On Saturday night at KeyBank Center, the Buffalo Bandits host the Colorado Mammoth in the third and deciding game of the National Lacrosse League championship series, looking to capture their first league title since 2008.
It will be five weeks to the day since the horrific events of May 14, when an 18-year-old white supremacist gunned down 10 Black city residents at a Tops Market on the East Side. On the evening after the killings, the Bandits hosted Toronto in the first game of the semifinals.
The Bandits’ Dhane Smith, the only Black MVP in league history, gave an impassioned speech about racism to his teammates before that game. He donated game-used sticks and gloves to support the victims’ families and helped raise more than $15,000 in donations.
Smith and nine teammates, including his close friend, Josh Byrne, volunteered on Jefferson Avenue alongside Bills and Sabres players. Now, as the indoor lacrosse seasons nears a dramatic conclusion in downtown Buffalo, the memory of those 10 lost lives continues to resonate within a community and one of its beloved pro sports teams.
“I think we’re playing for a lot more,” Byrne said this week. “We’re playing for this community, and we’re doing our best to hopefully heal this community in any way we can. I think that’s what we’re playing for on Saturday.
“You hear about shootings and different tragedies across the world, and it hits hard,” Byrne said, “but it hits harder when it’s in your own backyard. And on top of that, when you hear the motive was racial, it really crushes you. It forces your mind to think, ‘What if that was one of your friends?’ Or for me, my mom. My mom is Black.”
Byrne is biracial. His father was from Ireland and his mother was from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. The issues cut deeply with biracial people, who generally tend to identify closely with their Black heritage.
“I don’t look Black,” Byrne said. “I look more white, due to the pigment of my skin. He would have looked at me and let me go and continued to kill Black people. That’s the most saddening thing for me to wrap my head around.”
He says he’s never experienced racism directly, but cringes when he overhears bigoted comments by people who assume he’s white. Byrne said he felt a responsibility to speak out about racism and help people understand what Black people endure on a daily basis, to be a “voice of change.”
Smith, his best friend on the Bandits, had a similar epiphany after the George Floyd killing two years ago. Smith, a quiet soul by nature, had never talked about his experiences growing up as a Black kid playing a white sport. But as people marched in protest after the Floyd murder, he shared his feelings on Twitter and pleaded for racial harmony in the world.
Smith and Byrne were active in the Black Lives Matter movement, wearing BLM leg sleeves, taking a knee during the national anthem and wearing “I belong here” T-shirts to Bandits games.
Byrne naturally gravitated to Smith when the Bandits made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NLL draft. Smith was his roommate in the hotel on the night of the draft. They moved in together when Byrne was a rookie and became roommates and best pals.
“Yeah, we’ve been super close,” Smith said. “And ever since all that stuff happened, we’ve been even closer. We own a house together as well. All those little things added up. But it’s been nice to have somebody support me and me support him. We’re like brothers, honestly.”
They’re also the top scorers on a Bandits team that’s one win from a title. Smith led the NLL in scoring this season with 135 goals and a league-record 94 assists. Byrne was second on the team with 37 goals and 99 points, tied for sixth in the league and easily a career high.
Byrne, who is 6-3, 207 pounds, leads the Bandits in playoff scoring with 34 points. Smith has 32. Colorado’s Eli McLaughlin leads the playoffs with 41 points. Byrne, a native of New Westminster, British Columbia, is playing his best lacrosse when the Bandits need it the most.
“A lot of it is confidence,” Byrne said. “When you first come into the league, especially as a rookie, you don’t really feel like you belong. You feel like you’ve got to earn it, you’ve got to work. You don’t want to step on anybody’s toes.
“As you get older, you start to understand there’s a reason you’re here and there’s no reason to sit back anymore. You start to understand the game a bit more. Sometimes, especially at a young age, you just shoot the ball as hard as you can. You’re single-minded. ‘I’ve got to score goals, I’ve got to set picks,’ whatever it is.
“It’s definitely about maturing and understanding that it’s about all those things to be a good player in this league.”
Byrne was a finalist for 2017-18 NLL Rookie of the Year. He set a franchise record for points and assists by a rookie. In his second season, he became the second-fastest in franchise history to reach 100 career points — after current head coach and NLL legend John Tavares.
Smith, who has been in the league for 10 years, has been a mentor for Byrne, teaching him to let the game slow down at times and come to him. He said it was only a matter of time before his buddy blossomed as a star.
“We drafted him first overall for a reason,” Smith said. “He was definitely the best player in the draft and he’s a talented player. He was trying to play his role within the system, but now he’s being a little bit more aggressive and playing like it’s his team. And it’s awesome to see.”
Byrne considers himself “incredibly lucky” to have become a friend and teammate of Smith, who holds the NLL’s single-season scoring records. They’re also teammates with Chaos of the outdoor Premier Lacrosse League in the summertime.
“Dhane played with some of the best players to ever play and he’ll go down as one of the best ever,” Byrne said. “I’m definitely grateful to have him as one of my best friends. You would think that two guys so similar would get in more fights. But we’re both very level-headed and want to see each other succeed. We like to have a good time, so it’s a good relationship we have.”
They even bought a house together in Hamburg, where Byrne and some other Bandits reside. Smith, 30, moved into an apartment downtown this season for a more, uh, sedate setting.
“He was getting a little too old to be hanging out at the frat house,” Byrne, who recently turned 28, said with a laugh.
Smith, a native of Kitchener, Ontario, wasn’t too keen on Buffalo when he arrived here as a naive 19-year-old. But he grew to love the city and now proudly considers himself a “Buffalo guy.”
Byrne had similar reservations when he came to the East Coast of the United States after growing up in western Canada. He played college lacrosse at Nassau Community College and Hofstra on Long Island, so he was familiar with New York State when he got drafted by the Bandits.
“When I first got here, I really didn’t know what to expect,” Byrne said. “But the longer that I lived in Buffalo, the more I came to understand that the people of Buffalo are what make the city great. Everyone is so genuine, so kind. They all want you to succeed, and that’s part of what makes this such a great sports city to play in. But also a great community to live in as well.
“I’m grateful for the relationships I’ve made in Buffalo. I’ve definitely become a Buffalo guy. That’s something I hold close to my heart.”
It would mean a great deal to bring a championship to his adopted city, especially after the tragedies on May 14. Byrne said this is what you dream about as a kid. He hears hockey players talk about the magic of a seventh game.
“This is as close to that as possible for lacrosse,” Byrne said. “It’s an incredible experience and we’re super excited to get it going and play in front of an incredible Buffalo community. … [There’s] nothing like the crowd in Banditland. That place is going to be an absolutely packed barn, and we’re going to need every last one of them to push us through.”
The NLL lost two postseasons due to COVID-19. On Saturday night at KeyBank, the NLL Cup will be awarded for the first time since 2019, when the Bandits lost to Calgary in the finals. The game is a sellout. One can only imagine how emotionally charged that place will be if the Bandits win for the first time in 14 years.
“It’s something that I try not to think about,” Byrne said, “because I do my best to just focus on the game and what I have to do, kind of five minutes as a time. I felt that in 2019, we got caught up in ‘I can’t wait to win, blah blah blah’ and we kind of forgot about what we had to do to win.”
At some point, no doubt, he and his teammates will look up into that capacity crowd, see the faces of all those Buffalo people, and be reminded that they’re playing for something bigger than themselves.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.