Each year, like many CIAA alums, Tim Grant gathers his family for a February drive to Charlotte. They spend the weekend walking to friends' hotel rooms, meeting others in uptown restaurants and, yes, watching some hoops in the tourney he played in 30 years ago.
For Grant, however, the CIAA tournament presents an odd sort of reconnection. His alma mater, Winston Salem State University, left the Division II conference three years ago to compete in NCAA Division I athletics. He is a CIAA tournament fan without a CIAA tournament basketball team.
"I come here to see people and renew friendships," he says. "It's a homecoming."
This week, the tournament begins its fifth year in Charlotte, and conference officials again expect tens of thousands of fans to drive here from spots throughout the Southeast. Last year's game attendance was 176,000, and among those attendees were alumni from schools like Winston Salem State, North Carolina A&T, and North Carolina Central - all of whom have left the conference for higher-level NCAA affiliation.
Their continued attendance is testament to the tournament's lure as a hybrid event - part basketball tourney, part congregation of the historically black college and university world. "If you want to see your friends, your schoolmates, people you were close to, you know they're going to be here at the tournament," said Jeffrey McLeod, CIAA associate commissioner. "The tree branches spread wide."
Last year, the tournament generated an economic impact of $38 million in Charlotte, city and conference officials say, and both are negotiating to extend their relationship beyond its contractual conclusion next year. Charlotte nabbed the tourney after a six-year run in Raleigh. "We'll do whatever we can to keep it," said Molly Hedrick, spokeswoman for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Association.
CIAA commissioner Leon Kerry told reporters earlier this month he expects a decision on the extension sometime this fall. Officials said last week that the conference, which is centered in North Carolina and has schools in Virginia and Maryland, is open to accepting bids from other cities.
Grant, now the director of Winston-Salem's Recreation and Parks Department, said he's attended every CIAA tournament but one since 1976. Charlotte, he said, complements the tournament's social dynamic more than previous sites because it allows fans to be concentrated uptown with restaurants and hotels.
"I park my car when I get (to Charlotte) and don't touch it until Sunday," he says. "The rest of the time I'm walking, shopping, seeing people I haven't seen in 20 years."
Grant played basketball at WSSU, then was an assistant under its legendary coach, Clarence "Big House" Gaines. Now, he says, he doesn't attend many games - perhaps one each tournament - but sees former players and friends who come from around the state and country. It's an atmosphere he wants his children, ages 13 and 8, exposed to. "I want them to know that there are historically black colleges and universities that are very positive," he says.
Charlene Watson-Faulcon grew up with the tournament. She attended her first CIAA tournament at five years old, accompanying her father, who had attended North Carolina A&T. Now 55, she is an A&T alum and coming to Charlotte this week for her 50th tournament. Her school left the CIAA in 1970.
"It's the heritage of these schools, the values that we've always had with academics and athletics," she said.
Plus, she says, the fashion. "I used to look at that as a little girl at the tournament. I still do."
For Grant, at least, some change is coming. Winston-Salem State will be rejoining the CIAA this fall.
But he won't guarantee that he'll be attending more games. "There's just so much to do," he says.