date: APRIL 4, 1994
to: CHARLOTTE SMITH
from: MICHAEL JORDAN
message: NICE SHOT.
In the flood of congratulatory messages that North Carolina forward Charlotte Smith received after squeezing off the last-second three-pointer that won the women's NCAA championship in Richmond on April 3, this one stands out. Not so much for its understatement as for the fact that it inspired the normally reserved Smith to jump up and down on her bed like a cat on hot asphalt. "I went crazy when I found out Michael Jordan called the basketball office," says Smith. "I can't believe they didn't give him my number!"
After all, as members of an exclusive club—The Order of North Carolina Natives Whose Heroics Have Won NCAA Titles for State Schools—Jordan and Smith would have had a lot of things to chat about, including how it feels to wear the number 23 in cerulean and how the thrill of making a championship-winning basket with 17 seconds remaining to play (as Jordan had done 12 years earlier) compares with making one with .7 of a second to go.
His Airness might not have spoken to the Tar Heel of the moment, but another member of the order—the charter member, in fact—did. David Thompson, Tobacco Road's premier aerialist, who felled Bill Walton and UCLA while leading North Carolina State to the 1974 NCAA crown, sent Smith flowers and candy immediately after her big shot and called a few days later. But then, he's her uncle, the youngest brother of Smith's mother, Etta.
November 28, 1994
"I knew if anybody was going to make that shot, Charlotte would," says Thompson, who watched the game with his family in Charlotte, N.C., and started dancing around the house when the shot went in. "She is such a great competitor."
Which is one reason why no one in the North Carolina huddle blinked when, during the timeout with .7 remaining and the Tar Heels trailing Louisiana Tech 59-57, coach Sylvia Hatchell appointed Smith to deliver them from their nearly hopeless situation. So what if there was barely enough time for a sharp intake of breath? So what if Smith, then a junior, had made only eight of her 31 three-point attempts during the regular season? This was a player who had been in tears during North Carolina's regional semifinal against Vanderbilt as she sat out a one-game suspension for lighting in the previous game and had then come back to play the best basketball of her career in the next three games. As she and the other Tar Heels headed back onto the floor for that last fraction of a second, Smith had 17 points and a women's-championship-game-record 23 rebounds against the Lady Techsters. Every one of her teammates would have given her the ball too.
"Charlotte just never gives up," says North Carolina co-captain Carrie McKee. "She is so talented that she could get away with just showing up, but she never does. She's always at practice 20 minutes early to work on some aspect of her game. She's always asking herself, 'What can I do to improve?' "
Adds assistant coach Emily Johnson, "When a game is on the line, Charlotte has the ability to turn on, to the point where nothing can stop her." Not even the tyrannical clock, which allowed Smith a mere heartbeat to catch the inbounds pass, say a quick prayer and fire off the 20-foot, picture-perfect parabola that is arguably the greatest buzzer-beating shot in college basketball history.
The ensuing phone calls from VIPs, the flowers, the marriage proposal from a stranger (declined), the autograph requests and the awed whispers in restaurants notwithstanding, Smith remains the humble, hardworking and easily amused person she was before The Shot. There are no shrines to herself in her dorm room or her locker, and just a few months after appearing on the front page of sports sections across the country, she could be found cleaning out cars at her father's auto-body shop in Shelby, N.C., to earn pocket money. She still gets many of her meals out of vending machines, still shows up in big green curlers at dawn weight-training sessions and still dissolves into giggles at the merest hint of humor. "When I'm in a silly mood," says junior guard Tonya Cooper, "I can always count on Charlotte to be silly with me."
Though Smith has evinced some newfound confidence before the public, the press still has to pry comments about her own accomplishments out of her. It's only through her friends that one learns that she has a beautiful singing voice and likes to sit down at the piano in empty hotel lobbies to pick out gospel tunes for her teammates. But she still won't entertain the idea of singing the national anthem at a home game; indeed, she scoffs at the mere suggestion. "Maybe if I were hidden behind the press box," she says.
Her aversion to the spotlight goes way back. The one experience in her life that she compares to the pressure of her door-die shot, she says, is "testifying in church as a child. My testimony lasted about two seconds and went something like this: Thankthelordforbeinghereamen."
