Kita Jones decided to play in his first Decatur Gus Macker 3-on-3 Tournament in 1989, and was looking for teammates when Decatur resident Chan Day told him he had the perfect guy.
“He said he had a nephew in Memphis and he was looking to get on a team,” Jones recalled. “I said, ‘Is he good?’ He told me he was going to Arkansas. Well, that didn’t mean anything. He told me he was 6-7. I told him, ‘I hope he’s decent.’ ”
That player turned out to be Todd Day, who became a star at Arkansas and was later the No. 8 pick in the 1992 NBA Draft. Day wowed Decatur fans by winning the slam dunk contest — beating out Jones, who had won the first Decatur Gus Macker dunk contest in 1987. But in the tournament, Jones and Day ran into a team that featured Ron Jones, big man Hank Cornley and Kita’s older brother Kip — and lost.
That was the first time Kip and Kita Jones were on a Macker court together, but far from the last. Two years later, they teamed up and went on to make Macker history — along with teammates Louis Jones and Tony Holifield — becoming part of the Gus Macker inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1998.
The Gus Macker is returning to Decatur this weekend for the first time in 15 years. Kip and Kita Jones will be honored Saturday morning before the start of the tournament. The following is an oral history of their reign as kings of the Macker.
Kip and Kita Jones were both MacArthur graduates who played college basketball at Lincoln College in Jefferson, Mo. But both were better known, along with fellow MacArthur grad Louis Jones — no relation — for dominating Decatur’s competitive park scene.
Kip played on the 1988 Decatur Gus Macker runner-up with Cornley and Ron Jones (no relation), then won the title with the same group the next year.
But the Joneses were also playing AAU ball in the summer. Kita played on a team organized by Decatur man Mike Stark. It was Stark’s idea to bring the Joneses together.
Kip: Mike was a close friend to all of us — he loved sports and he loved basketball. He was our promoter, coach and advisor. He became an important part of how the team ran. He gave us a lot of good advice.
Kip: (In 1991), Kita’s team had asked me to play, but I was already committed to that other team. Kita’s team beat us, and those guys jumped all over me, saying I should have been playing with them. So after my commitment with the team I was on was up, I joined up with them. Everyone said I was the missing piece.
Kita: The main thing was that me and my brother knew each other’s games, and we knew Louis’ game from playing at the parks. We ran the court at the parks.
Tony Holifield grew up in Decatur and attended Lakeview until his sophomore year, when his family moved out of Decatur. He went on to play at Illinois State, and when he joined Kita and Louis Jones on a Gus Macker team in 1991, he was the only one of the group to have played NCAA Division I basketball.
Kita: (Stark) knew Holifield from Lakeview, and we had played together a couple times and had some chemistry.
The team formed in 1991 was called Above the Rim Jones, and was sponsored by the Above the Rim apparel and Reebok. The next year, when Kip joined the team, they were renamed the Above the Rim Slammers.
Kita: We were at a tournament up in Michigan and the Macker founder (Scott McNeal) introduced Mike Stark to the Reebok people. (McNeal) wanted us to travel around and play. The sponsors paid for clothing, hotels, food and expenses. They paid for us to go to Michigan, California, Atlanta … everywhere. Mike would do the negotiating. He was the backbone of the operation. He set up everything.
Kip: That shocked us a little bit. We knew we had a good team, but those kinds of sponsors — that was a surprise.
In 1991, Above the Rim Jones featuring Kita, Louis, Holifield and David Stewart finished second to the Tappers of Appleton, Wisc. Kip replaced Stewart the next year. Kip — usually playing with Kita, Louis and Holifield — won the last seven Decatur Macker tournaments. But that was only part of the Slammers’ success. They won the national tournament in Belding, Mich., in back-to-back years (1992 and 1993) and also won highly competitive tournaments in Indianapolis, Springfield, Champaign, Peoria and all across the country.
Kita: We knew once we started playing and winning a couple tournaments, we had something special going on. We were playing against ex-NBA guys, ex-CBA guys, guys playing overseas, and we were beating them. We started thinking, ‘We’ve got something going here.’ The more we won, the more we started thinking, ‘We might as well have some fun and travel all around playing.’ We didn’t make big-time money — we didn’t make a living doing it. But it was nice. We didn’t have to pay for anything.
Kip: I knew we had something when we won our first national championship. We lost our second game of the tournament, and when you lose in the Macker, you go to the loser’s bracket and have to win a bunch of games to work your way back. In one day, we played six games in the 95-degree sun to get back to the championship game, and we won it. That’s when I realized we were relentless, and that if we put our minds to it, we could do anything in the Mackers.
