Puyallup: Sports

Puyallup lacrosse coach’s foundation built from perseverance in tough times

Emerald Ridge High graduate Hassan Mackey and his father, Larry Mackey, stand for a portrait. Larry has used his perseverance through a difficult childhood to help his family remain strong through tough times.
Emerald Ridge High graduate Hassan Mackey and his father, Larry Mackey, stand for a portrait. Larry has used his perseverance through a difficult childhood to help his family remain strong through tough times. jbessex@gateline.com

Hassan Mackey has woken up to the same scene for the past eight years.

As he peels back the covers on his bed in the small hotel confines of the Crossland Tacoma – Puyallup, the world outside this extended-stay community is just beginning to stir as the sun’s rays creep upon the Northwest. That first gaze around his room every morning as the teenager knocks the rust from his eyes is a stark reminder of all the things he never had — the toys and gadgets kids his age take advantage of everyday.

Even without all that, Mackey always had lacrosse.

“That’s all that mattered to me growing up — just being out there having a catch or playing a game,” Mackey said.

Not too long after Hassan wakes up, the all too familiar force of his father, Larry, booms into his room, asking the all-important question in his life: “Do you want to play catch?”

The answer is always a resounding yes.

“Those times I get to spend with my best friend, who happens to be my father, are special to me,” Mackey said. “He gave me the sport I love.”

Larry has hung up his coaching hat when it comes to his son Hassan’s career — one in its infancy as he’s only months away from beginning his college career with Eastern Pennsylvania University’s lacrosse program. But on these mornings, old habits die hard.

“He doesn’t need me anymore. He’s too good for me,” Larry joked. “But I stepped back because he’s had better, brighter minds that have helped himg grow as a player. I might tell him to keep his stick up or something like that, but those mornings are meant for us to talk. It’s meant for us to just talk about life.”

Those mornings, it’s hard not for Larry get caught up in the moment, seeing everything he aspired for in his son and so, so much more.

“Every parent’s dream should be for their children to surpass them in life,” Larry said. “Me and my wife (Cicely) made sure our children would go to college and provide a better life for their future families.”

When Larry looks at Hassan, he sees the world for what it is and what it can be for his son. What he doesn’t see is the one he came from.

“I could never understand everything he went through, so I try to pay attention and listen to the wisdom he speaks,” Hassan said.

A gold ticket out of the projects

Larry Mackey grew up like many African American males of the 1970s and 1980s in Long Island, New York, where signs of poverty were present everywhere a one could look.

Like many of these projects, there came a rise to gangs, to clashes between cultural identity and a police presence was almost always looming. It was a choking environment Larry and his sister Maya grew up in.

“Not many people understand what it’s like to grow up there in the projects. The projects, man,” Larry said. “I understand what it takes to survive in New York, because that’s what you’re doing, you’re surviving. The streets can eat you whole.”

Larry’s parents, Walter and Laura Mackey, really didn’t have a choice on where they could raise their children. Not with Walter only reaching eighth grade in his education, and Laura was a critical care nurse, a position that didn’t pay all too well.

Gifts were scarce, but when Larry was 5, his father gave him the greatest one of all.

“Some guy tried to bring my father out to play lacrosse, but that wasn’t his game. I remember him coming home telling me to take this (the lacrosse stick) because he wasn’t going to play a game with a bunch of white boys,” Larry joked. “He didn’t realize that he just handed me a gold ticket. That changed my life.”

Life was hard for Laura. Known as a “cowboy nurse” — one whose willing to strap on gloves on put pressure on a bleeding or sometimes gushing wound — Laura always placed an emphasis on her two children’s schooling.

It was the inspiration Larry needed to graduate Huntington High. All his life, Larry chose to play lacrosse when he could, but there just wasn’t any opportunities for him beyond high school. So Larry enlisted in the U.S. Army.

Shortly into his stint with the military, his drill sergeant came to him with news Larry would never forget.

“He came to me all stiff, (a) very military-like expression on his face,” Larry said. “He told me my father passed away from AIDS. I didn’t know how to react other than cry. The man instilled my pride in me, and I couldn’t control myself hearing that news. It made my sergeant console me.”

It was hard for Larry to lose his father Walter, but he moved on like his parents taught him. Always looking forward.

One month later, that same drill sergeant came to Larry. But this time, he couldn’t keep his military bearing in check. No, not this time, and not with this news. In tears, his sergeant told Larry that his mother, Laura, had just passed away from AIDS as well, leaving both Larry, 18 at the time, and his 11-year-old sister Maya without parents.

Larry was devastated — his world just blinked out on him. His home was gone.

“That was the hardest news anyone has ever told me. I sat there crying at the top of my lungs and this drill sergeant was sitting there crying with me. It was hard, man,” Larry said, tearing up as he recalled the story. “She’s was my mom. It was hard for me, but what hit me most was what my sister was going through. She was just this little girl who lost both her parents before she even really got to know them. That made me cry even harder.”

From that moment on, Larry and Maya’s lives were changed. Family became the most important aspect to each of their lives.

Today, Maya is a nurse living in South Carolina, the mother of four, and has been married for 25 years and counting. Larry has been married to Cicely for 20 years. As both siblings saw their parents’ tumultuous relationship growing up, both decided to end that cycle.

“She’s my hero. She really is, and every time I see her, I just end up staring at her (and admiring) about how strong of a woman she’s become,” Larry said of his sister. “She’s the strongest woman I know from what she overcame. We have jokes about who can stay married the longest, but she has me beat right now.”

Asia and Maya have become close over the years, only being a phone call away. Maya’s the person Asia goes to when there are problems in life, or when she just needs a loving voice on the other end.

“Whenever there’s a problem, (Asia) calls my sister up and explains it to her. My sister knows what it’s like to have problems, being a mother with four children, so she’ll set (Asia) straight,” Larry said with a laugh. “But family is important to my sister — to all of us. She told me when Hassan graduated, she’ll be here, and I was like, ‘Yeah, right.’ Three days later, we were greeting each other in the parking lot. Man, that was something special.”

Asia recently gave up softball and high school sports in pursuit of achieving better grades, so she can go off and find a college in pursuit of nursing major, like her aunt before her, and like her grandmother before that.

After his separation from the military, Larry wanted to do something more than just work. He wanted to make his passion his job.

Larry was a teacher at heart, and lacrosse was his trade.

A family built on lacrosse

Part 1: Hassan Mackey has met life with a smile.

This week: From Long Island, N.Y. to Washington, lacrosse has made Larry Mackey into the family man he’s become.

Part 3: Larry Mackey has become the first African American lacrosse equipment designer in the U.S.