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It's Our Thing Now 

The CIAA Basketball Tournament brings the party to Charlotte

Day one in a week crammed with things to do for every wallet size and taste. As you slowly descend the concrete steps inside Bobcats Arena, careful not to fall and lose all your cool points, you grin to yourself, feeling the pulse emanating from every corner. It seems ages since the last time everyone got together. The Eagles. The Golden Bulls. The Vikings. The Trojans. The Broncos. The Bears. The Blue Bears. The Panthers. The Falcons. The Tigers. The Bulldogs. The Rams. Exhilarated, you curl your lips into a smile.

It feels like coming home after being away, comfortable but different from when you left. There's your old roommate with her new husband. Nearby revelers glance up from their own animated conversations to watch your reunion as you alternate between screaming and hugging each other tight. You quickly move on, managing to wave to friends and acquaintances alike while keeping a sharp lookout for celebrities, fashion tips and, if you're still single, someone you'd like to get to know.

The search is on to see how you rate on a fashion scoreboard or if you've caught the eye of someone who makes you glad you wore the outfit that shows off your hard work at the gym, cold weather be damned. The fashion show, of course, began the moment you entered the building. People from every economic and social class are present and looking fierce. Designer labels abound in a sea of fashion dos and don'ts, from understated elegance to in-your-face ghetto fabulous. "Part Essence Jazz Festival, part NCAA Final Four and part Cannes Film Festival, the CIAA Basketball Tournament can best be described as the quintessential African-American experience" -- that's how CIAA Commissioner Leon G. Kerry describes this event that landed uptown Monday, Feb. 27 and continues through March 4.

Founded in 1912 as the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association and now known as the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the CIAA consists of teams from 12 historically black colleges and universities: Bowie State University, Elizabeth City State University, Fayetteville State University, Johnson C. Smith University, Livingstone College, North Carolina Central University, St. Augustine's College, St. Paul's College, Shaw University, Virginia State University, Virginia Union University and in its last year with the CIAA, Winston-Salem State University.

The CIAA Basketball Tournament, now the third largest in the National Collegiate Athletic Association behind the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big East Tournament, makes its first appearance in the Queen City this year. Its success can be attributed to Kerry's efforts to push the CIAA higher up in the collegiate echelon each season, traveling often to charter schools and increasing corporate sponsorship. Kerry brokered a three-year deal with ESPN last year for extensive live coverage of seven games, four airing in prime time, a first for NCAA Division II conferences. Latest on the list of sponsors is Charlotte's Bank of America, which contributed $200,000 of the $1 million pledged to the CIAA general scholarship fund by Charlotte leaders during the city's tense in-state bidding war with Raleigh.

Most residents aren't aware that this year's festivities, dubbed "Get Down Uptown," represent Charlotte's third bid for the tournament. A group of black business leaders, including Melvin Tennant, former Visit Charlotte president and CEO; Dr. Julius Chambers, former president of North Carolina Central University; and Dr. Dorothy Cowser-Yancey, president of Johnson C. Smith University and a former CIAA president, first proposed bringing the CIAA to Charlotte in 1996. Tennant left Charlotte to become executive director of the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Jim Beavers, executive director of the Charlotte Sports Commission, stepped in to replace Tennant. Beavers recognized the tournament would draw diversity to the reconstructed uptown.

The group failed to attract the CIAA that year, said Cowser-Yancey, "because it wasn't believed [the fans] could fill up the [Charlotte Coliseum]." But that didn't stop them. "We went after it hook-line-and-sinker," said Beavers. "It'll be something they'll be talking about for years to come."

About 125,000 people are expected to go through the turnstiles at Bobcats Arena, compared with the 110,000 who showed up at the RBC Center in Raleigh in 2005. Last week, area hotels sold 5,000 more nights than were sold during the entire tournament last year.

The CIAA announced Feb. 8 that week-long ticket books already had sold out, although a limited number of single-session tickets will be available at the arena ticket office for games played the first three nights. Kerry hired a public relations firm to bring the "CIAA experience" to a younger generation, a move that helped rejuvenate the one-time faltering tournament.

Even during the lean years, a staple of the tournament was a stylish man from Suffolk, VA, who is fondly known as "Mr. CIAA."

Abraham Mitchell had always been a "clean" dresser. Before he became Mr. CIAA, he'd acquired the nickname Mr. Clean Shirt from his co-workers who noticed he never got dirty -- even though he worked in a warehouse. While attending Norfolk State games when his nephew was a student there, Mitchell started wearing the school's team colors in his suits and ties. Soon, he was also incorporating the opponents' colors. Thus began his celebrated career as "Mr. CIAA."

"I supply my own outfits. I never had a sponsor," said Mitchell. "A couple times, I had people ask to sponsor me, but I didn't want my clothes from a regular store."

Mitchell won't talk about how much he spends on his colorful outfits. "I ... I spent a lot," he said. "Last year, I spent more than I had spent on any season. I told my nephew, I said, 'Time for me to stop.' He said, 'No, they still want you to come. The people want you to come.' But I think I got something for 'em this year they'll like."

Mr. CIAA is clearly a busy man. "Look, I'm leaving town tonight," he said before hanging up the phone. "I gotta go pick up three outfits in New York."

Mitchell was featured in Ebony magazine in spring of 2005, when he attended the funeral of Clarence "Big House" Gaines, the legendary former basketball coach of Winston-Salem State University. Gaines, the fifth-winningest coach in the NCAA behind Dean Smith, Adolph Rupp, Bob Knight and Jim Phelan, died April 18, 2005. The CIAA Men's Basketball Championship trophy was named in his honor as a testament to the man who once served as the face of the CIAA. In their final CIAA appearance, Winston-Salem State players will wear "C.E. Gaines" on the backs of their jerseys in memory of "Big House."

"As Winston-Salem State University exits out of the CIAA conference, it is bittersweet," said Cortney L. Hill, spokesperson for WSSU. "Bitter because we most certainly will miss the level of competitiveness, culture and family atmosphere within the CIAA conference. However, it's sweet because while we will maintain our connections, we also look forward to building new relationships within Division I." Next year, the WSSU Rams are expected to join fellow CIAA ex-pats Hampton University and Norfolk State University in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

Though it seems a daunting task for the CIAA to continue to flourish without one of its teams, the show will go on. Watch Patti LaBelle sing during the Coca-Cola Showtime at the Apollo performance on Thursday, March 2. And attend the two free events: the Ford CIAA Fan Experience, March 2-4, and McDonald's Super Saturday Fan Fest on March 4.

Word is, Tom Joyner will not be hosting the Sky Show; instead, Steve Harvey, who took Joyner's spot on 101.9 last year, will broadcast from the CIAA. (Feathers are already ruffled over that one.)

When the party's over each night, roll on over to the Coffee Cup, which stays open all night through Sunday. But be forewarned: After a week-long encounter with the CIAA, you may find yourself shouting, "C-I 4 Life!" Do not be alarmed, you have just succumbed to what is commonly know as CIAA fever. See ya next year.

branna.calloway@creativeloafing.com

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