The Nike Peach Jam has drawn top basketball players and college recruiters from around the country to North Augusta since 1995. Today, it kicks off its 17th year.
In the ’90s, Riverview Park Activities Center was possibly the only center with four air conditioned gyms under one roof and divisions between the courts. Seventeen years later, other centers have surpassed the four-gym mark, but North Augusta’s Southern charm might be unbeatable.
“What it is, is when people come to North Augusta, the event here is the event in the community,” said Rick Meyer, interim director of North Augusta Parks, Recreation and Leisure Services. “If they go to Orlando or Las Vegas, it’s just another event in a big city, but here it is the big show.”
First Baptist Church of North Augusta has been supplying food and volunteers for the event since it began. Hospitality is a major component in keeping the tournament in North Augusta, Meyer said.
“You can’t duplicate the hometown, motherly-type hospitality they get here,” Meyer said. “It started with just First Baptist Church of North Augusta and last year expanded to TrueNorth.”
Church volunteers prepare the free food and serve players and coaches.
Teams are also provided valet service.
“It is just another example of why they love coming here,” Meyer said. “Southern hospitality would be the key word for the event.”
In 1994, Augusta State Univer-sity’s athletic director Clint Bryant worked with his friend Ed Myers, who was with Game Plan Sports, to bring Peach Jam to the area. Scott Zanon, of Nike, Myers and Bryant toured Augusta to find an appropriate location but were disappointed until they visited Riverview Park.
“Mr. Zanon said there is no facility like this in the country, and he was not sure if there was a facility like this in the world,” Meyer said.
Meyer said Zanon told him that the best basketball players in the U.S. and the best coaches would be coming to the recreation center for the tournament.
“I looked at him and said, ‘OK, sure, all the best coaches in America will be here to watch them.’ I literally laughed at them,” Meyer said. “The first day of the event … sure enough, the first person to walk in the door was Roy Williams (coach at University of North Carolina), and I turned and looked at him (Zanon) and said, ‘You’re not kidding.’ ”
Since starting the Peach Jam, others have come to tour the activity center to build a similar gym in their cities, Meyer said.
The Elite Youth Invitational, consisting of 52 teams, will be played during the Peach Jam, which continues through Sunday. The tournament will showcase teams that did not qualify for Peach Jam, and North Augusta High and Paul Knox Middle schools will be among the sites for the tournament.
The Peach State tournament will also be going on at the University of South Carolina Aiken Convocation Center. Between the three events, more than 300 teams will be playing locally this week, Meyer said.
“The greatest thing about these events is the economic impact to the area and they’ve only gotten larger every year,” Meyer said. “Think of all the hotel rooms that are full, think of restaurants, Walmart, gas stations. It’s a great economic impact for the area and it outstretches over to Aiken and last year to Thomson, Ga. It’s a great boom for the local economy.
“It would certainly help North Augusta if we had more hotels or a larger hotel to handle the traffic of the event.”
The Masters, the Hippodrome shows and other events also draw people to the area, so any new hotels in North Augusta would have guaranteed revenue sources other than the Peach Jam, Meyer said.
He added that it would be nice to get some of the benefits that Augusta receives from the event, such as the hospitality tax, to use for maintenance and improvements at Riverview.
“When this facility was built it was way ahead of the curve around the country,” Meyer said. “It’s still a great facility, but people have caught up and passed us in number of gyms and it’s time for us to try to add to it.”
A plan for the activity center shows an additional two gyms being added, which would allow the Peach Jam to expand from its 40-team limit to 64 teams, Meyer said.
It would give them the option to expand to either include 15-year-olds or to just have morning and evening sessions.
Meyer said he expects the gym expansion, which will be funded through Sales Tax III money that will start to become available in the fall, to take three to five years.
“We do have competition. There are people across the country that would love to take this event away from us, but so far we have been able to hold onto it,” Meyer said.
Merl Code, director of Nike Elite Youth Basketball, said the North Augusta location has helped the tournament be a success.
‘‘This is the ultimate location to showcase the top players in our EYBL Finals in front of hundreds of college coaches and members of the media,’’ Code said.