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Lacrosse Museum pays homage to the sport's original masters.

By Jerry Reynolds -- Today staff

BALTIMORE - Small museums tend to be long on affection for their subjects but short on detail. As a case in point, visitors to the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame in Ishpeming, Mich., will find barely a word on cross-country skiing, the mother of all who go on skis.

Visitors to Washington who get up the road to Baltimore and one of its well-kept secrets, the Lacrosse Museum and National Hall of Fame on the Johns Hopkins University campus, will not have to worry on that score. The unassuming brick building on West University Parkway doesn't stop with American Indians, but it starts with them and pays them full homage as the original masters and mentors of the game.

A bronze sculpture out front, ''Dehontshihgwa'es (Creator's Game),'' of two straining players from times past, greets visitors with the following message on a plaque: ''The game of Lacrosse was given by the Creator to the Ho-de-no-saunee (Iroquois) and other Native American people many years ago. It is from the Iroquois that the modern game of Lacrosse most directly descends. May this sculpture forever honor the Iroquois and the origins of Lacrosse.''

Lacrosse is the first of all team sports in North America, played throughout the Native nations east of the Mississippi and beyond, south to Florida and up through the woodlands and Great Lakes into Canada. The game is so ancient that the earliest accounts of it are embedded in myth, as noted by scholar Thomas Vennum in the film ''More Than a Game: A History of Lacrosse,'' on regular show at the museum. In a classic account, ''American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War,'' Vennum added that some legends and myths of lacrosse have come down to us in archaic speech, much as if tennis had been set forth in the Old English of ''Beowulf.''

No one invented lacrosse; in all of the foundation stories, the Creator gave it. But Vennum has traced the lacrosse stick to drumsticks and war clubs, faintly echoed on the Sports Illustrated magazine cover from 1962 that named it simply ''The Tough Game.''

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It's not as tough as it was. The old-time accounts are replete with broken bones, blood, dislocated shoulders and worse. The game has gradually spruced up, and the revolutionary advent of plastic, fiberglass and titanium sticks has somewhat reduced the intimidation factor of hickory sticks backed by muscle and ferocious cross-checking. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation and one of the game's great goalkeepers - he proved his mettle when young by standing up to a fearsome ''heavy shot'' at a cost of three broken ribs - hardly manages to keep down a smile when he suggested, in the film, that modern players may be afraid of getting hurt.

But if the toughness of hickory has gone out of the modern game to some extent, the game has gained in other respects. ''The fastest game on two feet,'' as a writer for the Baltimore Sun famously dubbed lacrosse, is faster now than it was then, thanks to the lighter equipment. With the modern emphasis on finesse, speed and strength, women's lacrosse has begun to come into its own.

Bobbie Bardzik, the museum manager and a lacrosse player, said the next great challenge for the game is to become a gold-medal Olympic sport. Toward that end, devotees in a number of countries have taken up the game on a number of continents.

Between informative plaques, curio-filled display cases, a Hall of Fame room in the back and a corner for T-shirts and other mementos, visitors to the museum will find everything they need to spread the word.

In the process, they'll probably have to stand corrected on a fine point or two. Much of what Americans may know about lacrosse is wrong, beginning with the name - probably not from the French missionary's identification of the stick with a bishop's staff, or crozier. For as far back as a 16th-century written description of a 13th-century game, the French were calling any game played with curved sticks and a ball ''jouer a la crosse.''

American Indians had other names for it, most of them meaning approximately ''Creator's game.'' An Algonquin name for lacrosse is baggataway; tewaarathon is an Iroquois name. The Cherokees called it the ''little brother of war.'' The spiritual roots of lacrosse are partly expressed today in healing elements, ''medicine games'' that are played with the old wooden sticks only.

Whether the Olympics ever catch up or not, the first Americans will always be playing some variety of the game somewhere in North America, as they always have.