It used to be simple to remember how many years the Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament had been played in Quincy.
My oldest daughter, Jennifer, was born in March 1991. The birth of the Macker tournament in downtown Quincy was in May 1991, so Jennifer turned 1 months before the Macker turned 2 … and so on. However, last year’s cancellation because of the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to adjust my math.
The inaugural press conference for the Quincy Macker was on a weekday morning in the lobby of Blessing Hospital, one of the event’s major sponsors. I was an eager young sports writer at the time. Five years earlier, I had read Alexander Wolff’s multi-page article in Sports Illustrated about this wild 3-on-3 basketball tournament, during which more than 2,000 teams engulfed the streets of the tiny town of Lowell, Mich. (pop. 3,707).
Quincy seemed like the ideal place for Gus Macker to expand.
Because Jennifer’s mother was a teacher, I was in charge of child care that morning. Jennifer was strapped into her car seat, wrapped in a blanket with pacifier firmly placed in mouth, and accompanied me to that press conference. (She was quite the hit that day, and she later played in many tournaments herself.)
I met Scott McNeal, creator of this tournament, for the first time at the press conference. He had heard about the appetite that Quincy fans had for the game. I had heard about the insane crowds and popularity of these 3-on-3 events that were based out of Michigan.
We both thought it would be a perfect marriage. And we were right.
The Quincy Exchange Club, a local service organization, is bringing the Gus Macker Tournament to downtown Quincy for the 30th and last time on Saturday and Sunday. It seems to be appropriate for McNeal to recall his favorite memories while spending Memorial Day weekends visiting this small town on the banks of the Mississippi River.
In no particular order …
The Love of the Game
McNEAL: One thing that was remarkable when (Exchange Club member) Mike Lavery talked to me about initially was how much (Quincy) loves basketball. That first year, I don’t even know if we had 200 teams, but the crowds downtown to watch the tournament, especially around the top men’s court, was huge for a tournament that wasn’t that big.
The first few years, it was always the Chicago Four against the Knap Attack in the championship game. I was impressed by how many spectators and obviously how much basketball was loved in Quincy. And then there was that guy who just passed away a few years ago. Mike Rudd. What a great guy he was. Meeting him when he played for the Knap Attack and then the friendship that developed with him every year. I’d see him at the tournament officiating, and he’s hugging me. That Chicago team was kind of interesting, because it was a team from the big city. And then you come in with a Quincy team, and Mike Rudd’s about my size.
Pre-empting ‘60 Minutes’
Televising the championship game on the Top Men’s court of a Gus Macker event was not uncommon in the heyday of Gus Macker, which routinely drew a thousand or more teams at some of its most popular sites. KHQA-TV in Quincy chose to televise the title game one year. McNeal provided color commentary, while KHQA sports anchor Rick Thurtle did play-by-play.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Bob Gough, general manager of Muddy River News, was the sideline announcer for the broadcast.)
McNEAL: Peoria did it a few times. So did Grand Rapids, Mich. The one in Quincy, however, was definitely one of the more interesting ones. It was the first time I ever got to do color commentary for a live broadcast. When somebody did a television thing, I might have been invited in for a little snippet but never actually would do the whole show.
Thurtle, he was a nervous quick twitch kind of guy. He was like about 100 miles an hour. So that was interesting. Also, the team coming out of the loser’s bracket beat the team that hadn’t lost, so we were going to have to play a third game. But “60 Minutes” was about to go live, and your time ran out. (KHQA officials) weren’t anticipating that, and everybody goes, “Well, it’s ‘60 Minutes.’ We gotta run that.” But Thurtle goes running through the crowd, comes up and says, “Screw it, we’re going on.” So that was pretty interesting.
‘Run for Your Lives!’
Weather always plays a factor during any Gus Macker event. Sometimes games must stop for a rain shower, but sometimes it gets a little more serious. Gary Gleischman, a meteorologist for KHQA-TV in the mid-1990s, also moonlighted with the Gus Macker national staff and was working at the Quincy tournament one year (neither McNeal nor I could remember the exact year).
McNEAL: Because of the demands on me personally, the goal for many years was to have me come early (for a tournament) and leave early (Sunday), because then I wouldn’t get to the next event or I wouldn’t get the business with a company done. So I actually left mid-day Sunday just prior to the storm coming. Gleischman was in the (Washington Park) gazebo monitoring the storm, and just when it really started to rain hard, Gleischman says over the loudspeaker, “Run for your lives!” Everybody started sprinting to the basement of the Western Catholic Union building.
Probably one of the greatest speeches of all time is to hear Tony Wysinger (an event chairman) tell about what happened that day. There are five to 10 offshoot stories about what happened. Tony tells about one of the staff members grabbing the cash register with all of the money (from souvenir sales) and running with it down the street. Tony also tells about getting in a fight with a player who was trying to steal a trophy. Kim (Wysinger’s wife) says to him, “Tony, we’ve got to get out of here. Leave the trophy.” But Tony wanted to wrestle with the guy because the guy was gonna take a run with one of our trophies.
