LFHS grad Smith having a ball with lacrosse store
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
In less than one month, a Lake Forest High School graduate and former star lacrosse player has made the leap from coaching to retail — and is having a ball doing it.
Justin Smith, a 1993 graduate of LFHS, opened the first lacrosse specialty store in the city of Chicago at 1216 W. Belmont, in the Lakeview/Wrigleyville area, on April 30. He’s already getting tapped to be the official equipment provider for local high school teams and, as word gets out, is becoming a go-to guy for all things lacrosse in Chicago.
The most frequent comment Smith gets from first-timers at The LAX Shop is: “Thank goodness there’s a store downtown now and we don’t have to go to the suburbs,” Smith said.
With Chicago Youth Lacrosse exploding from five kids in 2006 to about 1,000 today, the need for someone to provide all those new players with helmets, pads, sticks and cleats became clear to Smith.
“These kids had no place to get their equipment,” he said.
At most sports megastores, sales clerks usually have no experience with the fastest-growing sport in the city.
“They’ll tell you, ‘Go to aisle three,’ and then they’ll walk away,” said Smith.
Not so at The LAX Shop. Smith played varsity lacrosse all four years at LFHS -- where he was named an All-American -- and doubled that at Denison University. Seven years after college, Smith became a goalie coach at St. Ignatius College Prep; the squad captured the state championship in 2009.
‘String a stick’
With such a deep resume in the sport, Smith requires that anyone who works at his shop has the same love for and playing experience in the game.
“Part of the interview is being able to string a stick,” Smith said.
If you can’t string a lacrosse stick, you’re out. With such experience on hand, Smith and his staff can help players go further in the game, he said.
“We’ve had kids show up looking through the ear hole on their helmet,” he said, which is not unusual in the sport that most parents never watched, much less played themselves.
Though the sport is growing exponentially, Smith said three things remain constant from his high school days: “The shooting is terrible, the goaltending is terrible and the refereeing is terrible,” he said. “We can fix two of the three.”
Anyone who goes to his 2,000-square-foot store will find top-brand lacrosse equipment and clothing, and a chance to pick up a few pointers along the way.
One of the biggest features at The LAX Shop is a shooting cage Smith had built specially for his store. It features a net, a Plexiglas wall and a radar gun.
“I wanted kids to be able to come in and try out any stick they want to find one they like,” he said. “It’s kind of like going to see a golf smith, where you can try shooting with a bunch of different drivers. In this case, it’s a lacrosse stick.”
Entire teams have shown up at his shop to try to outdo each other on their speed.
“They also come in to work on their shooting. We’ll provide pointers so they can shoot better,” he said. “We want to see them get better and improve on their own. We’ve already helped some kids raise their speed 10 mph because we’ve shown them the right techniques of shooting.”
Players who have come into the store have ranged from 5 years old up through college-age. No matter what their age or skill level, Smith said they always start with a helmet.
“We want to make sure it fits. Then we’ll go to shoulder pads, arm pads, gloves and cleats,” he said.
Once they’re fitted with proper gear, shoppers can choose lacrosse shorts and shirts in colors as bright as they desire.
While their kids look at gear, try on clothes and figure out how they want their stick custom-strung, parents can view the historical photos and lacrosse timeline that decorate the brick-walled interior of the store.
“Parents think it’s a newer game, but lacrosse has been around hundreds of years,” he said.
Smith thinks the rise in the popularity of lacrosse is here to stay.
“Parents want to see their kids running around. Lacrosse is such a fast-paced game,” he said.
The LAX Shop is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday–Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays. The shop has its own parking lot just west of the store. For more information, go to www.thelaxshop.com.