The Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament started in 1974 in Scott McNeal’s parents’ driveway in Lowell, Mich., with 18 friends dividing up into teams and playing each other. Eventually, the tournament spilled out into the streets of the subdivision with several makeshift backboards being assembled out of plywood to accommodate the growing number of participants. Over the last 39 years, it has grown exponentially and become one of the premier recreational tournaments in communities all over the country.
And by 2016, winning a Gus Macker tournament might help get you into the Olympic games.
In exciting news for the many people who grew up playing 3-on-3 basketball, USA Today reported over the summer that FIBA secretary-general Patrick Baumann is proposing adding the 3-on-3 game as an Olympic event, perhaps as early as the 2016 games in Rio:
Three-on-three, the game played in driveways, on playgrounds and around the country during the annual Gus Macker tournaments, debuted in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games. FIBA wants to create a comprehensive ranking system that would determine the best three-on-three teams in the world. FIBA already has a three-on-three world tour and world championship, but Baumann welcomed all three-on-three tournaments, such as Gus Macker and Hoop It Up, into the fold as long as those tournaments adhered to FIBA rules, including the registration of players in a database to chart wins and losses.
“Like volleyball has beach volleyball, swimming has synchronized swimming, we want three-on-three to be part of it,” Baumann said.
After rankings determine the top teams worldwide, Baumann said, each nation would be responsible for creating a format to determine which team it would send to the Olympics.
“We were invited to talk with FIBA in their efforts to make 3-on-3 an Olympic sport,” McNeal said. “Who would’ve ever thought that you could win an Olympic Gold Medal for for 3-on-3 basketball?”
Although it’s still technically basketball, McNeal noted that the 3-on-3 game is a different game than traditional basketball. Because the game is half-court and the rules are slightly modified, 3-on-3 helps keep people playing the game longer who might not be able to handle the full-court game due to age, injuries or physical limitations.
“We hope people who play in our tournaments, starting with the young people, really see the game as a lifetime sport that they can play,” McNeal said. “We want the kids who play in our tournaments now to someday be bringing their kids to play in them.”
The format also allows players who might not make their junior high or high school teams or might not want to play in that competitive a setting an experience to play the game they love. In fact, although McNeal played on his high school team, he didn’t play much, and pickup basketball gave him the opportunity to play that he craved.
“I spent a lot of time on the bench (in high school). My success came in my own driveway — I was a legend there,” McNeal joked. “I was just a frustrated athlete who had a passion for playing, so I took my game to the driveway.”
Over the years, with more participation and more locations, Gus Macker tournaments have evolved considerably. The tournament moved from the McNeal driveway into the streets in the late 1970s, using as many as 88 baskets. The unique, grassroots event led to national media attention — Sports Illustrated, Wide World of Sports, CNN and other national outlets have all covered it.
The tournament moved to Belding, Mich., in 1987 and eventually began traveling and expanding to other locations. It also became a full-time job for McNeal, who was a teacher and coach in Kent City before the Macker became a full-time job.
Rules have also evolved. With many different age groups and ability levels, the tournaments are able to place teams in divisions with similar characteristics — age, height, playing experience, etc. McNeal notes that Gus Macker has also gone to great lengths keep full-court basketball players from high schools, colleges or even pro teams interested in playing over the years.
“We didn’t want those players to go away because of a perception that 3-on-3 is too rough,” McNeal said. “We have registered officials, not ‘call your own’ fouls, and we’re really working to make sure people know that we are not ‘streetball.’”
McNeal doesn’t play competitively in the tournaments anymore, only in exhibition games, but he insists his ‘finger roll is still unbelievable,’ while noting that his cross-over is still ‘not gotten any quicker.’
He’s excited about the future of the tournament, not just because of the potential exposure being an Olympic sport will bring to the game, but also because of demographic trends over the years.
“Our demographics in the 1990s were mostly 19-25 year-old males,” he said. “Today, 12-16 is our average age. We hope they will see the game as a lifetime thing and keep playing.”
The 2013 Gus Macker season will include celebrations for the tournament’s 40th anniversary, including events at individual tournaments and events including the Hall of Fame inductions and golf outing at the Aug. 3-4 tournament in Belding.
“We hope a lot of people come out for that and a lot of people who have played over the years come back,” McNeal said.
McNeal still can’t believe how much the tournament has grown from just a simple event between friends in his driveway.
“I have to pinch myself a lot,” he said. “It has been pretty remarkable.”