THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN

On one spirited weekend each summer, tiny Lowell, Mich. turns into Mackerville, its streets, sidewalks and front lawns given over to a three-on-three basketball bacchanal
July 07, 1985

The way Orloe Gwatkin has it figured, the neighborhood kids could have gotten into worse things. They could have taken the Smiths' '68 Monterey over to the Bushnell Elementary School parking lot and worked up a head of steam and squealed tires something nasty in the intersection of Amity and Elizabeth, right there in front of the Gwatkin home. They could have lit bottle rockets and sent them rattling off the Gwatkin door, as they had done once to the Isenhoffs down the street. Why, they could have rapped a softball through one of Orloe's windows, the way they had done to the Doyles'. So when instead they stayed up till all hours, playing basketball across the way in the McNeals' driveway, Orloe Gwatkin didn't mind.

Larry Isenhoff did. He called the cops a few times.

But Orloe and his wife, Mary Ann, actually liked it. "The minute I heard the ball bouncing over there, I always felt very secure," Mary Ann Gwatkin says.

And when the neighborhood kids' hanging out grew into an enormous three-on-three half-court festival called the Gus Macker Basketball Tournament that swallows up several residential blocks of the languid town of Lowell, Mich. (pop. 3,707) for one weekend every summer, well, the Gwatkins still didn't mind. "It brings business to town, for one thing," Orloe Gwatkin says. "Plus it's a hell of a lot of youth in a good, healthy situation. Goddam city doesn't do anything about kids' recreation. Can't get into the school gyms up here. I pay my taxes and it makes me mad as hell."

Orloe Gwatkin would just as soon send his tax dollars to Mackerville. That's the community of the mind that Scott McNeal created over spring break in 1974. A classmate had begun calling Scott "Gus Macker" in the seventh grade, McNeal says, "for no real reason." McNeal/Macker and 17 other teenage Lowellians each threw a buck into a pot, then went at one another, three-on-three, at the hoop above the McNeal driveway. The winning team split the $18.

Since then McNeal has become a schoolteacher, and something of an old fogy of 29. But he has reared the Macker right on up with him, feeding and caring for it so that the good-natured monster will this year devour a budget approaching $40,000. The Macker gives thousands a chance to immerse themselves in three days of three-on-three, basketball's most sociable, symmetrical and (as we'll see) intimate configuration. To Lowell's mayor, Jim Maatman, it's a pain in the municipal butt that so thoroughly shuts down a chunk of the town that he thinks the tournament may have to move. To McNeal, it's a yearly fix of shameless, cornball fun—of treating your tongue as if it were a Spalding and your cheek as if it were a hoop.

And Orloe Gwatkin can't think of any real reason to dislike McNeal's carnival of in-your-face at-your-doorstep. As Gus says, "Orloe and Mary Ann are just spazzy Macker backers. One year they let us put Porta-Johns on their property. Why, they'd pave over their yard if we asked them to."

One of these days McNeal may have to ask. The Macker now spreads out the McNeal driveway, up and down Elizabeth Street and north and south around the corners of Lincoln Lake Avenue and Amity Street so that, viewed from the air, more than 30 courts form a giant H. Some 630 teams will play next week in 33 divisions—30 for men, three for women, further broken down by age and ability. As the tourney has grown, so too has its name. Literally. Last July, nearly 2,000 took to the streets in THE 11TH ANNUAL NEW AND IMPROVED "OLYMPIC STYLE" ONE AND ONLY ORIGINAL "YES, WE'RE BUILDING AN EMPIRE" GUS MACKER (FOR PRESIDENT '84) ALL-WORLD INVITATIONAL THREE-ON-THREE OUTDOOR BACKYARD "BACK TO THE STREETS" BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT.

Does that big H stand for hoops, or hyperbole? You judge.

The 11th annual carried on in the spirit of the 10 before it, a spirit that lives in the Macker Hall of Fame, an outbuilding on the complex at 521 Elizabeth that McNeal and his 15-member advisory council call the Stadiarena and Estates. Rims, nets, balls, programs and decorative backboards from each Macker are on display "365 days a year, except Christmas and New Year's," McNeal says. For all but three of those days, the Macker Hall of Fame is the McNeal family garage.

