It’s been 15 years since March Madness last swept through Greenville and gave the host city its chance to shine on one of the nation's largest sports stages.
After his Duke Blue Devils advanced over Notre Dame out of the opening round of the 2002 NCAA men's basketball tournament, head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that Greenville had "an amazing enthusiasm for basketball."
The city was buzzing with pride — but the praise would mean little for the foreseeable future.
So long as the Confederate battle flag flew prominently on South Carolina's Statehouse grounds, the NCAA would not allow any part of its billion-dollar showcase anywhere in the state.
It's been a long walk in the wilderness, but now the flag has been relegated to a museum, and in a convenient twist of political fate, turmoil over another divisive issue in the other Carolina has helped bring the tournament back to Greenville this week.
The story of the tournament's sudden return is one of luck, preparedness and lessons learned from years of facing a ban, say those involved in the whirlwind selection of Greenville as one of eight cities nationwide to host the tournament's opening two rounds.
And now, they say, the monumental effort begins to pull it all off again.
'We want you back'
Last September, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced that it would pull championships in seven different sports, including the first and second rounds of the men's basketball tournament from Greensboro, North Carolina.
State lawmakers there had passed House Bill 2, which prevented transgender people from choosing a bathroom that corresponded with their gender identity. It also prevented local governments from passing their own laws that would supersede HB2.
The bill created tangible problems for the NCAA, such as several states that prohibited public employees and representatives of public institutions to travel to North Carolina, which the NCAA said "could include student-athletes and campus athletics staff."
Citing its "commitment to fairness and inclusion," the NCAA began an expedited process to award the events to locations in other states.
Greenville had laid the groundwork well before the bathroom bill — starting in earnest with the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia two summers ago, a sea change in race relations after the killing of nine black Charleston church parishioners by a white supremacist proclaiming the start of a race war.
In 2000, the state Legislature had reached a compromise on removing the flag from the Statehouse dome and flying it at a memorial on the grounds.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for a boycott still, citing the flag's prominent position along a major downtown corridor. The NCAA honored the request and banned events in South Carolina at any "predetermined site."
The day of the flag's removal — July 10, 2015 — the head of Greenville's visitor's bureau, Chris Stone, penned a letter to the president of the NCAA and vice president of men's basketball championships.
The message: We want you back.
Three days later, Stone flew to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to make his pitch.
"We wanted to put a flag in the ground, stake a claim," Stone, president of VisitGreenvilleSC, said in an interview with The Greenville News. "I didn't want to waste any time for that statement to be made."
The message came from Greenville, but Stone said he made clear that support was for all of South Carolina, which before 2002 had only hosted one NCAA men's basketball tournament, in 1970 in Columbia.
VisitGreenvilleSC had already joined in partnership with the city of Greenville and Bon Secours Wellness Arena to make its pitch for the tournament in the years 2019-22. The group was joined by Furman University and the Southern Conference, whose senior associate commissioner, Geoff Cabe, had called Stone within minutes of the flag's removal.
After the bathroom bill, the NCAA suspended consideration last fall to figure out how to move its events out of North Carolina.
The Greenville group saw what was happening to the north and prepared, knowing firsthand what the NCAA will do when a political issue threatens to make people feel unwelcome.
"When there is an issue that does not align with the NCAA's core values, we learned from experience that they are very serious about not taking a tournament to a community that does not uphold their core values," said Beth Paul, general manager of the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, which in recent years completed a $14 million renovation.
The NCAA required applicants to fill out technical specifications online, but Stone said Greenville wanted to make its own case in person and created a package that includes a video produced locally with original music and drone footage. He could point to success in 2002 and the praise the arena received hosting Clemson University basketball during the entire 2015-16 season.
The NCAA was able to move the Big Dance just down Interstate 85.
"You make moves that offend people or put people in awkward spots or make them feel like they're not wanted, this is the outcome," Stone said.
Just wanting a tournament in your town isn't enough. You have to have the space for it.
In short order, the city reached out to the arena to see if the venue could be available for that weekend. Beyond availability, the arena had to prove it could accommodate a large contingent of media and be competent in live broadcasts.
