Charlotte Smith, the star of this week’s “Sports Legends of the Carolinas,” is as deeply embedded in North Carolina as they come.
A standout basketball player who won the 1994 national championship for UNC by making one of the most famous shots in women’s basketball history, Smith grew up in Shelby and played high school, college and professional hoops in the state. Then she became a coach, first as an assistant at UNC and now as the head women’s basketball coach at Elon, where she is entering her 12th season.
Smith, 49, hails from a famous basketball family that includes her uncle, N.C. State legend David Thompson.
For this interview, we traveled to Elon University to speak with Smith. Our conversation is edited for clarity and brevity.
Scott Fowler: Let’s start with your family. Tell us about the other well-known basketball people in it, besides yourself.
Charlotte Smith: Our lineage starts with the Gentry/Wittenburg family. My great grandmother was a Wittenburg. My grandmother was Ida Thompson. Ida and Vellie Thompson are the mother and father of David Thompson. So my mom and David are brothers and sisters.
Alvin Gentry, who was a head coach in the NBA, is my cousin. And then (cousin) Dereck Wittenburg, who also played at N.C. State like my uncle, won a national championship in 1983. So in our family, we have three national championships. David won in 1974 at N.C. State, Dereck, in ‘83 at N.C. State, and then I won a championship in ‘94 at Carolina. I tell Dereck: “You messed it up. You should have won in ‘84, then it would have been 74-84-94.”
Q: How did you end up at UNC instead of N.C. State, because your family bleeds red in a lot of ways?
A: They bleed red, but I always bled blue. And what sealed the deal was I was a huge Michael Jordan fan. I wore the number 23. I wore his shoes. I just idolized MJ and when I found out that he was a Tar Heel, I said I have to be a Tar Heel, too.
Q: You grew up in Shelby and went to high school, playing for Shelby. What was growing up there like?
A: It was fun. It was filled with family and love. I just remember big family dinners on Sunday, and lots of basketball in the backyard. I was the only girl in my family that played basketball at a competitive level. And so I was typically the only one in the backyard with all the guys. I remember the big screen TV at my grandmother’s house and watching my Uncle David play in the NBA. And some of my fondest memories of playing in my grandmother’s backyard was playing against my uncle, Vellie Jr., David’s brother. He was a great basketball player as well, and a great shooter. He just didn’t play on the collegiate level. So I remember crying “Uncle” quite a bit.
Q: What did you eat at those Sunday meals?
A: My grandmother had a garden, so she had everything. I want to start a garden myself just to relive some of those childhood memories. Corn and strawberries, the grapes, the collards, the cabbage. Down home soul food. Biscuits from scratch. Strawberry pies. Peach cobbler.
Q: What were your parents like?
A: My dad was a pastor and my mom was the first lady. It was a small church. My dad was a jack of all trades. He could preach the house down, and he was also a mechanic. He could build a house from scratch. He was a gifted musician. And then my mom was also a cosmetologist. They were great lovers of people.
Q: You’re an accomplished musician as well, someone who has wrote and recorded their own contemporary Christian music. How did that start?
A: On my dad’s side of the family, there’s a lot of musical inclination. My dad played the piano but was never taught formally taught. Played by ear. I’m really good at creating just what I hear in my head. I love to write music. I actually have a song called “Walk in your Greatness,” which is an inspirational song, teaching us to believe in the talents, gifts and abilities that God has blessed us with and to walk in that, to overcome the hurdle of fear.
Q: In 1994, UNC was down by two points and only had 0.7 seconds left in the national championship game against Louisiana Tech. Then you made a game-winning three-pointer off an inbounds play to win the title. How did that happen?
A: It started from the words of affirmation that we spoke every day in practice: “National champions.” If you hear that every single day in practice, it has to sink in, and you have to believe.
The game was nip and tuck, back and forth. We missed our first shot on that possession and then there’s a scramble and a jump ball. When the whistle got blown, and my first instinct was to look up at the shot clock. And I remember seeing 0.7 seconds and my heart sank. What can you do in 0.7 seconds?
The first play (UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell) called was a lob for Sylvia Crawley. They had that scouted out pretty well and it was covered. So we called timeout. On the next play, we were going for the win, not the tie. And that’s the moment where the fear set in for me and I’m wondering, “Do I have what it takes for this big moment?”