The archives include film of the memorable top men's division final in 1982, when former Central Michigan University star Melvin (Sugar) McLaughlin sank a 20-foot fall-away to give his Son's Party Store team a 20-18 win over Phase I. There was so much fall in Sugar's fall-away that he crashed in the lap of Mark Kimball, the Macker functionary who was doing play-by-play for a video-cassette recording. This rare footage is referred to as The Hindenburg.

Little about the Macker changes from year to year. Directions to the site, for instance: "Five blocks north from the traffic light"—there's only one in Lowell, which is a couple of biker bars east of Grand Rapids—"then straight west 'til you get there." Still, as the tournament grows, subtle ways are found to make each renewal NEW AND IMPROVED.

The Macker's most nettlesome problem has been physical play that, in the absence of referees, once threatened to spoil the fun. "Around our fifth year we thought everyone would come back and bring friends and it would just grow and grow," McNeal says. "But right then it got so physical that people went nuts." To deal with the unseemly bogarting, sportsmanship awards are now handed out in every division, and a platoon of physical therapists and emergency medical technicians stakes out the site.

But the most effective civilizing influence has been the presence, since last year, of court monitors. These "Gus-Busters," many of whom are students of Central Michigan University recreation instructor Don Stabenow, are vested with wide-ranging powers short of actually whistling calls. If a fight breaks out, they might simply stop the game. "The ideal recreational philosophy is 'call your own,' " Stabenow says. "But just having the monitors there serves as a deterrent."

In past years Macker council members had to play peacemaker themselves. Now they can devote all their time to providing the gobs of elbow grease that make the tournament run. "The first year we started building baskets on the Wednesday of tournament week," says Chris Briggs, the Macker's unofficial handyman. "We just barely finished. Now we have the whole thing down like an assembly line." Workers use scaffolding, yard-long levels, tape measures and power tools to whip backboards into shape and certify that all rims are precisely 10 feet high. A small army of volunteers spends most of Macker Thursday wheeling the baskets into position and laying the yellow tape that borders every court.

From last summer's program:

Q. How much tape does it take to line every court in Mackerville?

A. Measure it and tell us.

Overheard last summer: "No, no, the curb's out. The tape don't mean nothin'."

The flags of 160 nations did not fly over Mackerville in 1984, but players from New Mexico and Virginia and even an exchange student from Norway participated in the games, giving the event a relatively OLYMPIC STYLE atmosphere.

"Some folks think you've got to have a multimillion dollar arena before having big-time sports," went one of the several newspaper pleas that Lowell should allow the Macker to continue in its streets. "Some folks are plumb wrong."

Among the "folks" of western Michigan, "you're plumb wrong" is a retort of violent disagreement. Yet the Macker council hardly acts like a bunch of yokels. For the last three years the Macker has grossed revenue in five figures, partly by peddling an array of souvenir articles, from shoelaces to key chains to caps, most sporting the characteristic basketball-bodied Macker Man trimmed, of course, in Macker Maroon and Gus Gold. You haven't lived until you've sipped Dom Perignon from a Gussy Guzzler cup.

The opening ceremonies are ritualistic without being stuffy. Dick McNeal, Scott's dad, wheezes out The Star-Spangled Banner on an old steam calliope. Scott himself escorts the reigning Miss Macker to Court K, right in front of the McNeal home, where she throws up the first ball. And council member Steve Doyle takes (and never makes) a ceremonial "do-or-die" shot. All is done in the spirit of the Macker motto, which sounds as if Mister Rogers appropriated the Olympian Citius, Altius, Fortius from Baron de Coubertin: "Wear a Macker smile for all the world to see; Macker makes the world a better place to be."

Last summer a Grand Rapidian named Robert S—"I put the rap in Grand Rapids"—put the Macker message into another idiom:

I never really knew what basketball meant
'til I went to the Gus Macker tournament
It was lotsa people from different races
And everywhere ya looked there were smilin' faces
And the only thing that coulda brought 'em all together
Was a li'l ball, made of leather.

