The law and lacrosse


Photo courtesy of Bob Stevenson

Attorney played and coached at MSU

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News   
Butzel Long attorney Bob Stevenson is not only an expert player of lacrosse — one of the oldest sports in North America — but also has coached hundreds of young players in southeast Michigan.

While a student at Osborn High School in Detroit, Stevenson played football, basketball and track. Then, given tickets to an indoor (“box”) lacrosse game at the old Olympia Stadium (then the venue of the Detroit Red Wings) by his high school coaches, he saw his first lacrosse game.

“I was hooked on the sport immediately,” he says. “As it happens, I went on to play box lacrosse at Olympia for a team the Wings’ then general manager, Ned Harkness, established.”

In lacrosse — where shots can exceed 100 mph — both stick and body checking are allowed in the men’s game, and stick-checking in the women’s version. With 10 players on a men’s team, and 12 on a women’s team, there is ample opportunity for playing time.

“Lacrosse is fast, physical, finesse, relatively high scoring, and combines elements of hockey, soccer, football and basketball,” Stevenson says. “What’s not to like about that?”

After starting out as an English undergrad on the Michigan State University club team, Stevenson played on MSU’s first three varsity teams from 1970-72, earned three varsity letters, and was recognized as MSU’s highest-GPA varsity athlete.

“Life needs punctuation,” he says. “Whether in or out of season, it was great to spend time each day in athletics. It gave me ‘second wind’ for more studying later. I’ve always had a strong work ethic and attention to detail, so I would study late into the night to ‘get it done.’ That’s where and how I met Sharon, who eventually became my wife.”

Stevenson enjoyed the relationships built with teammates, coaches, and even opponents.

“That gave extra depth and substance to my time in college, and I made lifetime friendships that are among the closest I have, more than 40 years later,” he says.

“Plus, if one is a true jock, at the end of an academic day, 3:30 is ‘practice time.’  You get a workout, blow off some steam, forget your worries, and return to studies refreshed. Even now at work, I get ‘edgy’ around 3:30 or so — it’s workout time.”

MSU became a varsity team in 1970, while the University of Michigan remained a club — and back then, club teams could include grad students. 

“So the MSU team were young pups, and the U-M team were in large part post-grad ‘pros,’” Stevenson recalls.  “U-M ate our lunch, two games a year, in 1970, 1971, and our first meeting in 1972.”

In the second game in ’72 — Stevenson’s senior year and “last chance” — he scored MSU’s last goal in a one-goal win. 

“But truly, the credit for that win goes to our goalie, Ron Hebert, who fended off a barrage of shots after my winning goal, to preserve the win,” he says. 

Stevenson coached the MSU squad in 1973, most notably notching the Spartans’ first lacrosse varsity win against Ohio State.

“Helping coordinate the efforts of any group of people to accomplish an objective is very rewarding,” he notes. “Add the competition, strategy and physicality of sport at its highest levels, and the relationships one builds, and coaching is one of life’s richest experiences.”

Although he stepped down from coaching to attend the University of Michigan Law School, Stevenson continued in the sport as a referee.

“I enjoyed learning the rules in extreme depth, and enabling a fair and reasonable competition,” he says. “But ultimately, I preferred ‘having a dog in the fight’ by being a coach or a player.”

After establishing his Ann Arbor law firm of Stevenson Keppelman Associates (SKA), Stevenson coached the Pioneer High School boys’ varsity team from 1999 to 2004. 

“It was interesting going from college to high school – the kids were in a more formative stage in every sense, so I had to make adjustments,” he says. “But again, the relationships were the reward. To this day, I share family events and ski trips with guys I coached in high school, along with my college teammates.” 

Stevenson also helped start a youth league for boys and girls in Ann Arbor.

“The league was a doubly selfish act by me — as Pioneer coach, I realized that to improve Pioneer lacrosse, we needed a ‘feeder’ system, to get kids playing at younger ages,” he says. “Dentist Ray Maturo and I lobbied the Ann Arbor Rec and Ed department to add the program, and we helped bankroll it. A place for my daughters to play was my other objective.”Daughters Ruth and Kate followed their dad into the sport from an early age.

“Their lives were as enriched by the experience as was mine and both have benefitted from the relationships lacrosse can grow,” he says.

Stevenson started coaching girls’ youth teams, and club teams — including Detroit Lacrosse, a high-school age girls’ summer travel team — and ultimately coached the MSU Women’s Club Team from 2005-08, during which time the team won a league championship, went to two national championship tournaments, and finished as high as eighth nationally.

“In my view, women’s officials in Michigan hold the sport back by imposing their own set of rules, which are perhaps more ‘girly’ than would typify the more robust game of women’s lacrosse played in the east,” Stevenson notes. “Taking local teams east — as well as to the Vail Shootout in Colorado — and exposing them to a more fulsome view of the sport, and even winning some tournaments, was very satisfying. And the relationships with players and parents was a lifetime treat.”

While lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the U.S., it’s not as deeply established as basketball, football, or soccer, notes Stevenson, an active member of the Board of Directors for the Michigan Chapter of U.S. Lacrosse from 2004 to present, and president from 2005-08.

“Lacrosse is infectious and there’s no cure. Once exposed to it, as a participant or spectator, you’re hooked,” he says. “True lacrosse people ‘give back’ to the game, nurturing and growing it. So my work for U.S. Lacrosse Michigan was a natural part of my ‘lacrosse-life.’” 

During Stevenson’s tenure as president, U.S. Lacrosse Michigan grew an established but modest annual tournament into a two-day weekend of 140 teams, an event that became a major fundraiser and allowed the organization to administer grants and a scholarship program.

Stevenson capped his long, successful lacrosse career by being inducted into the Michigan Lacrosse Coaches’ Hall of Fame in 2012, and into the U.S. Lacrosse Michigan Hall of Fame in 2014. 

“It’s truly gratifying for one’s activities to be favorably acknowledged by one’s peers,” he says. “It’s especially gratifying when one has great respect for those conferring the recognition, as I have for both organizations. 

“I feel especially honored, because I was recognized as a player and a men’s and women’s coach.  Lacrosse is a team sport, and nothing is accomplished alone. So I feel that my recognition represents my teammates and the many athletes I was able to coach.” 

Stevenson adds that modern law practice is a team sport, similar to lacrosse. 

“Lawyers, legal assistants, admins, IT people, and multiple legal disciplines must come together to deliver service,” he explains. “As in coaching a team, firm leaders must maximize the team’s strengths and work around limitations to achieve best outcomes. I feel that as a coach and a lawyer, I’m a ‘big tent guy,’ with room for everyone to contribute.

“Being a great lawyer or a great athlete requires stamina, focus, a crazy work ethic, and for sure, resiliency. You have to aim high, do what it takes to succeed, and deliver.”