It's not known to most fans, but the CIAA is the conference that gave basketball the match-up zone and the transition game. It's the league that produced Earl Lloyd, (West Virginia State when it was a CIAA member) the NBA's first African-American player. It was in CIAA gyms that Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State) became "The Pearl," where Curly Neal (Johnson C. Smith) developed a dribble that would trot him around the globe, where Sam Jones (North Carolina Central) perfected his patented bank shot and it's where Ben Wallace (Virginia Union) became the defensive and rebounding force that would help him lead the NBA in blocks and be ranked in the top three in rebounding average. It's a conference that has produced no less than four Division II national championships. In fact, when you see how basketball is played in the ACC today, you're looking at the CIAA 45 ago.
"I think CIAA basketball was comparable to the ACC," says legendary former Winston-Salem State University Coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines. "In the '50s up to the mid-'60s before integration, it was a better league because we had all of the black talent."
Gaines would know. As coach of the Rams from 1946 to 1991, Big House won 828 games, which ranks him behind Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp as the third most successful coach in college basketball history. A man who has seen every tournament, Gaines has witnessed the CIAA Tournament grow from a risky game done out of necessity to becoming as large as, well, Big House himself.
Founded in 1912, the CIAA consists of 12 historically black colleges and universities. The basketball tournament was started in 1946 and was the brainchild of several CIAA coaches, including basketball pioneer and North Carolina Central University (then North Carolina College) coach John McClendon. McClendon guided the Eagles to the first two conference tournament titles and is widely recognized as a father of modern basketball. A lifelong student of the game who learned basketball from James Naismith, McClendon's contributions to basketball both nationally and in North Carolina have been many. The half-court press, the Four Corners offense and even the fast break were all McClendon's inventions.
McClendon proved his basketball style was ahead of the curve in the Triangle when his Eagles used the fast break to beat Duke University by 40 points in a secret game in the late 1940s on N.C. Central's campus.
"McClendon was an innovator. He introduced speed in our conference when everyone else was playing in slow motion," says Coach Gaines. "His style of play caught on with the ACC and other conferences, and the rest is history."
"When I was in college, you went to the [CIAA] tournament even if you had to sleep in a car," says prominent attorney, Shaw University alum and TV entrepreneur Willie Gary. "You did what you had to do to get there because even back then it was something special."
Gary is chairman and CEO of the Major Broadcasting Cable Network (MBC), the only African-American owned 24-hour cable network. MBC will broadcast the tournament on WAUG, channel 10. Gary, who partners the Atlanta-based network with former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, ex-baseball player Cecil Fielder and former Jackson 5 star Marlon Jackson, says the best thing about the tournament today is that it has regained the interest of students. "The students' attendance has doubled and tripled over the last few years," says Gary. "And since young people are our biggest resource, we're assuring the success of the tournament for years to come."
The tournament also attracts the stars. Spike Lee makes a trip to the tournament nearly every year. Jennifer Lopez was spotted at the ESA the last two tournaments. Gary, Holyfield and Jackson are tournament regulars. National radio host Tom Joyner will once again bring his morning "Sky Show" from Los Angeles to the BTI Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh on March 1. Joyner's live show starts at 6 a.m., and will feature R&B star Gerald Levert as his musical guest. Fans usually line up to get into the free morning show as early as 4 a.m. The syndicated show is broadcast on urban radio stations across the country including local Triangle station WFXC 107.1/104.3 FM.
"The CIAA tournament has grown exponentially in attendance and popularity since coming to Raleigh three years ago, and The Tom Joyner Morning Show has been a huge part of that," says CIAA Commissioner Leon Kerry. "The attention and press that the CIAA receives is no longer just regional, it's national and the Sky Show is largely responsible for opening some of those doors. It's part of the CIAA's appeal."
The tournament ranks third overall among all college basketball tournaments in gross revenue, trailing only the Atlantic Coast and Big East conferences, respectively. The CIAA tourney has become so large, it has gained the attention of national publications. USA Today ran a front-page feature on the tournament last year, and Ebony Magazine recently did a 12-page spread in its February 2002 issue.
The tournament also generates impressive revenues for the host city. According to statistics from the city of Raleigh, the CIAA tournament attracted 80,000 visitors who spent $10 million last year. Raleigh recently won a bid over Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Richmond, Va., to host the tournament until 2005.
"When they started the tourney, there was segregation. People had to find a place to stay and eat," says Coach Gaines. "Now it's a big social event and that's helped a lot. But the focus is still basketball."
And there's sure to be some excellent games this year. Both the CIAA men's and women's teams ranked at the top of Division II. The N.C. Central and Fayetteville State women's team are among the best in the nation. And both Johnson C. Smith and Shaw University men's teams are ranked in the top 25. Shaw, for the first time in tournament history, is favored to win it all, thanks to the outstanding play of 6-feet-4-inch swingman Roland Murray.
College basketball as we know it today got its start in the CIAA. It's where the soul of the game began.
"We don't have the same quality players today as we had back then," Gaines says. "The 1950s were the peak years in terms of talent, but there's still great coaching, good talent and great games. I think everyone should come to see the CIAA Tournament at least once."