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PAL PLANS TO PUT FAMILIES BACK IN GUS MACKER

Players in the Gus Macker 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament have been taking their game to the streets of downtown since 1991. This year, a new set of tournament organizers wants to restore the event to its spiritual roots in driveway hoops.

Courts will still be set up around Niagara Square, but there will be a new emphasis on making the tournament an event for families, according to Ralph Salerno, who owns a printing business and is a trustee of the Police Athletic League of Buffalo.

Salerno is a liaison between PAL and Kids Escaping Drugs, who have formed a partnership to take over from Cradle Beach Camp the administration of the tournament, which last year attracted about 920 teams and an estimated 45,000 spectators.

Those numbers were down a bit from the previous year. There was some disenchantment among the players about games running behind schedule, along with other logistical challenges. Another check on participation numbers is the general reluctance of some Western New Yorkers from outlying suburbs to venture downtown. Salerno expects that to change.

"Our No. 1 thrust is a family environment," he said. "We're in this for two reasons, to make money for both organizations, and both organizations are very civic-minded. (Secondly,) there was a possibility the Gus Macker would be leaving this area, so we were compelled by civic duty (to take over the reins)."

The Macker will be held in and around Niagara Square on June 25-26. Among the new features planned, on and off the court, are:

Board-certified referees on all courts;

A 25-minute time limit on all games;

Newly defined masters brackets, to encourage more adults to play;

A Kids Zone, featuring inflatable slides and other attractions for youngsters;

Wegmans Weekend Warm-ups, in which fitness professionals will lead the players in stretching and light exercises before their games;

Police-supported security;

Bleachers for spectators at center court, in front of City Hall;

Expanded concessions featuring local products.

The Macker was founded in 1974 in Lowell, Mich., by basketball enthusiast Scott McNeal. He started with 17 other friends playing three-on-three in his driveway for $1 apiece. The tournament has since expanded to more than 70 cities with an estimated 150,000 players.

Getting families to feel like they're playing three-on-three in the driveway is part of what drives Salerno.

"We're trying not just to target the kids, we want the fathers and everyone to participate," he said.

Another part of promoting a family environment is making security personnel more visible.

"Because of the PAL and our relations with the police department, our private security firm (hired for the event) will be supported by the police department," Salerno said.

"We want people feeling very secure in the environment we create."

Four-person teams (three players plus one substitute) may register online, or by getting a local registration form. The cost is $108 per team.

June 1 is the deadline for online registration at www.macker.com. Forms will be available starting later this week at the offices of Kids Escaping Drugs. Call 827-9462.

e-mail: gconnors@buffnews.com