July 18--It's a new era for the Gus Macker 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament in Western New York.
The days of tournament games being played with New Era Cap's headquarters and City Hall serving as backdrops are gone and in their place will be water slides, roller coasters and other amusement park attractions as the event moves from the streets of downtown Buffalo to the paved parking lots of Darien Lake for the first of what organizers say will be many years to come.
The two-day tournament tips off Saturday morning at 8:30 (the last game on Saturday's slate starts at 6 p.m.) with roughly 400 teams expected to participate in youth to adult age divisions. Tournament participants receive two days of free admission into Darien Lake while family and friends in attendance watching their games can purchase theme park tickets at a discounted price ($12.50 per day). All spectators must pay $8 for parking.
While there were some who voiced their displeasure two months ago with the announcement that the event was moving from the inner city to the sticks, Terrell Hopkins, Byron Banks and Tavon Jackson -- all past Macker participants when the event was held downtown -- couldn't be happier with the change in venue. They were among the early wave of participants checking in for the event at Tops Markets in North Buffalo on Thursday.
"I can actually take a vacation and participate in it," said the 24-year-old Jackson, who likely would have had to work the weekend if Buffalo hosted the event because the downtown hotel where he works would have been booked to at least 95 percent capacity.
Said the 21-year-old Banks, the first person to check in for this year's tournament: "It's Darien Lake, I'm staying the weekend."
Hopkins said that being able to go to Darien Lake for free "would be even more reason to play in the event."
One thing's for certain, Darien Lake stepped up to save the event that has not only been a staple of the area's summer festival-season scene for 23 years but served as a fundraiser for the Buffalo Police Athletic League. PAL lost its primary sponsor last year, ex-Buffalo Bills cornerback Terrance McGee, and had been searching for ways to hold the event while making money to fund its various after-school and sports programs.
PAL Executive Director Modie Cox said the tournament should raise close to the goal of $30,000 he anticipated back in May when all the parties announced the move at City Hall.
While the Buffalo event had been known to attract anywhere from 600 to 700 teams and 50,000 spectators, organizers understand it will take some time to get Darien Lake's numbers into the range in which it can be considered among the largest Macker Tournaments in the country.
"Some people may have forgotten about it," said longtime Gus Macker event manager Bill Gorman. "We're pretty happy with the turnout. We were hoping to get 200 to 300 teams. We've gotten 397 ... We were still able to retain a good number of people from the Buffalo area and the suburbs."
"Going in, you're going on short notice," said Brion Neary, the business development manager for Darien Lake. "It's kind of an unknown how the community will respond. I think the biggest thing that I saw is that people just still weren't aware that the event had been moved from the city of Buffalo to Darien Lake. That seemed to be the biggest thing I faced day to day.
"We hope that the experience the kids have along with their families, that word of mouth and being able to preplan this and having a full year to run it that there's no reason we shouldn't get back to that number."
Helping inner-city youths get to the event may help the quest.
Darien Lake donated its 100 slots into the tourney to the inner-city youths via PAL. Neary also asked First Student to donate busing instead of cash for its sponsorship support. True Bethel Baptist Church pastor and Buffalo Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen also covered entry fees and transportation costs for other youths to participate in the event.
They will have 12 buses shuttling participants to and from Darien Lake on Saturday and Sunday. Buses will leave from City Hall at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. Buses will start returning them home beginning at 3 p.m. and leave the park for City Hall every several hours until the final departure at 10 p.m. Anyone 18 and under using the bus service must be accompanied by an adult or guardian. Any team of four consisting of players 18 and under may take the bus if accompanied by an adult or guardian.
"We came up with a solution and answered everybody's question in terms of how this is going to happen," Cox said, referring to getting the inner-city kids out to Darien.
Mark Kramer of soon-to-be-formed Future Foundation also found enough sponsors to send 10 teams of four kids each to the event. They will be playing under the Team Future name.
There will be some familiar names to the Buffalo-area basketball scene participating in this year's Macker, including past main-draw champion Maceo Wofford (Jamestown/Iona), Jose Narvaez (Grover), Dan Gilbert (University at Buffalo) and Darale Young (Middle Early College). The online player registration list, however, doesn't include former Traditional star and overseas professional Jason Rowe -- who's been known to produce ooohs and ahhs from the crowd with his thunderous alley-oop dunks -- ex-Syracuse standout Damone Brown or Timon star Fran Snyder -- all of whom have been part of winning teams in the main draw.
"We would love to have them at the Gus Macker, but we just don't know what they're doing with their lives right now," Cox said. "... I believe it's a new era, a new time. We're looking for a new and upcoming 'superstar' of the Gus Macker. ... I think it's time for someone else to possibly fill the void."
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