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Missing The Macker

June 7, 2008 - John Whittaker

About 10 years ago, this skinny eighth-grade kid named Matt came up to me after school, upset because he couldn't find anyone to play in the Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament with him.

All of his friends from school were playing, but they were all playing together. There wasn't room for him on their team.

Rather than find other kids his own age to play with, he asked his big brother -- "John, will you play with me?" -- who, of course, couldn't say no. We ponied up the $88 entry fee, found a guy I worked with in the Sports Department here at the paper and entered a team in the Macker.

The fun part, even though our games weren't that close, was that all three of us had one game where we took over and played well. The first game, I scored eight or 10 of our 12 points. The second game, Kinsler was lighting it up and making plays like Clyde Drexler. The third game, Matt hit a bunch of 3-pointers and couldn't miss. It was a blast.

Fast forward 10 years.

That skinny eighth-grader is now a fully grown Marine, serving in Iraq in Fallujah as a radio operator. And, for the first time almost a decade, his big brother has no one to play with. Thousands of basketball players will be sweating it out on Third Street this weekend. I won't be among them - though, in this heat, carrying a camera might make me sweat a little.

We've each tried playing without each other once, and found the experience lacking. The summer before Matt's senior year in high school, he played with some friends from Pine Valley. So, I put together a team with a couple of friends of mine (we won the Toilet Bowl that year). We'd get done with our game and I'd run over to Matt's court to see how his team was doing, give some last-minute coaching advice and root him on. He'd do the same for me - telling me what I was doing wrong, why my jump shot wasn't going in, to stop being a wuss, gut it out and play some defense.

Last year, during Matt's first tour in Fallujah, I tried to play with some guys from work. We didn't get to play together at all before the tournament, didn't gel at all, and I don't think anyone had a good time. We lost three close games and went home.

The team wasn't complete. At least, not for me.

This year, Matt's back overseas, serving his second tour of duty. And, today, I'll be at the Macker, shooting photos for a photo spread in the paper and to post on our Web site (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT -- visit for pictures of the tournament).

Matt and I've played hundreds of times in the back yard -- by the way, I'm still undefeated in those games. BRING IT ON, LOSER! GAME TO 21.

We've played in pick-up games at Beechwood, at Chadakoin Park and with friends at parks all over the county. We've played at Bemus in that village's 3-on-3 tournament. Of course, we've played in the Macker. I've gotten to coach Matt and dozens of other great kids and great players in summer league and modified basketball at Panama Central School.

All of that history means, when we play together, the two of us don't have to think about what's going on during the game. If I drive, I know where Matt's going to be and where he likes the ball when I kick it out for a 3-pointer. Matt knows how I like the ball delivered when I'm cutting to the basket. I know how Matt misses when his shot doesn't go in, which gives me an edge going for offensive rebounds. When someone sets a pick, I know from how the screen is set whether Matt wants me to hedge the screener until he can fight through the pick or wants me to switch.

It's a special bond we have - a close second to the bond I have with the News Gal.

I'm looking forward to next year, though, realistically, I don't know if we'll be able to play then, either. Matt will be home a couple of weeks before the tournament for the News Gal-Whitless Wonder wedding. Who knows if he can get leave twice in that amount of time.

I think part of me has outgrown playing in the Macker - too little supervision of the upper courts, too many weekend warriors who take the game way too seriously, too much chance of permanent injury.

There's a Sunday morning game in the winter months that I play in, and I'm trying to drag my butt out of bed Tuesdays and Fridays at 6 a.m. to play with another group of guys this summer. That's more my speed -- good guys, a good game, playful banter but no serious trash talking, the game played the right way.

But I'm sure next spring, if he's able, I'll get a phone call asking if I want to play. Like a decade ago, I'm sure I won't be able to say no, this time to the guy who's spent the last two summers sweating in Iraq and who will be the co-best man at my wedding.

Maybe I'll be able to get my friend, Rick Atkins -- a friend who married a good friend from my high school graduating class -- and Kinsler to play, like we used to. I'm not sure what next year holds.

There will be a lot of changes for me -- marriage first and foremost among them. But maybe, just maybe, we'll turn the clock back next June and be sweating it out on Third Street.

If it was a Hollywood movie, we'd be losing late in every game and come back, each of us taking turns making a spectacular play in slow motion, with dramatic music playing in the background, to win the game.

I'll settle for the old tried-and-true Macker experience -- playing a game I love with my kid brother, sweating and sunburned, and probably on the losing end of the scoreboard.

Sounds like a winner to me.


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Blog Photos

Getting ready to take a shot during a game last year in the Macker - it's hard to tell if I'm concentrating on the rim or contemplating quantum physics.