From Feb. 27 to March 3, more than 150,000 people will descend on Charlotte with one goal in mind: To have the best seats for the games of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association’s annual basketball tournaments for men and women at Uptown's Spectrum Center and Bojangles Coliseum. Oh, and to dress to the nines for the conference’s associated events, including FanFest, which takes place the Friday and Saturday of the tourney period.
Jacqie McWilliams is the face behind the basketball frenzy. After a decades-long career in collegiate sports tournaments, she took charge in 2012 as the first woman to lead the CIAA as commissioner—and the former college basketball player has continued to make the event a slam-dunk for visitors and locals.
In 2015, the organization moved its headquarters to Charlotte from Virginia and has really embraced its new home. After the move, it was named a recipient of the Jerry Award from Charlotte Regional Partners for its contributions to the economic development of the city. “I just feel extremely blessed that we’ve been able to be part of the community,” McWilliams said.
You became the first female commissioner of the CIAA in 2012—the same year the organization celebrated its 100-year anniversary. What is it like to lead such an historic organization into its second century?
It’s humbling. To be able to lead and guide this conference, to take it to the next level of excellence, is pretty amazing. I feel blessed for the opportunity. But I’m also so passionate about the CIAA. I’m a product of it. I went to [what was] a CIAA school at the time. So to be able to come back and be first female commissioner is amazing to me. I don’t take it for granted at all.
The CIAA recently its headquarters to Charlotte; what makes the city a great fit for the organization?
First of all, it put us in a location in a city where one of our schools is located—Johnson C. Smith University—and then we’re within proximity to our member schools. In Virginia [where the organization’s headquarters were formerly] we were about an hour or an hour and a half from the closest school. We traveled once or twice a month to Charlotte to do work on the tournament.
The Charlotte community, I feel like we’re a part of it. I feel like the city has embraced the CIAA. To be in a sports town, to be in a town that has arts and entertainment, just wealth and growth … it’s a great opportunity.
What makes Charlotte a great fit for the CIAA’s legendary basketball tournament?
I’ve been working in championships or events for almost 27 years. Once you’ve identified the city for that tournament, you figure out what is the flavor that makes it unique for that championship. Charlotte is almost like a one-stop shop for your fans. You don’t even have to rent a car. You fly in, you get transportation from the airport and then you just walk everywhere. The layout of Charlotte makes it easy for the fans, not just for the tournament, but for every event. That’s the reason why 150,000-plus people come to Charlotte [for the tournament]. There’s a reason why people want to be in Uptown. There’s a reason why the restaurants are packed. And the EpiCentre always has something going on. Charlotte has created a center of attraction for people.
What should CIAA fans be excited about for this year’s tournament?
We have an app where you can find everything that’s coming up. I want people to be able to know where things are and what’s official to the CIAA.
I love this tournament. It is just so much fun. It’s a reunion. It’s really for all of our alumni and our schools to connect together at once place in one time during Black History Month.
Jacqie McWilliams’ Favorites
These are a few of McWilliams' favorite things in Charlotte:
Captain Steve’s—“I go to Captain Steve’s off Monroe probably every Friday. He’s a Virginia State graduate. I try to patronize [the businesses owned by] CIAA grads and alumni.”
La’Wans—“La’Wans is a soul-food place. The fried chicken, it’s like she can’t keep [enough of it] in her spot! I go there for the fish. It’s always nice to [support the] CIAA owners.”
Elements Massage—“I like to take an hour and go get a massage there. I love massage therapy.”
Gigi’s Cupcakes—“I love cupcakes. It’s right there in SouthPark next to where I get a massage. It’s my treat for myself.”
Terrace Café—“My staff and I, we should own Terrace Café. Somebody eats there every other day. I get coffee there at least twice a week. I love that spot.”