Carey Rich opened a back door and disappeared for a few minutes while his event built up to its conclusion of trophy presentations and post-championship interviews.
If they popped in last Sunday, they saw USC guard Jermaine Couisnard drop 40 points in his public debut. If they found a seat Tuesday, they were treated to the return of Gamecock greats Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. A third NBA player, the Denver Nuggets’ Torrey Craig, showed up Thursday.
Sunday’s finale was about the game — a 133-110 win for Dozier, Maik Kotsar and their Chick-fil-A squad over Trae Hannibal, Wildens Leveque and Hood Construction — a certain spectator and what’s next.
Rich’s brief exit from the gym had a purpose: He was escorting Ja Morant to his car. When Rich returned, the Pro-Am founder and host wore the widest grin of a week that was full of them.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Rich said, “Ja was so excited, especially during the game. He said, ‘Man, if there was a way we could get rid of camera phones, I’ll get out and there and play.’
“But you know what we said as I walked him out to the car, he did say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back here playing before it’s all over with.’ ”
Morant was the “surprise guest” Pro-Am officials had been teasing since Thursday to show up for the championship. When the Dalzell native and second pick of the NBA Draft arrived, it further confirmed the rise of Rich’s event. You’ll soon see Morant play for the Memphis Grizzlies, but Sunday you could spot him sitting courtside with Hannibal and shaking hands with Dozier.
“This is home,” Morant said. “Carey’s always promoting SC basketball and there was a time I played in this tournament. Even though I’m not playing this year, I’m just coming to show my support.”
Morant was drafted after Spartanburg’s Zion Williamson in June, rocketing the Palmetto State into basketball’s national spotlight. The Pro-Am gave it all a local spin.
“I feel like we’re very underrated, honestly,” Morant said. “This year, me and Zion go 1 and 2 out of South Carolina is great. But there’s a talent in this game you’re about to see later on in this game today. I feel like there’s a lot of guys capable of being on the status me and Zion are on and have pro careers.”
Hartsville’s Hannibal scored 28 points and grabbed five rebounds Sunday. Columbia’s Dozier had 16 points, eight boards and eight assists.
“When you think of South Carolina, it’s usually a football state,” said Craig, a Great Falls product. “There’s a lot of NFL athletes, there’s a lot of great football players in the NFL right now. People don’t really think of South Carolina as a basketball state. But for guys to 1 and 2 (in the draft) to be from South Carolina and then the guys from South Carolina that are already in the league, it means a lot.
“So hopefully the trend continues.”
When asked if he’d eventually play in the Pro-Am as a Grizzly, Morant smiled and said, “Ah, yeah, definitely.”
The ninth-annual Pro-Am is set for next July.
“I know most of these young guys from the ground level,” Rich said. “And once they’re elevated, fortunately because of relationships that we build throughout, they don’t forget. They find a way to still be a part of it. Hopefully there’s a track record in place that demonstrates us being able to put together and put on a first-class product.
“And that’s what guys like Ja, Zion Williamson came to one of our events a couple years ago. So, hopefully, with what we’ve been able to do in terms of our track record, putting on a good competitive, exciting, first-class product event, hopefully that’s enough to get a guy like Ja Morant back to the city of Columbia.”
As for the current Gamecocks, perhaps no one boosted his stock more at the Pro-Am than Couisnard. The redshirt freshman averaged an event-best over 39 points per game.
He just didn’t play in the last one.
Couisnard was on hand to support his Chick-fil-A teammates on Sunday, but he was wearing a boot after injuring his ankle in a pickup game. The injury is not thought to be serious. He’s still expected to be a key part of the upcoming USC season.
“I’m good,” Couisnard said. “I’m straight.”