Also, one of Tony and Kim’s nephews who worked for us college ends up in the basement of the WCU building at a bar. Everybody is racing in there because they’re all scared, and he doesn’t know where he is. He’s on the (two-way) radio trend to call Tony, and he’s scared to death. He’s like, “Where am I? I don’t know where I’m at.” Tony asks him to describe the building he’s in, and his nephew tells him. Then he turns around, and Tony is right across the street, laughing at him.
The dunk off the bank
Every Gus Macker event features a dunk contest on the Top Men’s court on Sunday afternoon. A cash prize is often awarded to the winner, as determined by a panel of local judges. Antoine Jackson, a former player at John Wood Community College and Hannibal-LaGrange College, pulled off the most memorable dunk in Macker history in 2006. He tossed the ball high off the Mercantile Bank building, let it bounce once, caught it in mid-air with his right hand and threw it down on his first attempt.
McNEAL: I’m tearing down the Dream Court (near the Top Men’s Court), and then all of a sudden, the crowd goes ballistic. And of course, Tony Wysinger is in one of his more prime times (as the announcer of the dunk contest). Sometimes Tony really hits it. He’s an entertaining announcer, and that’s the time that I missed it.
Years later, that video was used like in some of our promotional material years. It worked because it was very good, very quick, and it had a television announcer (Tyler Tomlinson) who was an anchor describing briefly. That’s what went over very well. It gave some credibility to the event.
It was not the best dunk I’ve seen in one of our contests. We’ve had guys jumping over cars. Oh my gosh, there were so many when people said, “You will not believe that dunk.” We’ve had crowds who ran out on the court. We thought there was a riot.
Above the Rim was a company that was on the rise several years ago. They were a national sponsor for Macker, and they gave $10,000 to a winner-take-all dunk contest in Belding, Mich. We took winners from all the tournaments around the country and invited them to Belding. You would not believe what people were doing. People were wearing costumes and jumping over all kinds of things.
I will say (Jackson’s dunk) was probably one of the most creative ones I’ve ever seen. I mean, not to have to do it twice. He just kind of had perfect timing and everything. So it was definitely one of the best.
Living the Dream
One of the special aspects of a Gus Macker event is the Dream Court. Teams are randomly selected to play on a Sport Court — a rubberized surface designed to help with traction instead of playing on an asphalt street — with play-by-play announcers, music, starting lineup announcements and plenty of American flags for each game.
McNEAL: Outside of our hometown of Belding, Quincy had the very first Dream Court. What we created as the Dream Court is probably overall the best creative thing we did as a company in the last 10 to 20 years. It attracted kids at a time when they were coming to the tournament more, and it ended up an outlet for the staff. There are just things that Dream Court has done for us that kind of gave us a little freshen-up, if you will. The disappointment is we haven’t come up with a new idea every two or three years like that.
We didn’t know what we were going to do with it. In Quincy, when we first did it, we called it the Court of Dreams, like the Field of Dreams. But “Court of Dreams” was too long. It was too hokey. So we changed it. It was quite a novelty when we figured it out. We didn’t know if we were going to announce every game, but when we came to Quincy, there were like 10 different guys who had announced at every level, and they were all hilarious. Taking the Dream Court out of the driveway, it was fun and it was a fit in Quincy.
The Exchange Club
Founded in March 1946 in Quincy, the Exchange Club promotes the prevention of child abuse, Americanism and youth activities. The club’s sponsorship of the Gus Macker Tournament in Quincy has been its most visible community-wide project. The club is composed of approximately 100 local businessmen who volunteer their time to put on the event, and they like to have a little fun with it as well.
McNEAL: That club is so goofy. I could tell 10 stories about them myself. Just going to speak at the Exchange Club (during its weekly Friday meeting) can be the most bizarre thing. You had the one guy (Jim Fitch, a tournament director for one year in the 1990s) who got up front and mooned everybody during his speech.
I would see (former Quincy University basketball coach) Steve Hawkins when he was at Western Michigan, and I would visit with him when they would come play Central Michigan. I would tell him that I was going to be making my annual visit to the Exchange Club, and Hawk would say, “You’re speaking to them? Give them some hell for me.” He knew what it was.
One year, we had all of the organizers (of Gus Macker Tournaments) from across the country send photos of their group. The guys in Columbus, Ohio, go out and dress in pirate outfits on a boat somewhere. Somebody else does some other creative things. Other people have been weird. The Exchange Club was 120 guys in suits. It looked like some kind of mafia thing. They can be kind of intimidating.
It is a group I have come to know very well. A name or two changes here or there, but some of them have been with us for all 30 years. We’ve had the passing of some people who were integral parts of this event. It feels like you’re a part of the family. When a club member like Sarge (Joe Quinn) or Mel Dillman passed, it was like oh my gosh. I could go on and on. The Exchange Club is like a family to me.
The Godfather of the Quincy Macker
Quincy businessman Mike Lavery was the driving force behind getting the Exchange Club together with Gus Macker officials for the inaugural 3-on-3 tournament in 1991. He was the chairman of the first event and continues to be active, serving on the organizational committee, recruiting business sponsors and volunteering at the courts during the tournament. He was inducted into the Gus Macker Hall of Fame in 2013.
