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 throw-downs. For the record, Eric Latham of Rock-ford, 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.