USBA championships bring more than 500 basketball teams to downtown Raleigh this week

When Mark Thompson was looking for a place to host the U.S. Basketball Association National Championship, Raleigh was a no-brainer.

For one, the Triangle is the heart of ACC country, with UNC, N.C. State and Duke all a short distance away. But it was the surplus of universities in the area that made Thompson, the USBA basketball owner, want to put the tournament in downtown Raleigh this week.

The event, which started Tuesday at the Raleigh Convention Center, will bring 502 teams from all over the United States and Canada, to the City of Oaks. There is also a team from the Netherlands and seven teams from Puerto Rico.

The convention center is just a few blocks away from Shaw University, and a short drive from Saint Augustine’s and William Peace University. It’s about 25 miles from N.C. Central, and about 30 miles from Campbell. Thompson wants visiting players and families to get a crash course on basketball in North Carolina, a place he calls “basketball heaven.”

“You are in what I would consider the best basketball area in the country, in the world, in my mind,” Thompson told the N&O on Tuesday. “They need to take advantage of the schools here. We’ve been telling people to go out to all the schools. These are basketball people, some of them have never been here and they want to go to some of those sites.”

The event, which has been held in Atlanta and Charlotte in the past, has a three-year deal with the City of Raleigh. The players range from 5th grade to high school, and games run from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day.

Thompson, a former Division I assistant coach, started the USBA 14 years ago, and has used some big name coaches -- including former ACC coaches Dave Odom, Bobby Cremins and Les Robinson -- to run the association and conduct clinics from city to city. Those coaches gave the USBA credibility. While the sneaker-sponsored summer circuits (like Adidas and Nike EYBL) get more attention and the top-named players, Thompson says the USBA isn’t too far behind in terms of talent.

“A lot of people think we’re there,” Thompson said. “It’s unique because we don’t do it during the live (recruiting) period.”

In the past, some players on those sneaker circuits play with the USBA once travel team summer leagues are over. Last year, for example, Bronny James, son of NBA superstar Lebron James, and his team won the USBA event for their age group in Charlotte. This week, there are some participating teams sponsored by NBA heavyweights like Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, who both also sponsor teams on the Nike EYBL circuit. Thompson said he expects Anthony to make an appearance this week, and it’s possible Durant could make a cameo as well.

The USBA season starts in March and the teams that have made it to Raleigh this week had to qualify. Thompson compared the next five days as their version of the NCAA tournament, and said winning teams will get championship rings.

When he got out of college coaching and started the USBA, Thompson said he only had four teams in his first tournament and thought he might need to return to coaching. In an office on the second floor of the convention center, overlooking the 19 basketball courts, it’s safe to say the event has taken off since then.

“Up until about four or five years ago we didn’t see the elite kids,” Thompson said. “Now we see them every year. The talent here is unbelievable. People are starting to find out we are serious about it.”

USBA National Championships

When: July 16 - 20

Where: Raleigh Convention Center, downtown Raleigh

Cost: Daily passes are $5-$10, weekend passes are $12-$15

Schedule: Wednesday - Thursday, Pool Play. Friday - Saturday, Bracket Play, Saturday, National Championships

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.