IT WAS THE QUIETEST ROOM IN MANHATTAN. No taxi horns, no sirens, no click-clacking of heels against pavement. The Charlotte Sting faced playoff elimination, but the locker room was suffused with a calm confidence, a collective belief that every piece they needed was within those four walls. All that lay between them and a WNBA Eastern Conference championship was the New York Liberty and … a training table?
Deep within Madison Square Garden, the team gathered for what threatened to be the final pregame address of the season. After New York claimed Game 1 of the conference finals in Charlotte, the Sting had to beat the Liberty twice on the road to win the best-of-three series. Head coach Anne Donovan reviewed the game plan and matchups, and her assistants followed up with spirited exhortations. But it was Charlotte Smith, the Sting’s unofficial team chaplain, who closed the meeting.
“There was a training table in the middle of the guest locker room where you sat to get treatment and your ankles taped,” Smith recalls 19 years later. “I got the team to march around the training table like we were marching around the Walls of Jericho. I told them that the walls would come tumbling down, and that we would win the series.”
EXACTLY TWO MONTHS BEFORE, the dream of a conference championship teetered between highly improbable and mathematically impossible. Despite a roster buoyed with big names like Smith, Andrea Stinson, Dawn Staley, and Allison Feaster, Charlotte’s WNBA team had followed its 8-24 record in 2000 with a 1-10 start to 2001. Yet even as the front office and fan base began to lose patience, the women within the locker room knew they were close. They all understood they were talented enough to compete with any team in the league. The Sting won the 12th game of the regular season. Two nights later, they won the 13th. The night after that, the 14th, too.
“Once you start winning,” Staley says now, “things start connecting.”
Not much else in Charlotte sports was, not at the time. These were still the early years of professional sports in Charlotte, and neither of the city’s major franchises was bathing in glory, on or off the field. The NBA Hornets, once the city’s darling, had fallen out of favor after revelations of team owner George Shinn’s infidelities emerged during a highly publicized lawsuit and trial over a sexual assault claim; humiliated, Shinn would move the team to New Orleans in 2002. The NFL’s Panthers, which had made its own conference championship game after the 1996 season, its second year of existence, was just a few months from beginning a 1-15 season, to this day the franchise’s worst record.
Worse, a jury in January 2001 had convicted a former Panthers first-round draft choice, receiver Rae Carruth, in a conspiracy to murder his then-girlfriend, who was pregnant with his child. The year before, another former player, Fred Lane, had been shot and killed by his wife in their home in Charlotte. She eventually served six years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. And although no one could have known it in the visitors’ locker room at MSG on the afternoon of Sunday, August 26, 2001, another, more profound horror would strike New York City and the nation a mere 16 days later.
From this twilight, the Sting climbed quietly to the spotlight. Their star players—Smith, Staley, Stinson, and Feaster, all but Staley from the Charlotte region—led the trek.
The Charlotte Sting no longer exists; one of the WNBA’s eight original teams, the team ceased operations in January 2007. But the quartet of women who led the team to the 2001 Finals keeps pushing. All four were told early in their lives that they didn’t fully belong as women in a man’s game. Three are now head basketball coaches, two at the college level, and one of those two coaches the women’s team that will represent the United States in the rescheduled 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo next year. The fourth works in the front office—not of a WNBA team but the NBA’s Boston Celtics. They keep in touch, discussing not just their memories of 2001 but what they want to keep doing as women—as Black women—in a world that nearly two decades later still offers resistance, even after all they’ve worked through.
A WALNUT TREE STANDS IN A FIELD approximately 50 miles south of Charlotte, across the South Carolina border and in the countryside outside the small town of Chester. Before she led Harvard to one of the greatest upset victories in the history of women’s college basketball, before the WNBA, before the Celtics hired her as vice president of player development and organizational growth, Allison Feaster just needed a place to shoot hoops.
“We nailed a piece of wood to it and took a piece of wire and made a rim,” Feaster tells me in July. She’s on the phone from Orlando, Florida, where the Celtics are preparing for the NBA’s restart season. “That’s kind of how we started playing.”
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