Richland Northeast athletics director Gary Fulmer has a vision for the Chick-fil-A Classic basketball tournament.
The annual tournament — which tips off for the 12th time Thursday — has changed from its first outing.
Each year, Fulmer meets with the rest of the board of the Greater Columbia Educational Advancement Foundation, which runs the tournament, and shares his vision.
Already, Fulmer has overseen the growth of the tournament into one of the premier boys basketball tournaments in the nation. This year the tournament features four of the nation’s Top 25 preseason teams. Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, Arlington (Fla.) Country Day, Wesleyan (N.C.) Christian Academy and Carlisle (Va.) are ranked by USA Today and CBS’s Max Preps.
Fulmer had run small tournaments as a coach years before, but when he retired from coaching and became an administrator, he turned his focus to crafting a high-level event.
“It’s been a process,” Fulmer said. “You can’t get the cart before the horse. Every so often, every couple years, we’ve tried to figure out what can we do that would enhance the tournament. We’ve added things like reserved seating on the floor so that diehard basketball fans will have a guaranteed seat. We sell out all of those.
“The next thing is video streaming live all of the games, so the fans from California or New York can see the games,” he said.
Former Gamecocks player and area radio personality Carey Rich said, “I don’t think there are many things else that need to be done. It is now a tournament that generates national attention, attracts top level talent, coaches and programs
“All it needs now is to sustain that level of excellence,” said Rich, who is in his first year on the board.
But Fulmer has more plans. In the coming years, he said, technological improvements are the priority.
Fulmer hopes to have LED score tables for the next tournament and more advanced lighting within the next couple of seasons.
“I have a vision of people sitting in the stands and then the lights go out, and spotlights appear in the corners of the gym and follow the players as they are announced before the start of the game,” Fulmer said. “People get pumped up for that kind of atmosphere. That’s part of what people love about basketball. It’s an intimate atmosphere that you can’t get in a football stadium.”
Rich agreed that “atmosphere is huge. It gives the fans that close-up feeling, where you get a different appreciation for size, speed, athleticism, when you can watch them play up close. And as a player you want that type of atmosphere where the fans are on top of you.”
And that is one thing Fulmer hopes never changes about the tournament.
“My desire is not to play the Chick-fil-A Classic at a college or an arena. It’s a high school basketball tournament and you want that closeness,” Fulmer said.
His dream is to pack the stands at Richland Northeast every year.
The Chick-fil-A often sells out two or three nights of its four-night run each year. Two years ago, with Oak Hill Academy in the bracket, the tournament sold out.
“The last three years, we’re about at capacity,” Fulmer said. He said the RNE gym can hold about 2,000 spectators each night. Since 2010, Fulmer said, the Chick-fil-A Classic has drawn over 7,100 spectators.
Rich said the tournament helps to advance his cause of promoting basketball and basketball players in Columbia and South Carolina.
Squads from Keenan, Lower Richland, Spring Valley and host Richland Northeast will bump heads with top teams from around the country.
The Classic will feature 23 seniors with Division I offers, including South Carolina signees Marcus Stroman of Keenan and TeMarcus Blanton of Luella, Ga. Two of the nation’s top sophomores — Carlisle’s Thon Maker and Wesleyan Christian’s Harry Giles — will be playing. Both were freshman All-Americans in 2012-13.
Dreher and Hammond will be playing in the smaller Carolina Challenge, which features seven teams.