‘Basketball has a place in this town.’ What the return of the Pro-Am means for Columbia

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Not long ago, Chico Carter Jr. was one of the many teenagers sitting in the bleachers at Heathwood Hall, watching the likes of P.J. Dozier and Sindarius Thornwell hoop against the top talent in the state.

A former Cardinal Newman guard, Carter Jr. used to imagine himself on that court, too, playing in front of his city in the South Carolina Pro-Am. But he never had the chance to do so himself — until this week.

On Sunday, Carter Jr. made his Pro-Am debut, seeing his first basketball action as a Gamecock in Columbia after transferring from Murray State. Carter Jr. made sure to make the most of the experience, injecting energy into the building with his aggressive style of play, setting up multiple alley-oops off the backboard and dropping 19 points. When his game was over, a young boy approached him holding a basketball, asking for an autograph.

“That feels good,” Carter Jr. said from the gym. “Every time a kid asks me to sign an autograph, I’m gonna sign it, take pictures, all that stuff. It feels good to come back home.

“It’s my first time playing in front of my city, and I hope I gave them a show.”

That feeling — that exact moment — is the kind that co-founders Carey Rich and Adam McDowell visualized when they created the SC Pro-Am nine years ago. They wanted to cultivate a sense of community, to celebrate a legacy of basketball in Columbia and in South Carolina that can sometimes go overlooked.

“I’ve been in Columbia all my life, and I understand football being a priority,” Rich told The State. “But I’m also stubborn enough to know that basketball has a place in this town.”

The Pro-Am is one of those places — an annual event that pits current Gamecocks against professional basketball players and other college players from across the state. The league returned to action over the weekend after a one-year gap due to COVID-19 and continues with three games each on Thursday and Sunday. This year’s Pro-Am includes every Gamecock on USC’s roster except for Jermaine Couisnard, Keyshawn Bryant and Ja’Von Benson.

Rich, a former captain on the South Carolina men’s basketball team, said it was disappointing to have to cancel last year’s event, especially with the momentum the Pro-Am had gained in recent years. In 2019, NBA rookie of the year Ja Morant made an appearance, as did Torrey Craig of the Phoenix Suns, who just recently played in the NBA Finals. Rich said he loves nothing more than to see the looks on young fans’ faces when current-day NBA players step into a high school gymnasium.

“It means a lot, and it is a lot of fun,” Rich said. “It should serve as motivation, because you can’t ask young people to be what they can’t see.

“When you’re in the NBA, you have so many different opportunities to do a lot of different things during the summer, whether it’s vacation or whether it’s going to play this golf tournament or going to play this basketball event or this charity event. And to carve out just a few days to come out and be a part of it, having a presence and allow the fans to take pictures or sign autographs, that goes such a long, long way. And I don’t think we should ever minimize that.”

In this year’s event, much of the appeal is in seeing the plethora of new faces who will be playing for Frank Martin’s Gamecocks this upcoming season. Already, freshman Devin Carter has delivered summer fireworks with a league-leading 35 points in his first game, and fellow freshman Jacobi Wright as well as transfers Carter Jr. and A.J. Wilson each delivered standout performances on the first day of action.

And there’s more to come. North Texas transfer James Reese, a former AC Flora player, will make his Pro-Am debut Thursday after missing Sunday with a minor injury, tweeting Wednesday that “It’s my first game back in the city while actually playing for my city!” The team’s most recent transfer, 6-foot-11 center Josh Gray from LSU, told The State he anticipated playing this week. Thornwell also hinted at a Pro-Am appearance on Twitter after not attending Sunday.

While Morant won’t be attending this time around, Utah Jazz forward Jarrell Brantley was one of the most physically imposing players in the gym Sunday, teaming up with Carter Jr. on the Chick-fil-A team. And Dozier, the former Gamecock and current Denver Nugget, watched from the stands, making sure to lend support to an event that once put him in the spotlight.

Dozier said he feels blessed to be part of the Pro-Am family.

“It means a lot,” Dozier said. “I’ve been coming here since before I even played in it. Seeing all the professionals and players from the University of South Carolina and schools around the area go on different journeys — whether it’s overseas, whether it’s the NBA — and coming back and playing under the same roof again, where it all started, it’s a blessing.”