I was nervous. I literally forgot the play. Fortunately, Sylvia Crawley, you know, in that moment said: “They’re setting this diagonal screen for you.” Everybody assumed that we were going for the two-point play (for a tie, and overtime). I was all by myself behind the three-point line, Stephanie Lawrence threw an amazing pass and all I can remember just thinking, “Dear God, let this shot go in.” The rest is history.
Q: What happened in the next 90 seconds after the shot?
A: It was bananas. I just remember being stormed by the entire bench. Next thing I know I’m on the ground, trying to protect myself and keep myself from being smothered. And tears of joy, and relief, that it went in.
Q: What position did you play in college? I notice you had 23 rebounds in the title game.
A: I was a point forward, playing inside and outside. I was a great leaper — that runs in our family too. So I could go in there and pull it off the rim.
Q: Were you able to dunk?
A: I was actually the second woman in the history of the NCAA to dunk in a game. That was my senior year, when I got a steal at the top of the key. I knew if I ever got a breakaway, I was going to give it a shot. And so it was a clean steal and an opportunity in the beginning of the game where my legs were fresh. It wasn’t the most powerful slam dunk that I ever had, but I got it in.
Q: You played in the WNBA for six years for the Charlotte Sting. What was your best team?
A: With Dawn Staley, Andrea Stinson, Allison Feaster and a lot of other good players, in 2001, we made it to the WNBA championship. Anne Donovan, rest in peace, was our coach. We started off 1-10 and managed to turn it around. Made it to the WNBA finals and lost to Los Angeles.
I actually was coaching and playing in the WNBA at the same time. So I started coaching in 2002 (as a UNC assistant). I was still playing in 2002 and didn’t retire from the WNBA until 2006. So I was both coaching and playing for four seasons.
Q: Tell me about Elon. You’ve been here 12 years now. How has this program grown and what do you aspire for it?
A: Elon came after many “No’s.” In this profession, you have to be prepared for the “No’s.” And the “No’s” are not necessarily rejection. It’s re-direction.
I couldn’t really understand a lot of those “No’s” at the time. Because I’m thinking you know, here I am Charlotte Smith, the legend — in my mind (laughs). I played at the highest level. I’ve coached at a nationally competitive university. I couldn’t understand the “No’s.”
But I’m thankful for the “No’s” because it positioned me to be in my blessed place. And that’s here at Elon. I knew when I became a head coach that I wanted to be somewhere where people really embraced and understood what it meant to be a student-athlete, where it embodied the holistic approach of what it means to be a student-athlete. Because at the end of the day, how many people will go pro, right?
I remind my players that that ball will eventually stop bouncing. And so for me, I want it to be somewhere where I really had something to offer other than just being able to play on this court.
Q: If you could look back at a 23-year-old Charlotte Smith, what advice would you give her?
A: At that time I was just being drafted by the ABL (American Basketball League) — the Colorado Xplosion. So my family and I packed up to move out to Colorado. We drove all the way from North Carolina to Colorado, and my mom started to feel a little sick. We thought it was heartburn. And she ended up being hospitalized and I lost my mom at the beginning of the ABL season. And that was tough.
I went through a dark season in my life. And I questioned my faith, questioned God. I was really angry. I had all these childhood (dreams) of being able to buy my mom and dad a house.
I felt like all of those hopes and dreams were dashed in that moment.
I had a good professional season at age 23. I pushed my way through a whole lot of grief. If I would go back to my 23-year-old self, though, I would tell myself to seek counseling and to seek help. Because I think a lot of times we try to do things in our own strength and we don’t realize the scars and the wounds that we carry in life that affect us in so many ways.
And I think there’s a stigma when it comes to seeking help, especially in the African-American community, where faith is really big. But you can have Jesus in counseling. Just realize that it’s OK to say, “I’m not OK.”
For much more from this Q and A with Charlotte Smith, check out the “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” podcast.
To hear previous episodes include 1-on-1 conversations with Danny Ford, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jay Bilas and Dawn Staley, subscribe to the “Sports Legends of the Carolinas” podcast. New episodes drop every Wednesday, and bonus content is available exclusively on Apple Podcasts.
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