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CIAA ‘Homecoming’ week comes to Charlotte

Hoops, networking, parties and celebs will take over the Queen City this week

For months, the commissioner of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association had been impatiently waiting to start promoting this year’s CIAA tournament, the annual men’s and women’s basketball tournament, which will run from Feb. 27 to March 3 in Charlotte.

By mid-December, Jacqie McWilliams couldn’t hold in her enthusiasm: Her Instagram account became a never-ending scroll of posts, singing the praises of the holiday season and touting the 13th installment of the event in Charlotte, which will include 22 games and bring more than 130,000 fans and alumni to the Queen City.

“Don’t forget to download the amazing NEW and most #AWESOME #CIAA Tournament App to keep up with the latest and greatest updates,” she posted. “Bring your family … #IamCharlotteForLife.”

McWilliams, the CIAA’s third full-time commissioner and the first African-American woman to hold the position, has led the 106-year-old conference since 2012. Since December, the Hampton grad has been making the promotional rounds on TV, in print and on social for the event, which was estimated to have had an economic impact of $47.4 million last year.

“We’re excited about the momentum generated thus far, as we continue to focus on enhancing the student-athlete experience, creating impactful programming and refreshing our touch points through CIAA Supports community initiatives and official events,” McWilliams said of the event. “It is part of the foundation that our conference stands on: tradition, leadership and community.”

The lineup for the week is jam-packed, with community engagement a key component. Topping the list is the free-to-the-public Career Expo on March 1 at the Charlotte Convention Center, covering topics such as résumé writing, financial literacy and pre- and post-interview communication.

“We reached over 350 applicants last year, and we anticipate even higher numbers this year,” McWilliams said. “Organizations in all areas of industry who are interested in connecting with our current students, recent grads as well as those in the Charlotte community are registered to attend.”

The Education Day event, which reached capacity with more than 8,500 middle and high school students, a record-high number, will be held on Tuesday and expose students to STEM programming and career opportunities. The High School Program is slated for Feb. 28 and will focus on setting and achieving goals and higher education opportunities, and it will offer qualifying students on-the-spot admission to one of the CIAA’s 12 schools.

“Although the CIAA is an athletics conference, education is our No. 1 priority,” said McWilliams. “Education Day provides a wealth of knowledge to the students who attend. Some will become first-generation college students, paving the way for other family members to follow. Some will find clarity on what studies they want to pursue, or learn how to set goals and achieve them.”

Community programs that focus on entrepreneurship, employment, and diversity and inclusion are also part of the week. Its marquee event, the CIAA Minority Business and Leadership Symposium, is free to attend and will feature keynote speaker Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., president and CEO of Black Enterprise.

“People should be prepared to know that they’re coming into a type-A, first-class event, and they should be prepared to present themselves as such,” McWilliams said. “You want to be around some of the top professionals and network and build relationships. I would have my business cards and the information that I would want to share with other people as I network.”

Charlotte is bracing not only for the CIAA crowds and out-of-town revelers but also for Charlotte native Rev. Billy Graham’s visitation and funeral. President Donald Trump will be in town Friday for the world-renowned evangelist’s funeral, which will be held at the Billy Graham Library in southwest Charlotte.

Deputy Police Chief Johnny Jennings told The Charlotte Observer that the department is prepared.

“We have some experience in this; we’ve handled a lot of presidential details,” Jennings said. “We know there’s going to be some inconvenience. We’re asking the public and everyone that’s coming to pay respects just to be patient.”

Of course, there will be parties — plenty of parties. While Friday’s CIAA Step Show After Party (hosted by Bell Biv Devoe and Chubb Rock) is the only “official” one hosted by the conference, there will be no shortage of other events to attend.

CIAA staples like Biz Markie, Doug E. Fresh and Lil Wayne will be hosting events. But newbies to the QC might include Cardi B, former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, Fabolous, Gucci Mane and others who are supposed to join the party-hosting ranks.

Indeed, this is what makes CIAA tournament week what it is. But McWilliams points to her dream takeaway for the week.

“What I have seen is that a lot of people are able to make connections and build partnerships and friendships during CIAA,” she said. “And some of them have worked with us year-round, whether they come and speak to our student-athletes because they offer keynote services or keynote speaking, financial literacy or skill development and strategic planning. … Those relationships have been built out of our conference. I’m seeing people being able to take advantage of the networking opportunity for their own businesses but also help CIAA promote what we do throughout the year.”

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.