A respect for her elders and a strong faith in God were at the heart of Smith's upbringing in Shelby, where she and her three brothers were raised in the embrace of a large extended family. She helped her grandmother Ida learn to read, and she sang in the choir and played keyboards by ear in the New Life Christian Center, where her father, Ulysses, preached on Sundays. "Charlotte has a very solid, tight-knit family," says Hatchell. "If her parents are supposed to be in the stands for a game and are late, Charlotte isn't worth a darn until they get there."
Her parents' presence and example are a large part of what drives her. "My father has worked so hard all his life," says Smith. "That's why I work so hard. That's why I've been in weight training since the 11th grade. I want to play ball overseas and make some money so he won't have to work so hard and so my mother can buy herself something nice."
If Smith gets her work ethic from her parents, she gets her competitive drive, at least in part, from Thompson, who also grew up in Shelby, as the youngest of 11 children. When he was an NBA star with the Denver Nuggets and the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1970s and '80s, and Smith was a whip-thin little girl, the two saw each other frequently at family gatherings. To keep the children busy, he would put up $5 or $10 for the winner of any game he could think of: H-O-R-S-E, one-on-one, a sit-up contest. Smith rarely won, but she knocked herself out trying. Says Thompson, "My brother Vellie Jr. did the same thing with me for 50 cents, which was a lot of money back then. I found that having that little incentive made me play harder, and that was something I've always carried with me."
As a freshman at Shelby High, Smith won the state championship in the mile while wearing canvas slip-on sneakers because they were more comfortable than her track shoes. Switching to the 400 the next year only made her victories more dramatic. Her parents recall a two-mile relay in which Shelby High's opponent had a half-lap lead when Charlotte got the baton. With her long legs churning, she caught her foe on the last curve and won. "With Charlotte," says Etta, "it's never over until you win."
For all her competitive spirit and promising genes, Charlotte's future as a basketball player looked bleak at the outset. Her parents, who were both good players in high school, laugh when they recall her first games in junior high. No dribble, no pass, no shot. "I thought, Uh-oh, she doesn't have it," says Etta. But Charlotte worked hard on her shooting, camped out in the high school's weight room and was soon scoring about 80% of her team's points. Still, few schools had contacted her about basketball before Hatchell attended a game early in Smith's junior year. "I saw her jump center and pull down one rebound before I said, 'I'll take her!' " says Hatchell, whose Tar Heels had gone 1-13 in the ACC the previous season. "I mean, what an athlete! She just kept going up and up."
The only film clip Smith has ever seen of Thompson playing in college shows him tripping in mid-flight over the shoulder of 6'8" teammate Phil Spence and crashing horrifically to the floor during the 1974 NCAA regional finals. ("I screamed when I saw that," says Smith. "He could have been killed!") Consequently, she can neither grasp the scope of Thompson's greatness nor appreciate how much she resembles him on the court. She has a similarly quick first step, a similar ability to float high above the opposition, a similar tendency to take over when a game is on the line. "And they will both kill you, inside and out," says Ulysses. "It's eerie how much alike they are."
When she visited Thompson and his family in Charlotte this summer, Smith got a tour of his trophy collection and found she and her uncle had some honors in common, including first team all-ACC and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. "He told me the one I really ought to get is the Naismith award for national player of the year," says Smith, who is a preseason candidate for the prize.
Thompson also told her that repeating as NCAA champion will be twice as hard as winning the first time. "Everyone will be gunning for you," said Thompson, whose Wolfpack failed to make the tournament as defending champions his senior year. "You have to stay hungry."
Even if the Tar Heels fail to repeat, Smith could accomplish something Thompson never did in a college game: a slam dunk. The NCAA's ban on dunking was lifted the year after Thompson left N.C. State, but only one woman, West Virginia's Georgeann Wells, has done it in a game, and that was nearly 10 years ago. Though Smith is barely six feet tall, she has been dunking one-handed in practice and pregame warmups since the 11th grade, and she is coming close to pulling off a two-handed jam. But she hasn't yet found the perfect conditions to dunk in a game. "It's kind of a big deal, and I don't want to miss," she says.
Does that mean that this year she will finally move up and join that great fraternity above the rim? "I believe so," she says. "Maybe even on the last play of the championship game. After all, I've got to have something to top last year's finish."