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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.