If there is a singular name that acts as the sun, of which all the rest of the Syracuse lacrosse solar system revolves, it is Gary Gait. He is the single most dominant player perhaps in the history of the sport. He eviscerated records, won at every level, soared above the rest in every league he played. Gait ushered in the modern era of SU lax making the program a national brand. He is one of the only athletes in the sport’s history who owns a signature move. Even if you’re not a lacrosse fan, you’ve probably heard his name. That’s the type of legacy he left behind.
In the fall of ’86, SU welcomed two Gaits from the other coast to campus. Identical twins Gary and Paul of British Columbia roamed the Hill like so many wide-eyed freshman. It was a seminal time in Syracuse athletics. That winter the men’s basketball team would have its first great squad under Jim Boeheim, powerful enough to find itself in the Final Four and the National Championship Game in April of ’87. That fall the magic of Coach Mac and the upstart Orangemen would soar through perhaps the most charmed season in program history, ending in the “Dye Tie” and the ’88 Sugar Bowl. In between, the Gaits established their foothold on the lacrosse field.
The spring of ’87 was the Gaits first season, and immediately they paid dividends. Gary was about to establish himself as an iconic player. While SU had won the national title in ’83, the Gaits pushed the program into the broader sports conversation. In ’87 SU made the Final Four behind 25 goals from Gary. It was just the beginning.
Starting in ’88, arguably no player had a greater three year run in lacrosse history. In 15 games as a sophomore Gary Gait scored an absolutely insane 70 goals. It was an NCAA record. It’s still an SU record. Defenses had no way to defend him, and once it was Gary and the goalie, the goalie lost. Behind his goal barrage SU won the national title, going undefeated at 15-0. It was a tour de force. Gait was named the Most Outstanding Player in the sport. With 87 points, Gait averaged an outrageous 5.80 points per game.
In ’89 Gait wasn’t as dominating on the scoring sheet, and SU lost once, but the outcome was the same. Behind his 51 goals, Gary Gait led SU to its second straight national championship. SU had become a dynasty and the Gaits were at the center. At this point observers were considering Gary the greatest ever to play. He wasn’t done. As a final act in ’90, Gary Gait scored 46 goals and added 26 assists. His 72 points were actually more than his junior season even though he scored fewer goals. Defenses had to shift entirely to smother him, so his next trick was figuring out how to make sure his teammates could capitalize. SU was undefeated again, and the ’90 squad is considered by some the greatest in the history of men’s lacrosse. They would take home a third consecutive national championship. Gait once again one the Lt. Raymond Enners Award as the nation’s best player.
His three year tear from ’88-’90 is the stuff of legend, unbelievable if it weren’t so believable because of his greatness. Three straight national titles. Anchoring perhaps the greatest team ever. Three straight All-America honors (he won it all four years). The NCAA’s single-season scoring record. 167 goals, 57 assists, and two National Player of the Year awards. And the “Air Gait.”
Ah, the “Air Gait.” Has there ever been anything like it? Dr. J had the windmill dunk. Barry Sanders had the spin move. Reggie Jackson had the bat flip. Named after Michael Jordan’s gravity-defying slams, Gary Gait created a signature move. Talk about unbelievable. When he first attempted it, opponents didn’t know what was happening. Fans stared in disbelief like watching Babe Ruth clout home runs. He did what? Legends of the game still talk about it in hushed tones. It was so brazen, so impossible, so poetic. A mix of agility, power and bravado, it was unlike anything the sport had ever seen.
“I went to my first Syracuse lacrosse game in 1988 when I was 12-years old,” great Casey Powell recounted. “That‚Äôs when I saw my first ‚ÄòAir Gait.‚Äô The Orange were playing in the NCAA semi-finals at the Carrier Dome against the University of Pennsylvania in front of 20,148 people. Syracuse was down 2-1 in the second quarter and looking for a big play to rally behind. Gary Gait caught a pass behind the cage, revved his engine, and took off like Superman from point behind to dunk the ball over the crossbar like Michael ‚ÄúAir‚Äù Jordan, would dunk a basketball. Gary Gait had tied the game at 2 and woke the spirit of the Orange.”
Roy Simmons said after the game, “You saw history today.” The move changed the tenor of the contest, and the postseason. SU went onto win that game. The Orange went onto win their first title since ’83. The lore of “Air Gait” was born. Posters were printed. They hung in bed rooms, sports dens, and dorm rooms across New York. You can now drink a beer named after it.
“I was in awe of Gary‚Äôs skill as a young player,” Powell says. “He was big, strong, fast, daring, creative, innovative, and deeply skilled at the game of lacrosse. I wanted to play the game at the level Gary played it and I wanted to excite people about the game the way he did. From the time I heard 20,000 Syracuse fans howl, stomp their feet, and clap their hands to the first intentional crease dive goal of all time, I was Gary Gait #22 every time I scooped a lacrosse ball off the ground in my backyard, at Carthage High School, or any field with goals at opposite ends.”
There is no SU career that can match Gary Gait’s for its success on the field and changing the sport permanently. The twins dominance was just starting. Gary would go onto play twenty years of professional lacrosse.
“Identical twins Paul and Gary Gait,” Inside Lacrosse wrote recently, “exploded into the NLL (then known as the Major Indoor Lacrosse League, or MILL) in 1991 with Detroit and started setting records right away. Paul scored 47 goals in 10 games that year, a rookie record that still stands to this day despite the season being almost twice as long. His 4.7 goals per-game average that season is the second-highest ever, rookie or not, only surpassed by his brother Gary’s 57 goals in 12 games in 1998.”
Gary is now building a second legacy at SU, as head coach of the women’s program. He’s made the Orange an annual tournament team, and has twice been in the national title game. You cannot tell the history of SU sports without him, and no one defined a sport like Gary Gait did.