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Anderson Independent-Mail (South Carolina)
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 told reporters that Greenville had "an amazing enthusiasm for basketball."
The city was buzzing with pride, but the praise seemed to mean little for the 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 a 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 being banned, 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.
Last September, the National College Athletics 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 after the killing of nine black Charleston church parishioners by a white supremacist proclaiming desire to start 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 "predetermined sites."
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.
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 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.
"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.Then, the visitor's bureau contacted local hotels and restaurants to ensure they had the space to accommodate what the bureau estimates will be 14,000 attendees with access to three sessions of play.
"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 help of the Southern Conference to 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 bids.
The timing has been fortunate in another way: Just as Greenville hosts the opening rounds, the NCAA will be making decisions of future sites into 2022.
"Demonstrating success will certainly put us in better position to secure future tournaments," Paul said.
A decision is expected before summer's end.
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.
With such an impact, the city must now prepare for the sheer number of people and high-profile of the event, City Manager John Castile said.
The city learned a lot from last weekend's SEC Women's Basketball Tournament, such as how to better move traffic from parking garages to the major corridors like Interstate 385, he said. 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 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 heavy traffic.
"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 well, Police Chief Ken Miller said.
Elizabeth LaFleur and Maayan Schecter contributed
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