There's nothing intrinsically ONE AND ONLY ORIGINAL about a neighborhood three-on-three basketball tournament, yet no other phrase does justice to an event that owes so much to controlled foolishness. Every team is required to register not just a name, but a team mascot, song, meal, movie and candy bar. This information is probably more pertinent than some of the stuff requested on the official entry form several years back, when each team was asked to designate an official fish. "The one that saved Pittsburgh," offered one entry, referring to an eminently forgettable movie featuring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving. A few other teams, catching on, listed "Mackerel."

The program and the newspaper, the Mackerville Gusette ("Serving Greater Downtown Mackerville and Surrounding Driveways with Prime Hoop for Eleven Consecutive Years"), are favored repositories of this sort of humor. A brochure mailed to prospective contestants before last summer's Macker bore the mug of Michael Jackson and the words, "This year's Macker'll be a Thriller! I'll Be There, with Jermaine and Tito!"

Unfortunately, the Miss Macker Beauty Pageant, which was conceived in the same freewheeling spirit, is now something other than a goof. The council still considers it a joke, but with each passing year, the entrants have become more and more serious. A few have even submitted modeling portfolios. Last year's winner, however, turned out to be Necie Sparks, a Michigan State student with no modeling experience and a sweet, girl-next-door innocence. On her entry form she listed her occupation as "public relations" for a local tavern. This was her wry way of saying she worked as a barmaid, giving evidence of a sense of humor, which doubtless helped her with the judges—as did the fact that she was the only contestant to list basketball as a hobby.

A few years ago a Miss Macker hopeful shocked Elizabeth Street by strutting down the driveway in a tiny leopard-skin teddy. She didn't win; an entrant who scrupulously referred to the neighborhood as "Mackerville" and dressed more Gus's of Lowell than Frederick's of Hollywood, did. That may have owed something to Mary Ann Gwatkin being one of the judges.

Such tales wear well with the event's oral historian, Disko Bob, alias Bob Behnke, who has deejayed at the past four Mackers. Last July he showed up wearing reflector shades, a Fu Manchu and goatee. He claimed to be on leave; from where, no one was quite sure, though he had NASA and Cub Scout patches sewn to the back of his skimmering Macker jacket. "I'm a space cadet," he said. "Scout's honor."

It hadn't really occurred to Scott McNeal that his tournament was becoming so enormous, at least not until about eight years into the Macker madness, when a coworker over in Durand told him, "You're building an empire with that thing!" And McNeal thought about it for a moment and decided that, YES, WE'RE BUILDING AN EMPIRE!

One year the council even considered having McNeal anoint himself emperor and send a letter to the governor declaring Mackerville's secession from Michigan. None of it ever came about, though an unabashed policy of expansionism prevails. A handful of replica tournaments have sprung up elsewhere, all of which acknowledge Emperor Macker Augustus's seminal role. "It looks like your cat had kittens," the organizer of an ambitious imitator, a "Hoop-Fest Shoot-Out" in Willard, Ohio, wrote to McNeal.

"There are people who think we've got a cult here," McNeal says. One of them is an art teacher in nearby Kent City, who became alarmed one spring when her third-graders began drawing Macker Men on their Easter bunnies.

About GUS MACKER: "I once heard that he was a 6'8" black guy," says McNeal. "I'm 5'7", and that's stretching it."

He's also a white guy, though Bonnie McNeal points out how her son doesn't always seem to realize that: "He's a Gemini, you know. Split personality."

Nothing in the McNeal household would seem to account for this. They're the quintessential small-town Midwestern family. Dad is a printer. Mom worked for 19 years as an executive secretary at Amway, which is headquartered just up the road in Ada. And brother Mitch, 25, works there part-time while finishing up work for his law degree.

