How a Sacramento man helped build three-on-three basketball

A collage of early marketing materials shows how Kim Dennis used to promote the early days of three-on-three basketball tournaments.

A collage of early marketing materials shows how Kim Dennis used to promote the early days of three-on-three basketball tournaments.

Nick Lozato

Kim Dennis’ first shot at three-on-three basketball was a brick.

Looking to expand his basketball promotions business in the late 1980s, Dennis and Pros In Motion co-founder Guss Armstead organized an event at the Arco Arena parking lot. With wood donated by The Home Depot, the friends constructed hoops from “some design we looked up in a magazine,” Dennis said.

The partners threw the eight baskets in a U-Haul truck and took off for the Natomas arena. By the end of the tournament, the hastily constructed hoops were in pieces.

More than 30 years later, Dennis has helped build a three-on-three basketball empire with Hoop It Up and has 200 commercial-grade hoops in warehouses across the country. With three-on-three now an Olympic event, the El Dorado Hills resident is focused on making the United States competitive in a sport he helped popularize with downtown events that drew thousands of teams.

Following his initial headaches in the Arco Arena parking lot, Dennis sought assistance. In the late 1980s, nobody knew three-on-three basketball better than brothers Scott and Mitch McNeil.

Scott went by “Gus Macker” in middle school – “for no real reason,” he once said – and the nickname became synonymous with the three-on-three events he and Mitch started in 1974 out of their family’s driveway in Lowell, Michigan. . The tournaments spread to other Midwest cities, peaking with a 5,400-team event with more than 100,000 spectators in nearby Belding. A 1985 article in Sports Illustratedtitled “The Only Game In Town,” highlighted the Gus Macker grassroots festivals that brought business to small towns and gave kids an outlet on summer days.

Dennis and Armstead traveled to Michigan for a conference hosted by the McNeils, who were expanding their circuit, and Pros in Motion partnered on a Gus Macker event in Sacramento. The McNeils provided equipment and the blueprint for the three-on-three tournament, while Dennis and Armstead used their Northern California connections to recruit teams. The entry-fee revenue was split. Pros In Motion kept local sponsor revenue; the McNeils kept national revenue.

Gus Macker streetball-style basketball games were played on a half court, with each basket counting for one point and games going to 20 points. There were no referees. Instead, “Gus Busters” did their best to stop fights. Players called their own fouls, often using the “no blood, no foul” mantra of street hoops. The first Sacramento event was in front of the Crocker Art Museum.

In the early 1990s, Dennis was approached by Hoop It Up founder Terry Murphy, a Dallas businessman and sportswriter who also studied the McNeils’ three-on-three model. Hoop It Up had national sponsors, including the NBA at one point, televised national championship tournaments on NBC. Murphy’s circuit held events in major cities, while the McNeils were content with their Midwest base. The national model appealed to Dennis, who joined Murphy in establishing tournaments in San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland.

Armstead continued training pro-level basketball players and running the Sacramento pro summer league. He watched from afar as Dennis grew three-on-three basketball across the nation.

“He’s really good at overseeing big operations and making people feel valuable,” Armstead said. “He took it to another level. It was cool to see him flourish. “

Hoop It Up events in Sacramento grew to more than 1,500 teams, and were played on the Capitol Mall, at American River College and in William Land Park, where Muhammad Ali once signed autographs. Future NBA players such as Sacramento High’s Kevin Johnson participated.

A San Jose event was held downtown, with 2,700 teams, 190 courts and 100,000 spectators; a San Francisco event was held under the Bay Bridge; an Oakland event at the Coliseum.

In the mid-2000s, Dennis started his own business, Hoop World, hosting events in Oregon, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Idaho. He purchased 200 hoops, storing them in warehouses in Sacramento, Idaho, Houston and New York City. Dennis later returned to Hoop It Up as national tournament director, while continuing his events in smaller cities.

“You could bring out a beach chair, sit by the courts and meet people from all over the United States,” said Dennis of the Hoop It Up events. “Players would go to Seattle, New York; They would want to test their skill level and play. In those early days it was just playing for the glory of the sport. Now you have tournaments where prize money is more important. “

It was with Hoop It Up where Dennis met referee Glenn Tuitt.

Traveling show

By the late 1990s, with three-on-three’s image becoming tainted by violence and rough play, rival Gus Macker and Hoop It Up circuits added officials. Tuitt, a college referee in the SEC, was hired by Murphy at Hoop It Up to recruit refs and oversee East Coast events. By the time Tuitt joined Dennis on the West Coast circuit, he had seen it all on pop-up courts across America.

At an event in Cleveland, Tuitt and another supervisor were responsible for 100 courts.

“He had courts 1 through 50 and I had 50 to 100,” Tuitt recalls. “We had to manage courts, referees and players. We had so many fights that we had to call the event. Me and my partner, we looked at each other and said, ‘Broken arrow! Man, just end this event. ‘ We just handed out trophies; we didn’t care who won. We didn’t have enough police or security. “

At another event in Jacksonville, Florida, volunteer scorekeepers never showed up.

