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Gus Macker players wear game faces

Sure, Dave Nasca's team was knocked out of the 2012 Buffalo Gus Macker Basketball Tournament after losing its first two games.

And, yes, he had tissues stuffed in each nostril to try to stem the bleeding from a likely broken nose he suffered moments earlier during the final game.

But the Williamsville resident wasn't going to let an injury, or his team's swift elimination, sour him on the annual tournament.

"It's a fun weekend," Nasca, 23, said Saturday afternoon in the middle of the street in a Niagara Square closed off to traffic for the Gus Macker. "Everyone you know is down here, so it's always fun to come down and catch up with people."

Saturday was the first of two days of competition for Buffalo's 22nd Gus Macker tournament, one of the largest of the Gus Macker tourneys held across the country.

Thousands of players of all ages ran pick-and-rolls and showed off their best crossover dribble on homemade courts set up on Delaware Avenue, several downtown side streets and in Niagara Square.

Saturday's action began in the morning under miserable conditions, with wet courts, chilly temperatures and brisk wind making it challenging for players and their cheering sections, and forcing organizers to cut back the length of each game.

"Yes, we froze, or I did, anyway. That was horrible," said Michelle Walter, of Orchard Park, who toughed it out to watch son Jeff, 12, play with his Orchard Park Ballers teammates.

But by midafternoon, the rain let up, the sunshine came out and crowds flocked downtown to watch the games.

Parents, siblings and friends lined the edges of each court, rooting for their favored teams in entertaining games featuring players from elementary school to the post-college crowd.

"I think it's terrific for the city. It brings people downtown," said John Pieri, of Buffalo, who was there to watch his grandson, David Barbara, 9, compete.

Organizer Pamela Muzzio said 800 teams with 3,200 players registered for the event.

She said this year's tournament has about 50 fewer teams than last year's version, though The News reported a year ago that the 2011 Gus Macker had 875 teams.

Organizers changed the date of this year's tournament, moving it three weeks earlier from the Gus Macker's usual spot in late June.

This was done to try to avoid a conflict with high school graduation ceremonies and parties, said Muzzio, the executive director of the Police Athletic League of Buffalo.

However, the Gus Macker ran up against another charity basketball tournament, Ballin' for a Cause, which also was held this weekend, in West Seneca, and offered a $5,000 grand prize.

As many as six of the teams that regularly play in the Gus Macker's top men's division didn't register for the 2012 tournament, and Orv Cott, PAL's athletic director, can only guess that some of the them opted to play in the other tournament.

"We're really happy with our enrollment," Muzzio said. "It seems no matter when you have it, you're up against something."

Muzzio and Cott said they didn't have any teams fail to show up Saturday morning, when conditions were cool and windy and courts still were wet.

Players who had to compete in the early games said the weather made everything challenging.

"It was, like, cold," said Nickelle O'Neil, 11, who played on Baseline Elite with sisters Shilah and Angel Humphrey and another teammate. "We slipped a lot of times."

"We couldn't shoot jumpers," added Angel, who is 10.

Organizers said conditions never degraded to the point where they considered calling off games, but after the first set of games at 8:30 a.m. concluded, they opted to cut the length of the games from 25 minutes to 15 minutes.

Saturday's weather improved in the afternoon, when warming temperatures and persistent sunshine drew growing crowds for the later games.

Niagara Square, Delaware Avenue from Cary Street to Eagle Street and several streets off Delaware were closed to traffic and turned into makeshift basketball courts.

Boys, girls, men and women squared off in three-on-three games organized by gender, age and skill level.

Most games were watched by a smattering of fans, mostly friends and relatives, while some of the higher-caliber games were watched by crowds that lined the courts four or five deep.

Hannah Fuller, of Alden, said she's been coming to the Gus Macker for years to watch her brothers, Jordan and Travis, 24 and 22, respectively, play in the tournament.

"I look forward to it every year," said Fuller, who this year brought a companion, Lola, a 2-month-old Boston terrier, who was making a lot of friends at the tournament.

Pieri, a PAL trustee, played in the first Buffalo Gus Macker, in the early 1990s.

Now 64, he watched his grandson's team, which was sponsored by Cecelia's Ristorante, which is owned by David Barbara's father.

Win or lose, Pieri said, "They will eat well."

The members of the Breezy team -- Raeann Stilwell, 18; Katie Healy, 17, and the 2012 Buffalo News Player of the Year from Lancaster High School; Sam Wozniak, 18; and Jordyn Broas, 19 -- are Amateur Athletic Union teammates who have played in the Gus Macker for years.

The team was 2-0 and relaxing as they waited for the start of their third and final game Saturday.

"Chemistry," Stilwell said in explaining their success. "Gotta have chemistry, and communication."

The teens said the Gus Macker can be tough, with Wozniak getting six staples in her scalp in a game four years ago after she got pushed into the scorer's table.

Nasca is living proof of this intense competition.

He said he hurt his nose when a defender trying to block Nasca's shot hit it with his hand.

"I think it's broken because I heard a crack," Nasca said as he searched for a medic.

Players and crowds behaved for the most part, thanks in part to the heavy police presence downtown at the tournament.

Police and organizers reported only a few minor disturbances, including two that happened after 4:30 p.m., on Court Street between Pearl and Main streets, just outside the tournament footprint.

Buffalo police arrested eight people, who are charged with disorderly conduct, in that pair of incidents, and further charges were possible.

With a grim weather forecast for today's final day of the Gus Macker, tournament organizers were asking participants to arrive by 8 a.m. no matter when their games are scheduled to begin. Organizers planned to continue to shorten the games to 15 minutes today.

email: swatson@buffnews.com