During the Macker weekend Gus will suddenly appear—neighborly, like an Amway salesman. But then, after surveying the scene, he'll flash his luminous blue eyes, stroke his beard and lose himself in the crowd. "I don't have anything to do," he mused at the height of last summer's tournament. "I usually have my life threatened a few times." In past Mackers, teams that felt they'd been wronged on a call would refuse to play on until Gus himself was summoned to pass judgment. It's not that the plaintiffs knew McNeal or anything; they simply had this faith in his righteousness. Last summer, however, Gus-Busters staunchly refused to bother The Man with such minutiae as whether or not someone had traveled.

Coming up, McNeal was a good-shooting reserve guard at Lowell High and, incidentally, a good student. "The only complaint I ever got from teachers was that he was bashful," his mom says. Today he coaches the boys' jayvee team at Kent City High, where he also teaches social studies. He'll tie the knot with Renée Hill at Lowell's First Methodist Church on Friday, July 12, just hours before the '85 Macker tips off.

From past Macker programs we know these tidbits about Gus: He subscribes to GQ, has an abiding crush on Valerie Bertinelli and considers ribs and Yoplait yogurt his two favorite foods.

Who Lowellians wanted FOR PRESIDENT '84 has more significance than you'd think, since the town helped send Gerald Ford to Congress for 13 consecutive terms. They're moderate Republicans, some of whom make their living milling flour that's sent to Keebler and Kellogg's to be turned into cookies and cereal—in short, the kind of folks who, for the most part, would have no reason not to like black people well enough. But until the Macker came along, they never had occasion to meet any.

Time was when the only black faces you'd see in Lowell were the made-up minstrels on the Lowell Showboat, which is still docked at an outdoor amphitheater on the Flat River. Those days the boat would bring headliners like Milton Berle, Steve Allen and Dinah Shore to town, and gave Lowell the nickname "Showboat City." For 21 years Dick McNeal was an endman on the Showboat. He used to wear blackface. But the attraction has fallen on hard times and hasn't staged a production since 1982. Robert S will have to do:

C'mon everybody, have no fear
1984 is an election year
And when this election begins to roll
You'd better watch out for the basketball pole
'Cause Gus Macker's runnin', don't you see
In the 1984 primary
And his primary concern is fun
Big fun for everyone
Hip hop, loop-de-loop
Take Ronald Reagan to the hoop
But whatever ya do, remember this
Y'always play with sportsmanship.

It's difficult to maintain an ALL-WORLD INVITATIONAL format, what with "all-world" and "invitational" being more or less at odds with one another. (You can't invite the world.) "We started the thing just to get some competitiveness into our driveway play," McNeal says. "Then one year we decided to open it up. We figured we didn't have to play against the really good guys. We could have two divisions."

The first real players began appearing in 1978, guys like McLaughlin, former New York Knick Dennis Bell and late Central Michigan stars Leon Guydon and Val Bracey. So honored were they that such regional studfish had crashed their basketball block party, the Macker councilmen figured they, should show some appreciation. VIP guest privileges were arranged at the Bryans' pool. Now, a spot poolside is almost as coveted as a berth in the top men's division, which is still reserved for ex-pro and college players and, as Mark Kimball says, "anybody who can hang with them."

The Macker hasn't suffered from its open admissions policy, but the council remains vigilant. "Don't want no roguish people, them that steal hubcaps and all," says Robert S. "Then they'll have to hire me and Mr. T for security."

The OUTDOOR part is emphatically right on. (It never rains.) Each team has four players, but that's to guard against forfeiture by injury, so THREE-ON-THREE isn't a misnomer. But BACKYARD is. The Macker is more porch, flower bed, and no-one-will-notice-if-we-jump-start-the-Lawn-Boy-and-go-for-a-spin affair.

An earlier rapmaster, Robert F (for Frost), authored the line about good fences making good neighbors. You would think some variation on it would apply in Mackerville. The Macker council will erect, gratis, a snow fence around the yard of anyone who wants one. But, as Gus says, "Orloe's mad at the ones who ask for it," and some neighbors complain that the action in front of their house isn't good enough.

