Atkins alum inducted into CIAA Hall of Fame

James Ewers

Atkins alum inducted into CIAA Hall of Fame
May 07
12:40 2024

When James Ewers first stepped foot on the campus of Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) back in 1966, he never imagined he would be remembered as one of the best to ever play sports in the entire history of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) conference. Ewers, among several others, was inducted into the CIAA 2024 John B. McLendon Hall of Fame class on March 1.

The CIAA is the nation’s oldest historically Black athletic conference and honored their new inductees at this year’s CIAA Basketball Tournament in Baltimore, Maryland. The newly-enshrined athletes were also honored during one of the semi-final games during the tournament.

Ewers was a standout tennis player, dominating most of his opponents throughout his time at JCSU. He was a three-time CIAA singles champion and played a prominent role in helping the Golden Bulls secure the 1969 CIAA team championship. Ewers also was the first African American to win the NAIA District 26 Championship in 1969 and hold the record at JCSU for most consecutive wins with 34. That’s quite a legacy he left with the Golden Bulls.

Each nominee was selected from submissions sent by their respective schools and the CIAA Hall of Fame selection committee chose the inductees from that pool of nominees. 

Ewers received the news of his hall of fame induction back in December from CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams. He was elated to hear the news and vividly remembers the call.

“That call came in about 2:40 p.m. and I didn’t recognize the number on the phone,” said Ewers. “It was interesting that when the phone call came in, I was reading my Bible. After I finished reading my scripture, I went to my voicemail and the voicemail said ‘This is Commissioner Jacqie McWilliams from the CIAA and I have some great news for you. Would you please give me a call back?’

“At that moment, I was pretty much shaking. I was just hopeful that I would be able to dial the digits correctly. I called and she said to me the CIAA Hall of Fame committee has recommended that you be inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame class of 2024. When she said those words, I had unbridled joy and happiness. I can’t really describe how that felt. I was nervous, I was excited, and I was borderline crying.”

Ewers credits God for granting him the ability to play tennis. He is also thankful for the opportunity to grow up in the city of Winston-Salem, which instilled great values in him that he carries to this day.

“I never asked God to let me win a tennis match, all I asked Him to do was let me do my best,” he said. “If you let me do my best, then obviously I would have to do the rest. I have gone throughout my lifetime in that kind of mode. I just want to be able to do my best and the Hall of Fame honor is unbelievable,” said Ewers.

“I have so many people to thank, and God has given me this opportunity. I thank my parents for giving me a foundation of love and caring. I always knew they loved and cared about me. When I was growing up, I had responsibilities: one was to go to school and the other was to act like I had some sense. I tried to do that.

For Ewers, he says it’s truly an honor to be in the same hall of fame as legends like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Ted Blunt, Curly Neal, Steve Joyner and Clarence “Big House” Gaines.

“It’s an emotion that has stayed with me since December 4,” Ewers said about the hall of fame. “Every single day, I think about it. Every single day, I pinch myself and it hurts, so I know it’s real.”

Ewers is also a member of the Johnson C. Smith Hall of Fame as well. He doesn’t compare the two honors because without Johnson C. Smith, he would not be in the CIAA Hall of Fame.  

“Johnson C. Smith gave me the opportunity, both academically and athletically, to succeed,” he said. “I am thankful to the faculty and staff at JCSU because they created an environment that allowed student-athletes to be successful.”

There have been scores of athletes in football, basketball and track that have been inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame, which gives Ewers a sense of pride that he was able to make it through the game of tennis.

“There weren’t a lot of people playing tennis back in the day and to be able to have this kind of CIAA honor in a city where you had football players like Carl Eller and basketball players like Herman Gilliam and Happy Hairston,” said Ewers about being honored when there was so much athletic talent in the city of Winston-Salem.

“When I looked at what I was able to accomplish, I didn’t think that was a possibility and I was fine with it. I just looked back and thought these guys are football players, basketball players or track and field athletes and I wasn’t sure how many tennis players were in the CIAA Hall of Fame. That wasn’t something that I spent my days and nights considering because the concept was too big for me.”  

Looking back, Ewers had no idea he would end up here when he first stepped foot on the campus of JCSU. He says there was a lot of talent on the team when he arrived and initially thought he may not be good enough. He persevered and lived by the motto of ‘just get better every day,’ which worked out well in his favor.

“There were some really great tennis players coming through Johnson C. Smith University and the CIAA,” he continued. The hall of fame, you have those kinds of dreams, but the challenge is you wake up. I may have thought about it some years back, but you always wake up from the dream and I would just leave it alone.”

The accomplishments for Ewers are not limited to the athletic field. He has also compiled quite a list of achievements in his personal life and career.

“I think about my life, and I think about how God has truly blessed me, and I think about the gifts that He gave me that I didn’t know he gave me,” Ewers said. “I think about the people that I have been around that tutored me and nurtured me along the way.

“I think about my teachers at Atkins High School, I think about my parents, I think about my neighborhood there on Rich Avenue. I think about the young men and young women that I hope I have influenced in some way. I hope I have given them a path to follow and hope that I have given them the motivation because this is a passing of the mantle type of model that we have. Somebody passed the mantle to me, and I have to pass the mantle to somebody else and that’s how it goes.”

“When you have some modicum of success in your life, you have a moral obligation to help somebody else. You can’t say ‘because I had mine, somebody else has to get theirs the best way they can,’ you have to reach out and you have to touch somebody and allow them to feel that same kind of motivation and enthusiasm that was given to you. My road has not been an easy road, but God has always held my hand.”

Ewers says he will cherish this honor until his last breath. He sums up this honor with just one phrase, “Who has it better than me?”

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Timothy Ramsey

Timothy Ramsey

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