**Story by Kyle Heck/archived photo of Rich and Gamecock football coach Will Muschamp**
Six years ago, former South Carolina men's basketball player Carey Rich started a summer basketball league in Columbia. As a former player, Rich knew how tiring it could be playing against the same teammates day after day during the summer. So he decided to start a league where college basketball players from around the state and beyond could come and play against other college athletes to keep up that competitive fire.
"I can just tell you as a former player, I hated going against my guy, not only in practice but in pick-up ball," Rich, Commissioner of the SC Pro-Am League, told Spurs & Feathers two years ago. "He knows exactly what I'm going to do and I know what he's going to do. It takes the fun out of it and it takes away some of that excitement that you normally get when you're getting ready to go against someone. This gives them an opportunity to do that in a safe and competitive environment. It gives them an opportunity to do it in front of a basketball crowd."
As with any new endeavor, it took a lot of hard work to get the SC Pro-Am off the ground. Rich and his co-commissioner, Adam McDowell, had to make calls all across the area to try and get players interested.
Fast forward to the sixth year of the event, Rich now has current NBA players calling him to ask when the league begins play.
Khris Middleton, a Charleston native who starred at Texas A&M before being drafted into the NBA, reached out to Rich and said he was interested in playing in the SC Pro-Am at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School this year. Middleton plays for the Milwaukee Bucks and is one of the league's young rising stars.
"We wanted to be able to have guys come through early on and be good enough to make it to the NBA and then come back and play in the Pro-Am," Rich said.
Middleton wasn't the only NBA player who participated this year as Gamecock great Sindarius Thornwell made the trek to Columbia after securing a roster spot with the Los Angeles Clippers.
"I'll be back every chance I get," Thornwell said. "I'm from South Carolina so I'm going to always be back and go out to the communities and cities."
South Carolina basketball players have played a big role in helping the SC Pro-Am get off the ground. Every year, the majority of the team participates in the summer league, and the student-athletes consistently give the league credit for their development during the summer.
Rich and South Carolina head coach Frank Martin are good friends, and the latter encourages his players to participate in the SC Pro-Am. Having the local team with such a huge presence in the league has proved hugely beneficial for Rich. Throw in the fact that the Gamecocks are coming off a historic Final Four season, and this year's SC Pro-Am generated more excitement than ever.
"That's been the really, really good thing about it," Rich said of the Gamecocks' participation. "Those guys played on the biggest stage and now to see some of those guys in here, kids get to see them up close and personal, there's a level of excitement generated from that."
Along with Thornwell, Chris Silva, Rakym Felder, Hassani Gravett, Khadim Gueye, Maik Kotsar and new transfer Frank Booker all participated in the SC Pro-Am. It will still be several months before Gamecock fans can see the new team in collegiate action, but the SC Pro-Am gives those fans a fantastic chance to get an early glimpse of the team, particularly new players like Booker. It's a rare opportunity that fans of other teams aren't able to enjoy.
The stands at Heathwood Hall are generally packed for the games during the summer.
"That's what happens when you have success, it becomes the thing to do in the state," Rich said.
The SC Pro-Am is becoming a staple in the state of South Carolina. While most of the collegiate players come from the Palmetto State, there are several who come the surrounding states of North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, among others.
"It still generates interest and excitement," Carey Rich said of the SC Pro-Am. "What's most exciting outside of not losing a sponsor in six years is the fact that we're still attracting new fans and new faces. Obviously the magical Final Four run that the Gamecocks went on had a lot to do with generating that interest, but we're happy that we've been able to hang around for six years."
At the beginning, Rich and McDowell couldn't be picky about the players they chose for the SC Pro-Am. However, now that the event continues to grow in popularity, more and more players are coming to Rich to ask to be invited. NBA players aren't the only professionals participating. Over the past few years, instate athletes who've gone to play professionally overseas come back to Columbia for the league.
"It's not like it used to be," Rich said. "We actually turn down players now. What I want to do is make sure we have a good product. I want it to be safe, I want it to be a first-class product and I want to be able to sustain it. I want folks to say, 'Man, I've gotta come back to that next event.'"