For a weekend, every type of suburban personage you can imagine is put under siege. Most suffer it gladly. The first time a curious network affiliate in Grand Rapids dispatched a minicam crew to Mackerville, Orloe Gwatkin was ready. He strung a banner from his home reading WELCOME HOWARD COSELL.

Would you believe people actually, well, gussy up their yards for the Macker? "They do," says Margo Lillywhite, who lives down Amity with her husband Richard. "To show them off."

"It's a festival," Richard says. "And it's the only time each year I get a chance to visit those people on Lincoln Lake. I work third shift [as a security guard], so I sleep two hours, watch a game, sleep a couple more and watch another game."

If the Lillywhites are enthusiastic, Larry Isenhoff isn't, exactly—just reconstructed. The bold black-and-white NO SOLICITORS sign over his mailbox reflects his instincts. "It's not the highlight of his summer," McNeal says. "Two years ago, when it started getting really big, he didn't like it. But now he even helps us build our portable baskets."

Alas, there are also the unreconstructible. The young couple at the corner shouldn't be so opposed. After all, their kids do brisk business with a lemonade stand year after year, and a while back dad played on a state basketball title contender at Lowell High. Now he's a bank vice-president, not unmindful of how the Macker weekend boosts the local economy. Some think they soured on it because their daughter never won Miss Macker.

The Macker hasn't exactly gone BACK TO THE STREETS, because it never left them. Up until just before the '84 tournament, however, it was thought to be ticketed for a sterile exile in the high school parking lot. Only Mary Ann Gwatkin's dogged petitioning, and some intense lobbying of the city council, kept it around to ruin her lawn. "The goodwill of the neighbors amazes me," says Mayor Maatman. "I guess this has taken the place of the Showboat.

"But I can't see it going on in the streets. For a long time, before they provided a financial statement, there were a lot of ugly rumors flying around that people were making money in city streets." In fact, the '84 Macker grossed about $43,650, mostly from the $46 entry fee paid by each team. The $8,200 or so profit was pumped into improving this summer's tournament.

But even McNeal feels the strain of empire-building. "We'd like to keep it in the streets forever, but I wonder if we can go on," he says. "It's not the neighbors who'd push us out. My parents have to put up with the pressure six months of the year. I think Mom and Dad would like to have some time to themselves."

A radio station approached McNeal about moving the Macker to Calder Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids, in the shadow of La Grande Vitesse, an Alexander Calder stabile. Wisely, this idea was scrapped. Surely no city could handle so much culture at once.

There was brief talk of a land swap, in which Kent County would fork over a piece of prime park acreage to Lowell in exchange for some less valuable turf elsewhere. In the resulting recreation area, Gus envisioned a "re-created" neighborhood, complete with street signs and a freestanding Hall of Fame/World Head-quarters building. That proposal hasn't been heard from for more than a year.

Thousands of people signed in at Mary Ann Gwatkin's "Save the Macker for Lowell" booth outside her house during the '83 event. "I get angry at those who try to stop it," she says. "One councilman asked, 'What did the Macker ever do for Lowell?' Then he got the facts: The boys pay for security [and take out a million-dollar umbrella liability insurance policy], and they contribute thousands of dollars to the [Lowell High athletic] boosters and Ta-Wa-Si [a Grand Rapids scholarship organization for black youth]. I've got to develop Scott's attitude. He has a rebuff at every corner, yet he keeps working."

Nerves shorten as shadows lengthen, and the BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT moves into Sunday's semis and finals. Disko Bob takes to the mike to announce that he won't play any more rock 'n' roll. Breeds hostility, he explains. "No more requests, unless it's for something mellow. I'm on strict orders."

To Bill Eckstrom, a 54-year-old school superintendent, it's no great loss. He's on hand for the ball. He played for Michigan State in the early '50s, and now goes three-on-three year-round to prepare for his annual summer run with sons Jeff, 29, and Tom, 21, in the top men's 30-and-over division.

"Hoop Dogs and Isiah's Prophets to Court D!" the P.A. crackles. "String Quartet, Fudge Gang to F!"

"Where's Michael Jackson?" a kid asks. "They said Michael Jackson was gonna be here!"

