By David Perlmutt

CIAA league basket#ball champions in 1924 from Hampton.

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Its seeds were planted in 1912 at a time of lynchings and Jim Crow laws that spread to keep the races apart.

A century ago, African-Americans were disenfranchised. Eleven years earlier in 1901, U.S. Rep. George Henry White of Tarboro, N.C., was the last black representative to resign, in a bitter speech after the vote was taken from N.C. blacks.

And because few white schools admitted black students, dozens of all-black colleges and universities had sprung up. Many, like Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University, had opened just after the Civil War.

That was the backdrop for the formation of the country’s oldest black athletic conference. Its centennial celebration hits high gear today as thousands pour into Charlotte to cheer on basketball teams from the 12 schools of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association at its yearly tournament.

And party.

The CIAA is a lesson in survival, outliving racism, horrible gyms, defections and near extinction.

Its story is the story of historically black colleges and universities where young blacks found safety among their own and nurturing – and an education they could get nowhere else – from professors and coaches.

“Even now, when I see the water tower at my school, I know I’m home,” said Earl Lloyd, a four-year starter at West Virginia State College (now university) who was one of three blacks to break the NBA’s color barrier in 1950.

The conference initially embraced football, but along the way fell in love with basketball.

“The CIAA was the incubator of college athletics for African-Americans,” said Bobby Vaughan, a former CIAA president whose teams at Elizabeth City State in Eastern North Carolina won more than 500 games. “It’s been the catalyst for the future of hundreds of kids.”

Yet as proud as fans are of the CIAA’s survival and accomplishments, those who roll into Charlotte this week will come as much for the social scene as for the basketball.

“It’s a reunion,” Vaughan said. “Sometimes the games are almost an afterthought. The CIAA is unique: 50 percent parties, clubbing and shows; 50 percent basketball.”

Needed structure

A hundred years ago, historically black schools fielded teams that resembled club teams, run by students with no paid coaches.

There were few rules. Often students enrolled to play football for one school, then left to play basketball for another.

“You’d have one brother play for Howard (University) for two years, and then turn around and play against Howard for another three years,” said Earl Duval, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the CIAA at Kent State University in 1985. “There needed to be structure.”

On Feb. 2, 1912, nine administrators from five historically black schools met at Hampton Institute (now university) in Virginia to birth the CIAA and institute a set of rules.

The nine talked about absorbing all the country’s black schools. But soon other black conferences were forming: the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1913 and the Southwestern Athletic Association seven years later.

The initially five-school conference, first called the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association, urged schools to hire coaches and build basketball gyms.

In some gyms, the ceilings were so low it was impossible to shoot a jump shot from the top of the free-throw line. They were so cramped, players crashed into walls after driving for layups.

Many schools played games on outdoor courts. Morgan State in Baltimore played games on an auditorium stage.

“Winston-Salem State played in a building they called ‘The Shop,’ which was a utility building,” said Fred Whitted, founder and writer for the Black College Sports Encyclopedia in Fayetteville.

Best black talent

Yet by then, the CIAA’s basketball lore was growing.

During segregation, the conference boasted much of the country’s best black college talent. The NBA was sending scouts into CIAA gyms.

“The conference had some guys who could really play,” Earl Lloyd said.

At North Carolina College for Negroes (now N.C. Central) in Durham, John McLendon, a student of the game’s inventor, James Naismith, at the University of Kansas, had revolutionized a fast-break style and zone press. In 1944, his Eagles were 24-1, losing only to CIAA member Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, 57-52, in a game at the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem, N.Y., billed as the “Negro National Championship.”

Still, it was considered the best team in the region.

Two years later, McLendon and three other men organized the first CIAA tournament to decide conference champions and raise scholarship money.

With a $500 budget, they produced the tournament at Turner Arena in Washington, D.C., a 2,000-seat boxing venue. Since Washington hotels didn’t allow blacks, the players slept on cots in the arena, or in dorms at nearby Howard.

Virginia State, from Petersburg, Va., won that first tournament.

The second in 1947 was the first time Earl Lloyd’s parents saw him play college ball.

A year later, he became the first African-American to play an NBA game.

Yet his first CIAA tournament, seeing his parents in the stands, was one of his prouder moments.

“I knew what a premium they put on education,” he said. “My mother was beaming.”

Conference survives

The environment began to change for the best and smartest black players.

By the mid-1960s, the major Southern white conferences were under pressure to integrate. Black players like Billy Jones at Maryland and C.B. Claiborne at Duke (both enrolled in 1965), Charlie Scott at UNC Chapel Hill (1966) and Perry Wallace at Vanderbilt (1967) had begun to enter a world of catcalls, racial taunts and abuse on the court.

Five years earlier, they probably would have played in the CIAA.

With its black talent diluted, the conference was nearly destroyed in the 1970s by a gasoline crisis and defections.

Its schools were bickering. The smaller schools with less money and resources didn’t want to play the larger schools. In 1970, several larger CIAA schools – Howard, Morgan State, N.C. A&T and N.C. Central – broke away from the conference and joined other larger historically black schools to form the Division 1 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.

The 1974 gas shortage kept fans from the tournament, a primary money-maker. When Bobby Vaughan became CIAA president in 1975, the conference was $75,000 in debt.

The Greensboro Coliseum, site of the tournament then, wouldn’t renew a contract.

“We were about to fold,” Vaughan said.

So the conference looked north to Norfolk, Va., “but they weren’t ready for large groups of celebrating black folks,” he said.

Nearby Hampton, Va., the conference’s birthplace, was.

George Wallace, then an assistant Hampton city manager and an N.C. Central graduate, approached Vaughan and then-CIAA Commissioner Bob Moorman about moving the tournament to its 10,000-seat arena.

“We didn’t have a large number of sports events,” said Wallace, now Hampton’s vice mayor. “We sold it out.”

The CIAA paid off its debts and thrived.

Since then, the tournament has moved to Norfolk; Richmond, Va.; Winston-Salem; Raleigh and in 2006 to Charlotte.

Taxpayers spend $500,000 each year to host the tournament. Last year, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority said attendance topped 190,000 fans, who left $44.3 million in Charlotte’s economy.

Many fans wouldn’t miss it. They’ll fill streets, hotels and bars – and watch a little basketball.

As he usually is, Earl Lloyd will be at Time Warner Cable Arena this week, though West Virginia State is no longer in the CIAA. He’ll mix with old friends and teammates – and opponents who once were rivals.

“We’re a close group,” said Lloyd, now 83. “Back in my playing days, we never knew where we were going to sleep or eat at away games until we got there. We slept on cots in the gyms, or in the dorms with the other team. We ate with them and sometimes dressed out with them. We got to know them.

“Those were some of the best years of my life. This tournament brings it all back.”

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