Up Close And Personal With The CIAA

It’s the biggest party that you didn’t know about. (And if you do, you wish you were here.)

The CIAA (which is pronounced C-I-double-A, stands for Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, and is NCAA Division II) pumps over 200,000 people into Charlotte at the end of every February for its conference basketball tournament. For perspective, it’s the third most-attended athletic event in collegiate sports after the ACC and Big East tourneys. But folks aren’t coming to the Queen City just to watch basketball games.

Tournament games start Tuesday, but the unofficial start of the CI weekend is Thursday. Every venue, from pubs to museums, gets booked for a party. A tent the size of a football practice field is erected in a parking lot. Other parties that popped off in lobbies—even the lobby of Bank of America corporate headquarters (the Urban Garden)—were the spots for reality chick Draya Michele, singer Anthony Hamilton and old school cats like DJ Jazzy Jeff and Rob Base to show their faces. Over 160 events and parties happened over the course of three days (including a private event thrown by Chris Brown, during which you could just be in his presence and three different parties on Saturday where you could “bottoms up” it and even take a picture with Trey Songz.)

NYC’s popular “Breakfast Club” radio hosted a party where it seemed the dress code was naked and the age limit was junior high-school. The younger crowd stood in a long line in the snow and rain to get near some retired or damn-near retired NFLers like DeShaun Foster, Stephen Davis, and Duce Staley. There were current artists, such as Pusha T, and ’90s throwback parties that brought all three members of BBD to the stage. They sang “Candy Girl,” “Do Me Baby,” and “Poison”…twice. Their opening act was SWV, who “sang” five of their hits­––even Chubb Rock hopped on the mic and spoke over some songs.

But if name-dropping is your goal, you don’t have to stay up late, wait in a party line and pay to see a celebrity. A long list of black actors had appearances and autograph sessions at the free Fan Experience held at the convention center. Actors Pooch Hall and Lance Gross, as well as singers Yolanda Adams and Musiq were among the visitors.

And not every celebrity in attendance was hosting an event. Tatyana Ali was spotted eating at the Ritz Carlton; Nicki Minaj was there, too. Drake (reportedly) shut down stores at a mall to go shopping, and Nelly was everywhere.

Celebrities know about this huge party weekend because they get paid to party. But you didn’t know about it because you don’t live between Pennsylvania and North Carolina. ( if you live outside the region, someone probably hipped you to it via Instagram.)

When attending the CIAA, the thing to worry about is what to wear…because, well, it’s a black event. CIAA Basketball has been in Charlotte for eight years and it’s always cold. This year it snowed on Saturday morning. But that didn’t deter the dress code for 20-something females: skin-tight, short and exposed. Everyone else knew to put on a coat and wear comfortable shoes.

Entrepreneurs were in action for the nightlife, but folks also came to the city to handle business in the daylight. Time Warner brought in FUBU founder and Shark Tank’s Daymond John to talk to local business owners about how he made it, and the Charlotte Black Film Festival allowed folks to pitch ideas to real industry movers and shakers.

Students, parents and really old alumni filled about a third of the arena where the Bobcats played during the tournament. A man in a brightly colored pimp suit was the unofficial spokesperson for the games. He calls himself Mr. CIAA, and according to him, his job is “to be seen.” He roamed the stands greeting fans, and posing for pictures. Apparantly he is good at what he does: last year, the conference gave him an award for his loyalty to the games.

On occasion a celebrity will check out the play on the hard court. Thursday Bobcats forward Tyrus Thomas stood in one of the tunnels and cheered on Charlotte’s Johnson C Smith University, who fell to Elizabeth City State. Saturday, Chris Brown sat courtside during the championship game. In the past, Allen Iverson has presented scholarship checks and in 2012 FLOTUS Michelle Obama brought her “Let’s Move” campaign to the arena.

The new commissioner of the CIAA, Jacqie Carpenter, says she has plans to change the perception of the weekend as just one big party. “I also want people to understand the tournament is a staple of who we are and what we’ve done.” And with that here’s what they did: A kid named Byron Westmoreland led Bowie State over Livingstone College for the second CIAA title in school history. On the women’s side, the Shaw University Lady Bears won their third straight CIAA Championship defeating Fayetteville State 72-53.

Told you it’s not all fun and games…just mostly.



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