“Right around from where we were playing there was a correctional bus where they were picking up trash in jumpsuits,” Tuitt recalled. “(The tournament director) went over there and asked if the guys could keep score. We had at least 30 correctional inmates keeping score in jumpsuits. We got into a lot of trouble for that. But the event had to go on. (The scorekeepers) were great; nobody messed with them. They had guards walking around with shotguns. “

At other events, Tuitt said players’ wives and girlfriends would instigate fights. He quickly called security on troublemakers, and resolved most incidents before they blew up.

“Cleveland was the only event that we lost,” the referee said. “That was one city I’ll never forget. We had to stop it without someone dying. We caught a lot of heat over it. I know more of these stories than the CEO, because I fixed it before it got to him. “

Gus Macker tournaments had issues as well. Fights between rival high schools broke out at a 1993 tournament in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Five people were arrested for assaulting police officers, and five were taken to the hospital as “rocks, bottles and chairs” were thrown, according to the Midland (Michian) Daily News. The event, with an estimated 25,000 spectators, was canceled.

In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a homeowner filed a lawsuit to stop a Gus Macker tournament when the thumping of basketballs became too much. “The neighbors seem to think I’m the bad guy on the block,” 50-year-old Larry Isenhoff said in a 1986 New York Times story. “Well, I’m not. I just want to be left alone. ”

Isenhoff testified that the event resulted in his lawn being trampled. “It’s too much noise and the constant basketball dribbling, it’s like dripping water. After a while all you hear is basketball dribbling. “

Olympic dreams

The sound always appealed to Dennis – though the rhythmic beating of rubber on asphalt has slowed in recent decades as American interest in three-on-three wanes.

The rise of AAU basketball drove high school players to full-court indoor tournaments, aimed at getting players seen by college recruiters who once scouted city streets. Rough play and violence scared off players and fans. As three-on-three teams dropped out and event revenue dipped, negotiating locations with city officials became more difficult. The model was broken.

“After the 1990s, players dropped out,” said Scott McNeil, whose Gus Macker circuit will celebrate its 50th anniversary season in 2023, with a 29-city tour as far west as Las Vegas. “The game was a little rough. In the 2000s we went to registered officials and got a bit more youth-oriented. We were all running away from the term ‘streetball,’ because it had a connotation that was rough and too aggressive.

“You’re walking the line of being a hip and trendy event that people wanted to come to versus practicality. When (an event) was in a big city, they had gang issues and that made it tough to run it in a safe way, especially with the call-your-own foul stuff. “

As American circuits struggled to recruit players, basketball’s international governing body FIBA ​​saw a spike in global interest. The sport was introduced at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, and in 2012 FIBA ​​sought to grow American interest to have three-on-three considered for the summer Olympics. A nation that once lined downtown blocks with courts was now potentially keeping the sport from an Olympic bid.

FIBA funded American three-on-three (FIBA calls it “3×3”) tournaments, using international rules that differ greatly from the early days of Gus Macker and Hoop It Up. FIBA rules promote a free-flowing game that emphasizes endurance over physicality.

“You gotta be in shape to play this game,” said Tuitt, now a FIBA ​​official. “A lot of the rec players, 40 years and older – you, me and your cousin – can’t play that fast-paced game.”

A 2014 FIBA ​​event in Chicago determined the US representative for the men’s world championships.

“It was an epic failure,” recalls Tuitt, who helped run the event. “The US was still in streetball mode. The teams lacked discipline. That was a really tough event. The top two teams had felonies so they couldn’t get passports (to play in the world championships). “

In 2017, the International Olympic Committee added three-on-three to the 2020 summer Olympics (the games were delayed to 2021 because of coronavirus). Shortly before the pandemic, Dennis left Hoop It Up to serve as tournament director at 3x3USA, where Tuitt serves as head of officials. The organization’s mission is to make the United States competitive on the international stage.

At the summer Games in Tokyo last year, an American women’s team made up of WNBA players – Kelsey Plum, Jackie Young, Stefanie Dolson and Allisha Gray – captured the gold medal. The American men failed to qualify for the Olympics. Tuitt served as the lone American official.

Still building basketball

Dennis and Tuitt recently met at the men’s Final Four in New Orleans. Together, the longtime business partners watched a three-on-three tournament featuring men’s college seniors, with teams organized by conference affiliation. The tournament is part of a comprehensive plan to garner interest in three-on-three basketball from the country’s most-talented players.

“The United States has the best basketball in the world,” Dennis said. “We should be qualifying for the Olympics. And there should be events across the country promoting three-on-three. We haven’t gotten there yet. And we need to get there before the next Olympics come around. ”

Dennis usually finds a way.

After being cut from his junior high school team, the North Highlands boy ironed a number to his sleeveless undershirt for a makeshift jersey. He rode the bench all season, serving as team trainer and equipment manager before playing the final 10 seconds of the season finale and scoring two points. After a standout career at Norte del Rio High School in the mid-1970s, Dennis became an all-conference player at Chico State. He even got a school-issued uniform.

Following a brief semi-pro career after college, Dennis joined Armstead in launching Pros in Motion. The friends organized the Sacramento summer basketball league – attracting Kings players such as Kenny Smith, Otis Thorpe and Reggie Theus. Sacramento head coach Bill Russell would stop by games. With their NBA connections and a radio sponsor, the idea was hatched to hold a three-on-three tournament in the Arco Arena parking lot.

“It was freaking chaos,” Armstead said.

“A comedy of errors,” Dennis recalls.

All’s well that ends well.

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