McNEAL: You know, my mom remembers when she came to Quincy way back when. She still refers to Mike and his brother, Rich, as “those kids from Quincy.” She’s 86 now.
I remember meeting him or him when I was in downtown Decatur doing the tournament. He had a familiar background with the people who were running the tournament there. It happened to be at a time when the Decatur tournament was very popular, probably 700 or 800 teams. I was around the top men’s court when he came up to me and told me about his town.
When Mike decided to bring it here, he kind of tapped into trying to keep it unique. (The Exchange Club) passed it from one person to another year after year after year in the early years, and that kind of gets you to know different people. Every year was a little different. You know, the lead person had a little different way of doing it every year.
I’ve met different people who have run their tournament for several years, but not 30 years with one club. There are a few tournaments that have a family feel for it, but not like the Quincy group.
One of the first years in Quincy, Mike took me over to his home. Mrs. Lavery was wearing the apron in the kitchen baking stuff, and I couldn’t believe how many baked goods I had. What a great baker she was. When I was here in March, Mike brought me an apple pie from his wife. That was unbelievable. It was just kind of special to go to Mike’s house and be treated like that. You just knew he had a love for the thing. His family being part of it, I think it was pretty cool.
The lost tie
McNeal often is asked to make appearances throughout the city when he makes the trip to Quincy. One was for the dedication of a local basketball court.
McNEAL: Back then, you wore a suit everywhere. All those Exchange Club guys are in suits, and it’s a very conservative town. So I get to Quincy, go through my stuff and find out I don’t have my tie. I must have lost it somewhere in transit. So what the heck am I gonna do? I tell Mike Lavery, and he takes me to a men’s clothing store.
I had no idea what I was going to buy there, but I ended up buying a tie with some birds and stuff on it that was really weird. And it was kind of expensive, you know, like it might have been 30 or 35 bucks. I can’t believe I’m gonna buy a tie for 35 bucks. Plus, it’s a bird tie. What’s my wife gonna say when I get home?
I think I tried to give it to Mike, but he gave it back. We were kind of passing it around for a while. I think I eventually gave it to Kirk Frageman (an Exchange Club member). Maybe he gave it away.
The Bad Boys
The roots of Macker basketball are from Michigan, and McNeal and most of his staff are fans of the NBA’s Detroit Pistons. During tournaments in Quincy in the early 1990s, McNeal and his staff enjoyed taunting Chicago Bulls fans around the park.
McNEAL: We were there during the Bad Boys versus Michael Jordan thing, with all of the big games coming on television. It was a huge deal because during our early years, the Pistons were kicking everybody;s butt. So we are rubbing it in. I mean, we’re on the PA system playing the Pistons’ introduction music.
I remember Mel Dillman had a TV next to the Top Court and the stage, and we got to watch all those playoff games. It eventually didn’t become a good thing (because the Bulls won six championships in eight years) when Jordan became a rock star. But at first, we were the evil guys from Detroit, haunting Quincy’s beloved Michael Jordan. The paybacks were horrible.
Late nights in downtown Quincy
After spending much of Friday setting up baskets on the streets of Quincy, the Gus Macker staff often took advantage of empty streets (closed off by police for the weekend) to have a little after hours fun.
McNEAL: One year, it was like midnight, and a bunch of us decided to play stickball in a parking lot under the lights. Ronnie Parker was on the staff, and so was Manute (Bill Saunders), who was like 6-foot-5. They’re in the Macker Hall of Fame.
We would hit the ball up against this big huge building that was a retirement people’s home. We’re obviously being noisy and yelling and everything, and somebody wants to call the police. We didn’t know it. I pulled one foul down the third-base line, and it went up on the roof of some lower-level building. We thought that was the end of the game, but Manute says, “I’ll get it.” He goes up the gutter, and he’s standing on top of the roof. The police pull in with their sirens going, and everybody else takes off and leaves Manute up on the roof.
Then there was one year when the Sport Court was nasty dirty from the previous tournament, and Manute said, “We have got to clean this.” One of the club members hears him and says, “Well, we’ll just call the fire department in.” Manute gets really excited because he thinks he’s going to get a chance to play with a fire hose.
So someone brings a box of Tide powdered detergent to the park, which was the worst thing, but we didn’t know what the heck we were doing with the Sport Court. Manute has thrown the Tide all over the place, then the fire department comes downtown with sirens going on. One of the firemen says, “I don’t know if you should handle the fire hose,” but Manute says, “I’ve got this.” And I mean, that hose starts going in every direction, and he’s falling on the ground. He was like that with everything, but it was the funniest thing of all time.
So we get up the next morning and go out, and there’s pieces of Tide all over the edges of the court. Then the court is like ice. Guys can’t even stand up on it. We’ve got all these top teams playing on the court, and we thought someone was going to kill themselves because it was just so bad. I don’t remember what we did at this point, but I know it took a while because I remember it being so bad for those morning games.
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