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.
"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.