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.