Then, the visitor's bureau contacted local hotels and restaurants to ensure they had the ability to accommodate what the bureau estimates will be 14,000 attendees with access to three sessions of play. Altogether, the arena will have to accommodate the coming and going of about 42,000 people, half of them from out of town, Stone said.
"Thankfully, we didn't have anything huge that we had to move around or try to cancel," Stone said.
The NCAA requires a collegiate host to coordinate, so the group worked with Furman University. The school agreed, but enlisted the Southern Conference to help handle the task of organizing such a large event.
The opportunity to host the tournament "certainly fell into our laps," Furman athletics director Mike Buddie said, but the school had already spent a year preparing for future NCAA bids, not only in men's basketball but also the Division I women's basketball tournament and the Division III baseball championship.
The timing has been fortunate in another way: Just as Greenville hosts the opening rounds, the NCAA by summer's end will be making decisions of future sites into 2022.
"Demonstrating success will certainly put us in better position to secure future tournaments," Paul said.
The stakes are high when it comes to March Madness.
Last spring, the NCAA signed an eight-year, $8 billion contract extension for broadcasting rights.
The NCAA selected Greenville over Louisville, Kentucky, Providence, Rhode Island, Jacksonville, Florida, and Dayton, Ohio.
VisitGreenvilleSC estimates a $3.6 million economic impact in Greenville from Tuesday through Sunday, with 6,250 hotel rooms occupied.
The heaviest demand will coincide with two sessions on Friday that will feature four games. Two games are played on Sunday to determine who advances to regional play.
The demand for hotel rooms will be peculiar as teams and their fans have no control over whether the team will lose on the first day and their weekend be done. Hotels hedge on this possibility to avoid lost nights, said Daniel Lock, director of sales and marketing for downtown's Courtyard Marriott.
"It is a balancing act," Lock said. "It's a risk, but what we're trying to do from a managing standpoint is oversell the hotel, with the possibility of teams leaving early."
The city must now prepare for the sheer number of people and high profile of the event.
Last weekend's SEC Women's Basketball Tournament provided the city a "test run," City Manager John Castile said. VGSC estimated the women's tournament had a $1.7 million impact and brought 36,100 in ticketed attendance over a longer course of seven sessions.
The city learned from the tournament that it needed a better system to move traffic from parking garages, particularly directing traffic onto the major corridors like Interstate 385, Castile said.
To help some with traffic, the city has set up a shuttle service at Redemption Church on Haywood Road, which will run from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday and from 10 a.m. to midnight on Friday to transport people to the front of the arena.
The city is asking businesses to allow employees to work remotely or leave work early if possible on Friday because of expected heavy traffic and demand for parking. The Friday sessions have the most teams playing in one day, so more fans will be moving in and out of the arena at lunchtime and rush hour.
"If you're coming to the game, awesome," Stone said. "Come to the game. If you're not, you'd do us a huge favor by working remotely that Friday and freeing up some parking."
Ahead of both tournaments, the city enacted temporary restrictions on business licenses for street vendors.
"Whenever you have major events occur, you have temporary businesses that pop up and oftentimes may sell non-credentialed materials," Castile said. "The best practices of a lot of cities is to suspend the street vendor portion until the event is over."
The tournament brings with it heightened security, as dictated by the NCAA, Police Chief Ken Miller said.
There will be a series of barricades in front of the arena to guard against threats that might come with such a high-profile event, Miller said.
The city expects protests to take place as they do during tournaments at other locations and significant events within the city, Miller said.
"Everybody wants the desired outcome of having their voices heard, but there are rules we have to follow," Castile said.
The arena doesn't have much area available to protest, but the city will try to accommodate protests both planned and unplanned within the law, Miller said.
The city will also deploy undercover officers to monitor ticket scalping, he said. By state law, a ticket can't be sold for more than $1 its face value, but Miller said he wasn't sure how that activity would be dealt with in terms of arrests.
Elizabeth LaFleur and Maayan Schecter contributed
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