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It’s the first day of the Gus Macker Tournament and play, as it generally is in the open men’s bracket, is already prickly. Jason Rowe slashes into the three-second area, takes flight, creates some space with his left arm, then kisses a layup off the backboard.

The defender, who plays for Body Blocks, a few inches shorter and 20 pounds heavier, bangs Rowe as he walks by then punches his fist against the goal’s wooden backdrop. Rowe gives his team a one-point lead, 19-18. The refs swallowed their whistles five minutes ago and the clock is ticking.

“Push off!” the defender yells toward Rowe. “You pushed off!”

Rowe shakes his head. “I don’t need to push off,” his voice creeping upwards a few notches, “because you can’t stop me.”

Rowe plays for Something to Prove, a name he says he didn’t choose, but apt nonetheless because he’s always played with a chip on his shoulder the size of Delaware Park. Whether it’s for Traditional, Loyola (Md.), numerous professional leagues overseas or even in the Macker, Rowe competes. And wins.

“I’m back home, everyone wants to know if I can still play and I’m 35,” the 5-foot-10, 178-pound Rowe said. “At this point, it’s about challenging myself to stay on top of my game as much as I can.”

Actually, for the kid who grew up on the city’s East Side, Rowe proved his point years ago. He played last year in Greece for KAOD and is entering his 13th season as a pro. His career has taken him to countries like Ukraine, Italy and Turkey.

“We missed the playoffs by one game; that’s the most important thing for me,” said Rowe about his time with KAOD. “When I arrived, we were in 12th place out of 14 and ended up fighting our way up and ended up making it into eighth place. We lost a tiebreaker to get into the playoffs.”

Obviously he can still play on a high level – the International Basketball Scouting Service ranks his scoring ability at 3½ out of five stars – and in his last game for KAOD, Rowe registered a team-best 14 points, six assists and three rebounds. After all this time, Rowe still has tremendous heart and determination.

“I love basketball; it’s just that simple,” he said. “I love the competition. I love walking into the arena at home or away and just being in that element of basketball. I’m miserable when I’m not playing, I’ll be honest.”

Rowe doesn’t look or talk like he’s ready to give it up anytime soon. There’s one strand of grey hair just above his right ear that looks out of place more than a sign of aging. He remains effective in catch and shoot situations and pulling up for shots off the dribble.

“I’m going to play until I can’t,” said Rowe, whose Eurowe Basketball Training for young players is taking off. “Until my body lets me know that it’s time to sit it down, I’m going to listen to my body. I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘One or two more years,’ because what if I can still play? Then I lied to myself. Mentally and physically, I’m trying to keep myself in shape.”

Right now, his body is telling him to continue. He shoots in the morning, lifts weights and runs on the treadmill. His training regime sometimes calls for him to take 500 shots, other times 1,000. His 15-minute sprint training on the treadmill takes Rowe as high as level 8. When it’s time to prepare for overseas, the workouts increase to 20-25 minutes.

Back at the Gus Macker, where Rowe’s trying to win his fifth men’s open title, the nip-and-tuck affair is now tied at 19 and heads into overtime. Next basket wins. Body Blocks gets the ball first.

Danny Gilbert, the former University at Buffalo forward, receives the ball on the wing against the smaller Rowe, backs him closer to the cup and draws a foul. Gilbert sinks the free throw and the game is over, an anticlimactic finish to an exciting game.

Now comes Rowe’s next challenge: Fighting out of the Macker’s losers bracket.

“Me and my guys have already talked about it; we’re all right,” Rowe said. “We lost one game, but that’s the beauty of the double elimination. We’ll be fine.”

email: rmckissic@buffnews.com