrosse, including resistance from other black people.
Daye, who graduated from UNC in 1993, said when he was growing up playing lacrosse, some of his black friends would ask ‘why he played a sport only white kids are playing?’
“There weren’t too many black lacrosse players on the field,” Daye said. Therefore there were few role models in the sport, he said.
Lacrosse has become the fastest growing collegiate sport in the U.S., according to a 2015 NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates report. And the numbers are not even close. From 2000 to 2014, participation in men’s lacrosse increased by 95 percent. Second was volleyball, which increased by 54 percent.
Daye said black youth must also have the opportunity to play lacrosse. He said accessibility and the high costs for equipment has been problematic, but there are groups trying to combat that by bringing the game to inner city neighborhoods.
“Hopefully more young African American lacrosse players see what is happening at Hampton and see Myles Jones,” Daye said, “they see these guys playing professionally and they too can have a goal of playing at a top lacrosse school or playing professionally. Because lacrosse is definitely a sport for everyone.”
Jones said he often gets Facebook messages from parents telling him he is an inspiration to their children. And he often gets messages on Twitter and Instagram and letters from young children who say they wear No. 15 because he too wears that number.
“It’s also very motivating now that I know some kid wants to play lacrosse because he saw me play it,” Jones said. “It makes me want to play a little harder.”
Syracuse residents Alton Hicks and his friend Ken Curry, who are both black, drove 623 miles from Syracuse to Durham last month – children in car – just so they could watch Jones practice and play in person the next day.
“(There are) only a few Myles out there,” Hicks said. “So it’s not too many people (my son) can model after, and we can say ‘hey, go out and see how he’s working and what he’s doing.’”
Hicks’ son, Kellen, said Jones has been his favorite player since the first time he watched him play in Syracuse two years ago. He likes the way Jones plays the game.
“He’s like the best lacrosse player,” Kellen, 11, said as he watched Jones practice. “He’s basically like a linebacker in the NFL.”
After practice, Kellen ran up to Jones with a pen in his hand. Jones took off his helmet and gave Kellen a high-five. They posed for a picture.
“Can you sign your autograph?” Kellen asked him.
“Sure,” Jones said, signing the autograph.
Kellen forgot the words he had planned to say to Jones next. He turned around to his dad, then remembered what he wanted to say. He turned back around and faced Jones.
“My mom is from Long Island, too!” Kellen said, excitedly.
Jones smiled. “Really? OK. Nice.”
Being the only black player on his lacrosse team isn’t new to Jones. It’s been that way since he started playing competitively at 12. He was first introduced to lacrosse in sixth grade. The few black neighborhood children that did play, never traveled, he said.
They either didn’t have the money or didn’t take the game as seriously as he did. He said his family was fortunate enough to support him in lacrosse.
Jones’ two main sports in elementary school were basketball and football. That was until a football teammates’ father asked him about playing lacrosse.
He had no idea what lacrosse was.
But Jones decided to give the sport a try and quickly caught on playing in different leagues in Long Island. He started playing defense and continued to improve. He eventually moved to midfield. Jones was always bigger than his peers.
When he got to high school, he won rookie of the year and all-league honors.
“Myles Jones is a once (in) a lifetime for a coach,” his high school coach Bob Howell said. “He’s probably the finest athlete I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach. He had all the tools to be great and took us to the next level.”
‘Words are words’
Howell said Jones helped jump start the program, and they have been successful ever since.
“Not only is he talented, but he’s a nice person,” Howell said. “He’s a bright kid.”
Those attributes showed during his sophomore season.
Although Jones was used to it, being the only black player had its challenges. More so from other teams rather than his teammates.
One incident sticks with him the most though.
He was a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School in Huntington Station, N.Y. It was the school’s first winning season in a long time, and Jones was one of the top players on the team.
Their opponents were a high school team 11 miles down the road in Lindenhurst.
As the two teams were playing, Jones noticed the players and some in the crowd yelling racial slurs at him. But he did what he always does and smiled.
“I just kind of laughed and just kept playing,” Jones said. “Every time I would score a goal I would kind smile at the kid who was kind of talking to me.”
He scored four goals and added four assists in that game. It was one of his best games of his career, and a defining moment in his life. When the game ended, he shook everyone’s hand and didn’t say a word.
“They all looked at me. It was one of those looks like ‘why isn’t he rattled,’” Jones said. “Words are words. It’s kind of one of those things that if that is your tactic to stop me then I kind of already won the game.”
Jones said that was one of the most proudest moments his dad had of him. Jones said his coach reported the matter to the league.
Howell, his high school coach, said he’d rather not talk about the incident.
A great responsibility
Jones’ talent in New York was no secret. He was a rising star in lacrosse. After his freshman season he tried out for one of the top club teams in Long Island, where only the best 20 made the team. And most who do make the team are high school All-Americans. Jones made it to the top 50 but was cut. That’s when he first got a hand-written letter from Danowski at Duke, who thought he was a rising junior.
Jones told him he was a sophomore. The next year, he heard back from Danowski reiterating his interest in Jones playing for Duke.
“When I saw I got a letter from coach John Danowski from Duke University, the school I’d been watching since I first started playing lacrosse, I couldn’t help but get excited and kind of understand maybe this is my calling,” Jones said. “Maybe lacrosse is for me.”
Since signing on with Duke, Jones has continued to make a name for himself. In 17 games this season, Jones is second on the team in points scored with 32 goals and 33 assists. He also became the first midfielder in Division-I lacrosse history to record 100 goals and 100 assists for his career
Some have compared him to NFL Hall-of-Fame running back Jim Brown. Brown is considered by some to be the greatest lacrosse player to ever play the game.
Jones said he is honored by the comparison. He said being the best is what motivates him.
“Being a very noticeable person, I think people always talk a lot about what you can’t do,” Jones said. “When you can do a lot of things, people say ‘oh, he can do this, but he can’t do these things.’”
Jones said he took notice and worked on everything the doubters said he couldn’t do. Now rarely do scouting reports on Jones list any weaknesses. But he credits his teammates and feeling welcome at Duke.
He said when he signed with Duke, he knew he had great a responsibility.
“I knew that being a black male in a very watched culture, I knew that I would have to behave a certain way, act a certain way and hold myself accountable in certain situations,” he said. “But I think it’s all positive, because being a role model you want to have all those qualities anyway.”