Small Town, Big Deal The Gus Macker is going strong in its 25th year

August 09, 1998

Since its beginnings in a Michigan driveway in 1974, the One and
Only Original, All-World, Gus Macker three-on-three Basketball
Tournament (SI, July 8, 1985) has ensnared more than a million
players in its web of streetball hoops and cornball hip-hop.
Over the years imitators have taken the concept and turned it
into a slick production, invading big cities with their own
three-on-three events, even cutting deals with multinational
sponsors and TV networks. But in its silver anniversary season
the Macker remains resolutely close to its small-town Midwestern
roots, despite having grown into an April-to-October tour that
reaches more than 80 venues a year.

"When you turn something into a business, you can become too
worried about dollars and cents," says Macker mogul Scott McNeal,
42, in whose parents' Lowell, Mich., driveway the tournament
began. "It's a battle every day to keep the spirit."

Evidence that Gus & Co. are winning that battle abounded last
month at the centerpiece of this season's schedule, the Macker
in Belding, Mich. (pop. 6,000; participants, 4,568). Tournament
workers did the hokey-pokey at staff meetings. Players in the
men's over-40 division were assigned to a court opposite a
funeral home. Draw sheets and regulations got published in the
Mackerville Gusette. Such campy touches help explain why the
Macker is still a small-town phenomenon and why the tournament
in Chillicothe, Ohio (pop. 22,297), regularly draws nearly twice
as many players as the event in Columbus (pop. 696,849), 45
miles away.

One team, Miss Elizabeth's Fan Club, that showed up in Belding
is a collection of San Diegans who bum time off from work and
indulgences from their wives and families to play in Mackers
around the country. Another team featured Scott and Nick Warsaw
and their dad, Don, 74. As ever, the slam-dunk contest--thanks
to its single rule, "Don't bring no weak stuff"--encouraged all
manner of Knievelesque choreography. The finalists dragged
everything from second-graders to a Celica coupe onto the court
as props for their throwdowns. For the record, Eric Latham of
Rockford, Ill., won after flying over a row of eight crouched
kids and slamming home a tomahawk with such force that the net
got tangled up around the rim.

At a ceremony in Belding, the childhood friend who nicknamed
McNeal Gus Macker finally divulged the name's provenance.
Devotees have long suspected that Macker came from McNeal, but
for years Gus was thought to be "just a name." In fact, former
McNeal neighbor Rick Thompson says he chose Gus because McNeal,
too short ever to be much of a player, vowed to become a coach
instead--and the Michigan State coach at the time was Gus Ganakas.

It took nearly a quarter century for legions of Macker backers
to learn that truth, but in this summer of celebration it surely
seemed worth the wait. The archivist at the Mackerville
Historical Society has taken note.

The friend who gave McNeal the nickname Gus Macker divulged its provenance.
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)