Who knew that the $500 needed to start the CIAA basketball tournament would stretch this far?

Entering its 75th year, the tournament will take place this week with plenty of fanfare in Charlotte. The nice, round number of 75 years is big, but it’s also the last time the tournament will be in Charlotte for the foreseeable future.

The tournament moves to Baltimore next year, so there will be plenty to talk about in the Queen City this week.

The history of the tournament has a large footprint through Winston-Salem State, thanks to the legendary Clearance “Big House” Gaines.

Gaines, who died in April 2005, won eight CIAA titles during his 47-year career. But perhaps his best team, the 1966-67 squad that won the Division II national championship, didn’t win the league tournament. The Rams, led by Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, lost that season to N.C. A&T in the semifinals, but they went on to win the school’s only national championship in basketball three weeks later.

The CIAA, which was founded in Hampton, Va. in 1912, is the nation’s oldest conference for historically black colleges and universities. The tournament started in 1946 thanks to a $500 budget where athletics directors from the eight teams pooled their money to play at Washington’s Turner Arena. From those humble beginnings the tournament has endured, and some would say thrive, through the next 74 years.

In recent years the tournament’s attendance has weakened, but the parties outside the arena have been legendary. The trick for the CIAA is to get those party-goers into the seats to watch basketball.

Through it all, the CIAA’s crown jewel, which includes a women’s tournament, has given the conference national exposure.

WSSU has won 11 titles in the 74-year history of the tournament and are a contender to win this season thanks to Coach Cleo Hill Jr.’s defensive-minded Rams. Hill’s father, the legendary Cleo Hill, helped Gaines win back-to-back titles in 1960 and ’61.

Hill Jr., who won a CIAA title as a coach at Shaw a few years ago, loves the atmosphere surrounding the tournament.

“It’s the pinnacle of our conference,” Hill said. “It’s just the finality of it all because your season can come to an end at any time. When you think about the tournament and how long it’s been going on, it’s survived a lot and it’s still the mainstay in the conference. When you are at the tournament, it’s all about bragging rights if you school gets to Saturday night’s championship game.”

Here is a look at all 11 WSSU titles:

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