Lots of fans didn't know it then and some still may not, but there was a time when CIAA basketball was superior to the game being played in the ACC, the Big Ten, the Southeastern Conference and almost anywhere else short of the NBA.
During the 1950s, '60s and even into the '70s, before widespread racial integration in the NCAA, many African-American high school players didn't have the option of going to the so-called big-time college leagues.
"That was the heyday of CIAA athletics from a purely competitive standpoint," said former N.C. Central star and St. Augustine's coach Harvey Heartley. "It wasn't just basketball, either. It was football, track, baseball, too. It was across the board. The access to all this sports talent was almost unlimited.
"At just about any black college in the country, there were great players and great teams. Not many folks outside the black community knew about them, but they were there. It was what I used to call the hidden universe of collegiate athletics. Some of these teams were loaded, flat-out loaded."
The nation's first real glimpse of that hidden universe came at the 1966 NCAA Final Four. In the championship game, an all-black starting five from Texas-El Paso downed heavily favored and all-white Kentucky.
Of course, there were exceptional African-American players at the major-college level before that UTEP team. San Francisco, led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, won back-to-back titles in 1955 and '56. Wilt Chamberlain's decision to play for Kansas during the same era drew national attention.
Oscar Robertson later starred at Cincinnati, and there was the famous Loyola-Chicago Ramblers national title team of 1963.
But UTEP's win over Kentucky was a revelation to college fans.
"Back then," Heartley said, "white people didn't think black teams could play. They thought it was just a bunch of running up and down the court out of control. White fans just hadn't been exposed to seeing black teams.
"But you have to remember that was before all this television coverage of basketball, too. Fans didn't see many teams, period..."
The majority of coaches at mostly white colleges didn't know, either. Texas-El Paso changed that. Almost overnight, the recruitment of black players by NCAA schools went from a snail's pace to a sprint.
"The monopoly that this small handful of black conferences once had was gone before you could turn around," Heartley said. "The big secret was out."
The impact on the CIAA was profound. Laurinburg Institute's Charlie Scott, who might have otherwise considered attending a CIAA school, signed with North Carolina during the summer of 1966. Early the following year, Scott was already the ACC's first African-American icon.
As television coverage of ACC games expanded, younger black players saw Scott's popularity and success and wanted to follow his lead. One was David Thompson in Shelby. He picked N.C. State. Phil Ford from Rocky Mount picked UNC. Wake Forest landed Charlie Davis, and Maryland lured Len Elmore out of the New York area that once had produced so many white ACC players.
"Every one of those players the CIAA coaches knew about and had their eye on a long time before the ACC schools found them," Heartley said. "Five or 10 years before, they would have been CIAA players, too. But by then, television exposure for the bigger schools made it a recruiting fight the CIAA just couldn't win any more."
Heartley and the coaches of his era aren't bitter even though the combination of black talent and TV popularity made it possible for ACC coaches to earn salaries that their CIAA counterparts could only dream about.
"It was progress, long overdue progress," Heartley said. "But most coaches back then, black and white, weren't in it because they ever thought they'd make a fortune. The money was about the same as for teaching in a public high school. It didn't make any difference whether you were talking about Bighouse Gaines or Dean Smith."
The big-league coaches, like the big schools for which they worked, eventually did rake in millions from basketball, TV and shoe contracts.
The CIAA didn't share in the financial bounty. But it didn't die, either. Pride and institutional tradition soon filled the void left by the absence of the best players. Much of the CIAA's fan base remained loyal, even though NBA prospects are rare.
Durham attorney Terry Hodges is typical of many CIAA fans these days. He doesn't go to games to be awed by the talent on the court.
"The CIAA had the premier basketball players in the Southeast before integration," Hodges said. "They are not as good now. ... It's not the best basketball anymore."
But Hodges still supports the CIAA, in part because of family heritage. When he was a youngster, his father routinely took him to CIAA Tournament games.
Ironically, the ACC can now relate to the CIAA's experience.
Increasingly, the best high school players are skipping college entirely or leaving after a year or two to turn pro. The ACC is weaker than it was in the days of Scott, Thompson and Ford. The Scott of yesteryear is the Tracy McGrady of today.
But when the ACC holds its men's tournament next month in Greensboro, its fans, like those of the CIAA this week in the RBC Center, will be there. They know they won't see McGrady or LeBron James or even Chris Bosh.
They'll be happy to see the best talent their schools can find.
Columnist Caulton Tudor can be reached at 829-8946 or firstname.lastname@example.org