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Thousands takin' it to the street

If basketball's heart is on a distant parquet floor in Boston or some sweaty high school gym in Indiana, then its soul is in a place more accessible.

A slab of asphalt.

Just try to go a suburban block without finding a basketball hoop decorating a driveway, or to look for a playground without a court. It just doesn't happen.

Hoop-It-Up, the NBA-sponsored three-on-three basketball tournament, which celebrates the street game, arrives this weekend at the Florida State Fairgrounds. This is Hoop-It-Up's 10th year, and Tampa is one of the festival's original sites.

In all, Hoop-It-Up, which does not charge admission, will visit 44 U.S. cities and will draw up to 160,000 players and a million spectators.

In Tampa, more than 5,500 players will suit up on more than 1,300 teams, all vying for championships in eight men's and women's divisions. The winners of the men's and women's Top Gun division, the highest level, will advance to the regional tournament with a chance to head to the world final in October, a contest that will be broadcast on NBC.

One team that knows about Top Gun is the foursome from Ferg's Sports Bar in St. Petersburg.

David White, Tony Brown, Eddie Anderson and team captain Mark Ferguson have played together for 10 years and have won the Tampa tournament three years in a row and five out of the past six. Last year they reached the regional semifinals and in 1996, they lost in the regional final, one game away from the world final.

The key, according to Ferguson, 42, is teamwork.

"We play three times a week together, and it really helps," he said. "A lot of younger guys will throw a team together just before the tournament. We play a lot of team ball."

Last year's Hoop-It-Up, which was held at the Tampa Greyhound Track, was shortened a day by rain.

This year, the weather forecast is pleasant, and even if the unexpected happens, organizers are prepared. The Top Gun tournament will be held inside the Expo Hall, while the surrounding area will be dotted with auxiliary courts and activities.

Special Hoop-It-Up features include a 9-foot slam-dunk basket for men and an 8-foot basket for women, a three-point shootout court, the Marine Corps-sponsored one-on-one hoop camp for young players, and slam-dunk contest on a 10-foot basket scheduled for noon today.