‘Gus Macker’ Serves Up Basketball Version of Over-The-Line

Let me ask you if this scenario sounds familiar.

You start with a group of guys who have been playing this little 3-on-3 game among themselves for a while.

They get a little bored butting heads with each other, so they come up with an outlandishly ostentatious name and set up a tournament.

Outsiders soon realize that this little game and this little tournament can be a kick.


Astonishingly, the little tournament becomes a very big tournament, drawing thousands of players from 42 states and 3 countries. National media adopt it as their darling.

There you have it.

What is it?

You probably guessed over-the-line, San Diego being the home of the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club Over-The-Line World Championships. It does fit the above description.

But it also applies to the Gus Macker Worldwide Tour 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament, which comes out of hibernation this weekend for a 2-day fling in the San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium parking lot.

You see, Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball belongs to Michigan driveways in much the same way that OTL belongs to the beaches of San Diego. That is where it was born . . . and literally outgrew its childhood home.

It began with Gus Macker, who might be described as a real-life fictitious character. Scott McNeal has had firsthand experience with the Gus Macker mystique.

McNeal has stood near groups of Macker Backers and listened to the arguments.

“I saw Gus Macker over on a porch smoking a cigar,” one would say. “Looks just like Red Auerbach.”

“Naw,” another would say, “he looks more like Adolph Rupp.”

“He was Adolph Rupp,” a third would proclaim.

“You’re all wrong,” another voice would interrupt. “He’s a 6-foot-8 guy who can flat out slam dunk.”

McNeal would keep his smile to himself, but he would be smiling. After all, McNeal, all 5-feet 7-inches of him, is Gus Macker.

“When people finally see me,” he said, “there’s lots of disappointment.”

I went to the stadium parking lot Friday morning in search of Gus Macker and found a girl sitting on a folding chair, two people unloading a truck and a bearded fellow out in the forest of hoops taping a sign to a backboard.

“That’s Scott,” said the girl. “Out there.”

That’s the fabled Gus Macker?

I wasn’t expecting Red Auerbach or Adolph Rupp or a 6-foot-8 bad dude, so I certainly was not surprised on that account. I just figured that so legendary a character would have an army of lackeys to perform such menial chores. What’s more, he told me later that the couple unloading the truck were his parents .

“This,” he explained, “has always been a family-oriented thing.”

But why Gus Macker?

It came from a junior high school shop class, where a happy-go-lucky friend thought it would be silly to come up with a willy-nilly collection of nicknames. McLean had been Mac so Mac became Macker, and Gus sure as heck seemed like a silly first name.

Some of those same friends were probably among those in the McNeal driveway in Lowell, Mich., 15 years ago when they concocted the first annual Gus Macker All-World Invitational 3-on-3 Outdoor Backyard Basketball Tournament. The prize was $18, a buck each from the 18 players on 6 teams.

Boy, did this whim grow.

The tournament outgrew Lowell, for example, because it spilled out of the driveway and into the city streets and tied up one end of town. The City Fathers balked when it threatened to consume all of the town. And so it moved up the road to the streets and driveways of Belding, Mich., for the first time last summer.

That July event in Michigan is still The Big One, but Scott McNeal decided Gus Macker might play as a road show as well, and away it went in 1987.

And so it has come to pass that the boundaries for 36 courts are taped onto the Tarmac at the corner of the stadium parking lot that tucks into the intersection of Interstates 8 and 15. The backboards were quiet sentinels Friday.

Today, however, San Diego will have its winter games to go with the summer madness of OTL.

“It’s quite interesting how we parallel,” McNeal said. “We’re trying to keep the game as close as we can to the way it was played when we started, and I think their purists feel the same way.”

The parallel ends with team names, however.

“Theirs have a tendency to get dirty,” McNeal said. “Maybe it’s Midwestern conservatism or maybe it’s our family involvement, but our names don’t get quite as wild as theirs.”

But, he was reminded, this Gus Macker is on San Diego’s home court.

“Well,” he laughed, “we’re not out to harness home style, but . . . “

. . . He who controls the microphone controls the atmosphere, and the stadium parking lot for these 2 days is simply an expanded version of Scott McNeal’s driveway.