Rodney Walker (1991 St. Teresa grad who later played at New Mexico State and had a successful pro career overseas): Those guys were older than me, but I grew up playing against them. At that time, Decatur produced grimy basketball players. They were never the tallest. They always had to fight for whatever they could get. They played with their hearts — like they had something to prove.
Prior to the Slammers’ success, conventional wisdom was that a dominant post and a ball-handling point guard were the keys to success in 3-on-3 basketball. But the Slammers broke the mold. They had good size — Holifield was 6-7, Kip 6-5, Kita 6-3 and Louis 6-3 — but none of them were true posts or point guards. They won with versatility, nasty defense and supreme confidence.
Kita: We all knew how to play every position and guard every position. We could guard 7-footers but we could also buckle down and guard quick guys. We could all handle, we could all shoot, we could all post up and the big thing is we could all guard.
McNeal (as told to H&R reporter Arvin Donley in 1996): The 3-on-3 game tends to place a lot of emphasis on individual offensive type skills rather than pulling up the shorts and getting scrappy on defense. That’s what (the Slammers) are known for. They always play great defense. They play every tournament with a passion.
Walker: They had every angle of 3-on-3 figured out. They knew where to cheat on defense and they knew to rest on offense. They would pass it around and get a break when they had the ball, but they always worked their butts off on defense.
Kip: We had mastered the game of 3-on-3. We could guard a 6-10 guy and hold him at bay, we all had speed, we all hustled and we all had desire to win. It was unusual for everyone on a team to have that drive and hunger. And the more we won, the hungrier we got. We knew when to take the two and when to take it inside. We just knew the game.
Kita: Not to brag or gloat, but we had a swagger about us. There were times when we would get down big, but we always knew we’d win. There was a game in Decatur where me, Kip and Louis were late getting there and Tony started by himself. Back then, you could start with one person, and he got down 15-2 or 15-3 against a top team. We showed up, came back and won. We knew we had something special. We always knew we could win.
Kip: We played against a lot of big names — major college basketball players — and we didn’t feel overmatched against anyone. We handled our own against the best.
I’d say one of the highlights was when we went to Peoria and it was one our last tournaments as a team. We played a team with (Peoria Manual stars) Howard Nathan and David Booth and we beat them up there.
But they weren’t surprised — they knew us. Our names had traveled the circuit. They knew what they were up against.
End of an era
The end of the Slammers’ era of domination finished around the same time as the Decatur Gus Macker’s original run, in 1999. A serious car accident in 1995 hampered Kip’s ability, though he went on to play and win in Decatur three more times — giving him seven titles in a row and eight overall in Decatur. By 1999, he, Louis and Holifield had moved out of the Decatur area and the team broke up.
Kip: It was the day before we were going to Michigan to win our third national championship. I was in an accident and I was thrown from the car. I injured my back, both legs, my arm and my head. The doctors told me I’d never play ball again. I cried.
But I knew what I had in me. I knew I would play again. When I got out of the hospital, I couldn’t even walk — I had to learn to walk again. But I did, then I started working out with Kita and Rodney Walker. I came back and played, but I was never at the level I had been before the accident.
Kita: Eventually, we all went our separate ways. My brother moved to Colorado and Tony moved to Chicago. Me and Louis went on to play a few more — we won several tournaments with me, Louis, Richard Taylor and Tarise Bryson. We reunited and played again in 2005, but that was it.
In 1998, the Gus Macker celebrated its 25th year by starting a Hall of Fame. Kip and Kita Jones were among the inductees into its inaugural class. The brothers were presented with plaques and a cartoon caricature of the Joneses — and all of the Macker Hall of Famers — can be viewed at macker.com.
Kip: We really cherished that. For someone to think you played well enough to be indicted into any kind of hall of fame, and to think you entertained the people there watching … it was an honor.
Kita: It was a big surprise. They called us up there and they put that cartoon on the Internet. I got rolled about that quite a bit — people making fun of me about that. But I’m proud of it.
I guess me and Kip played a few more tournaments than Tony and Louis, and I won a few dunk contests. And the fact that we’re brothers. But all of us should have been inducted — Louis and Tony should be in, too.
The Joneses went on to serve on the Macker board of directors. Kip still lives in Aurora, Colo., after moving there with his wife and owns a business. Kita lives in Decatur and is a prison guard at the Taylorville Correctional Center. The Slammers remain one of the most successful teams in the history of the Macker.
McNeal (1996): I’ve seen some better individuals play in our tournaments, but there hasn’t been a better team. That’s not out on a limb. Everybody knows they’re the best.