The first CIAA basketball tournament was held more than seven decades ago, at a boxing and wrestling venue at the corner of 14th and W Streets in Washington D.C. There were eight participating teams, and an estimated 3,000 fans crammed into 2,000-seat Turner’s Arena. The total budget for the event was $500.
For the CIAA, which at the time stood for “Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association,” that first tournament in 1946 provided refuge in a segregated city — a place for African American fans to meet, mingle and celebrate some of the best athletes of the day.
“It's a party,” longtime coach Bobby Vaughan told USA TODAY Sports, “where they just happen to play some basketball.”
Livingstone's Nasir Austin (44) blocks a shot by Virginia State's Javon Moore (5) in the second half of a CIAA college championship basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016. (Photo: John D. Simmons, The Charlotte Observer via AP)
In late February, that party will keep rolling for the 75th consecutive year. And although some things have changed — CIAA, for example, now stands for “Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association” — much about the event remains the same. It is still as much a community gathering as a sporting event, something that goes well beyond the 22 basketball games at its center.
“We talk a lot about the basketball games, but we really have focused on the community of why the basketball games have been important, particularly in a time when the CIAA and past members could not be a part of the (NCAA),” said CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams, who oversees the Division II league consisting of historically black colleges and universities.
“Creating that whole space where we could play the game, and many of our student-athletes — particularly men, African American men, who ended up having to go to majority black institutions to play and get an education — that’s where it began.”
While it might not generate the national attention of its high-major counterparts, the CIAA basketball tournament, which will kick off Feb. 25 in Charlotte, draws about 150,000 fans every year — including some who join in the related parties, concerts and leadership symposiums in the city without ever attending a game.
Last year, the tournament generated $43.7 million for the city of Charlotte, according to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. That's about $8 million more than the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament that was held in the city a few weeks later.
“It’s not only basketball, but it’s also African American culture,” said Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, who starred at Winston-Salem State before embarking on a Hall of Fame career in the NBA.
Michelle Obama is surrounded by elementary students after a "Let's Move!" physical fitness promotion between games at the 2012 CIAA basketball tournament in Charlotte (Photo: NELL REDMOND, AP)
Before integration, the CIAA tournament was a proving ground of sorts for the top talent at historically black colleges and universities. Vaughan, who coached the Elizabeth City State men’s basketball team from 1949 to 1986, recalled scouts flocking to the event to see players like Monroe, Cleo Hill and Sam Jones. Charles Oakley and Ben Wallace, who both played at Virginia Union, are among the many standouts to pass through the league.
“(Many) of the pro athletes that were of color came from the CIAA,” said Vaughan, 91. “They didn’t come from Carolina or Duke or places like that, because they didn’t play on (those) teams. That day now has passed, but the party has continued to grow.”
Vaughan said it’s difficult to describe the atmosphere of the week-long event.There are some qualities, and people, that make it unique, he and others said.
Take longtime fan Abraham Mitchell. Known colloquially at “Mr. CIAA,” Mitchell has been attending the annual tournament for more than 30 years, strutting through the stands in brightly colored suits that honor participating teams — and changing clothes sometimes multiple times over the course of an evening.
“If I have enough time, I’ll make four changes,” said Mitchell, who was inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame in 2016. “(Sometimes) I’ll come back with five or six changes a night.”
Abraham "Mr. CIAA" Mitchell poses for a photo right before he surprises fans at McDonald's Super Saturday during the 2017 CIAA Tournament at Spectrum Center on Feb. 25, 2017 in Charlotte, N.C. Popular for wearing custom suits to support HBCUs participating in the college basketball tournament each year, Mr. CIAA sports a one-of-a-kind ensemble to celebrate the new line of Mac sandwiches released nationwide last month. (Photo: DONALD TRAILL/INVISION FOR MCDONALD'S)
McWilliams said the league has put an emphasis on preserving the one-of-a-kind feel of the tournament, even as corporate sponsorships and different types of formal programming have entered the equation. The goal is to cater to everyone from the diehard basketball fan to the local family with no interest in basketball, all the while maintaining the CIAA tournament's role as an annual gathering place.
McWilliams believes it's important to remember the roots of the event — that, as the late Clarence "Big House" Gaines told USA TODAY in 2001, it was the product not of corporate sponsors or advertising deals, but of five people chipping in $100 apiece to host a celebration. That, due to segregation, fans and athletes who attended early iterations of the event were forced to sleep in gyms, classrooms and cars because hotels would not accommodate them.
“People were just so glad to have a place to assemble,” said Gaines, a CIAA Hall of Fame coach who died in 2005.
Mitchell, the fan known as "Mr. CIAA," said that feeling persists today. He described the CIAA tournament as a homecoming. Monroe said it feels like a reunion.
"You have a lot of people come back who haven’t seen each other in a couple of years … different classes that are coming back and having their parties and their social events," Monroe said. "You see the enthusiasm of people who still remember how it was and want to keep the tradition going."
This year's event will be special not only because it is the 75th anniversary of that first tournament at Turner's Arena, but also because it will be the last CIAA tournament in Charlotte before the event relocates north to Baltimore next year — a move that McWilliams hopes will make the event more accessible to a new group of fans.
Though the location will change, it's clear the tradition will remain. The CIAA tournament will continue to be a meaningful place to meet and mingle, just as it's been for the past 75 years. The party, as Vaughan put it, will roll on.
Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
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