The format is double-elimination, but every team is guaranteed three games. Losers of their first two are flushed to a bracket called the Toilet Bowl.

A kid who sprained his wrist is asked how it happened. "Hit somebody's face," he says with a shrug.

Teams advance only after scoring 20 baskets and winning by two, and some 70% of the games are decided by three hoops or fewer. "If you look through the scores," says Stabenow, who supervises the draw, "you'll see a lot of overtimes—games going 29-27, 25-23. Games are taking an hour instead of a half hour, and that's why we're so far behind." He doesn't even want to think about what a little rain would do to his schedule.

"Somebody's lost a $100 bill," barks Disko Bob. "Anybody sees Ben Franklin smiling up from the grass, kindly turn him into the deejay's booth." He pauses. "And I believe in miracles."

The top men's division is won by a team from Grand Rapids called Family. It includes Roosevelt (Rose) Pritchett and Bryan Johnson, who had played together in high school and at Mississippi Valley State, and a former Virginia Union star, Mike Jennings, who has toured with Marques Haynes and the Harlem Magicians. Confused about a starting time, Family didn't show for its first game and immediately forfeited its way into the losers' bracket. But the team pulled together, winning five games in a row to take the title. Pritchett and Johnson, at least, are familiar with the long road to victory; in 1982 at Mississippi Valley they played in a four-overtime game with Southern, and won it.

Jennings takes care of most of Family's business in the lane, where there's a treacherous manhole cover. "You've got a small area, so it's man-for-man, pound-for-pound," he says. "But a lot of us play better when we grind."

Two players are waiting for a game, holed up in a car, the AC and the FM turned up full. "Tuneage for moodage," says one.

For the first time, wheelchair athletes are welcome. Dunkers, as usual, aren't; the Macker handymen fear a severe slam will reduce their standards to splinters. It's a valid concern, Pritchett says. "They allow dunking, Jennings tears this place apart." To placate those less understanding, a slam-dunk contest will follow Family's victory.

Up Elizabeth Street, the finals in the top high school divisions are winding down. Janelle Carter, captain and chief justice of a team called the Supreme Court, watches her boyfriend, Michael (Pops) Sims, now a Marquette sophomore, lose in the boys' bracket. On the sidelines, Robert S has draped an arm around Scott McNeal. "You know what I like about this guy?" he says. "He started this all in high school! It gives me hope and faith that if you really work at something, you can make it happen. I love you, Gus."

Gap, a 14-year-old breakdancer Robert S has dragged along, nods his head slowly. "Uh huh," Gap says. "He love him."

In the very last game of the weekend, the Supreme Court beats a team called the Devastating Four in the glow of a single streetlight. Carter heaves in a bank shot at 10:08 p.m. to win it. By 10:10 the basket support has been wheeled away, and Elizabeth Street is empty. And clean.

Robert S looks around at the low-slung clapboard houses. On almost any other evening, those lawns would be described as "neatly trimmed." Tonight they're happily trampled down, braced for a shower of dew. Tomorrow Mackerviile goes back into storage.

"For the rest of the year," Robert S says, "this is gonna be the dullest place in the world."

TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGE TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGEThe Macker spilled from "Gus" McNeal's driveway. Now his dad provides the anthem. TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGEFront lawns are courtside seats from which to observe players like Michael (Pops) Sims. TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGETo preserve the baskets, there's no dunking by the likes of Jennings (above) and Zach Williams (right) until tourney's end. TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGEThe Macker medical staff sees many cases of asphalt ankle, not to mention elbowed eye. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEIt's easy to see why Orloe Gwatkin appreciates Macker mirth. TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGENecie Sparks walked off with the crown as Miss Macker '84, while capitalists big and small cashed in. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEIs it walking? Charging? Who you gonna call when you can't call your own? Gus-Busters! TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGEA between-games break attracts a mob, with raps done by Robert S and records spun by Disko Bob. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEIn Mackerville, art is where one finds it. PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEOnly basketball-playing vehicular traffic is allowed to roll inside Mackerville's borders. SIX ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)