Inside the Charlotte Sting’s WNBA Finals Run, 20 Years Later
The team no longer exists. The players have scattered. But nearly two decades ago, in a dry season for sports in this city, the Charlotte Sting advanced to the WNBA Finals for the only time in its 10-year history, and the four women who led the charge—all with ties to the Carolinas—still find ways to push the ball downcourt
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.”
Her future teammates have similar stories. Smith grew up with a makeshift hoop in her backyard in Shelby. In Philadelphia, Staley cut out the bottom of a milk crate, attached it to plywood, and nailed it to an electrical pole outside of the Raymond Rosen housing projects. The WNBA wasn’t around at the time, and women’s basketball was thought of as a second-tier sport, if that, in the 1970s and early ’80s. Staley remembers the NCAA championship and the Olympics as the only televised women’s games then. Some girls had the skill and passion to play, but they had to elbow their way onto the court with boys at parks and playgrounds.
“I only had the outdoor court at the recreation center, and that’s where I grew up playing with all the men,” Stinson says. “That’s how I learned to play the game of basketball, with my guys in the neighborhood.”
“There were definitely not many girls that played,” says Smith, whose uncle, David Thompson, was a legendary player at N.C. State, where a cousin of hers, Dereck Whittenburg, was a star on the Wolfpack’s 1983 national championship team. Another cousin, Alvin Gentry, a former Appalachian State star, now coaches the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. “I was probably one of the only girls that played most of the time, depending on the playground.”
Male players became heroes to little girls, too. Stinson idolized the early ’80s North Carolina teams with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, and James Worthy. Smith grew up watching her uncles and cousins on television at her grandmother’s house. Feaster chose her uniform number at Harvard and with the Sting, 21, because it was Dominique Wilkins’ number with the Atlanta Hawks, a team she’d watch on TV with her brother.
Playing with and against boys helped the four women develop skills they used to excel once they began playing with and against other women. Smith, who wore Jordan’s number 23 at UNC Chapel Hill, is most famous for a buzzer-beating three-pointer she hit to beat Louisiana Tech for the 1994 national championship. (“A Shot That Catches Nothing But History,” the New York Timesheadline read the next morning.) Staley played in three Final Fours at Virginia. In 1998, against top-seeded Stanford, Feaster guided Harvard to the first-ever victory for a 16th-seeded team in an NCAA Tournament. The athletic and acrobatic Stinson, though she wore number 32, was often described as a female version of Jordan when she played at N.C. State.
But in the early and mid-’90s, no professional women’s basketball league existed in the States. If women wanted to play basketball for pay, they had to go overseas. A short-lived women’s league, the American Basketball League, began play in 1996. The next year, after approval from the NBA Board of Governors, the WNBA began play with eight teams. Each was paired with an NBA franchise to harness the established league’s marketing and organizational support. After a brief tug-of-war between the two leagues, the ABL folded in late 1998, and its most talented players signed with the WNBA. The Sting acquired the rights to ABL crossovers Staley and Smith, who joined Stinson as the core of the team.
“That came at a time when my dad was diagnosed with cancer,” Smith says. “So it afforded me the opportunity to be able to spend a lot of time with my dad before he passed away and gave him the opportunity to come and see a lot of my games.” Ulysses Smith died in 2006.
Feaster, the youngest of the quartet, began her WNBA career with the Los Angeles Sparks and was traded to the Sting before the 2001 season. She felt the draw of family, too: Her aging grandparents still lived in the Charlotte area. All four women had some tie to the Carolinas: Feaster was from Chester, Smith from Shelby, Stinson from Cornelius, and Staley’s parents were from South Carolina. They felt a connection to the city and fan base, and the fans felt a connection to them, too. They were hometown girls, and, Stinson says, “there was a great sense of pride.”
UNDER FIRST-YEAR COACH ANNE DONOVAN, a serious, towering woman who blushed every time her players jokingly referred to her as “Big Sexy,” the 2001 team began to blossom behind the closed doors of practice. Donovan, who died in 2018, quickly earned the team’s respect through her willingness to listen to players, particularly Staley and Stinson. Practice was spirited, even as the Sting’s record plummeted to 1-10.
“Our practices were filled with competition and a little banter,” Staley says. “You could only really see and hear and feel where we are from when our competitive juices started flowing. Other than that, we were pretty chill people, but on the court, you could see the various places we grew up. I know my Philly-ness came out. You could hear the accents of the southerners, like Charlotte and Allison. They call Allison ‘Charley’ in South Carolina. And then Stint (Stinson).”
Early in the losing streak, Charlotte Smith started a tradition: In the locker room, she’d announce what the Sting’s record would be if they won every remaining game. On June 24, after the Sting lost to the Sacramento Monarchs, 85-82—its fifth consecutive loss by a single-digit margin—Smith proffered that the 1-10 Sting could still finish 22-10. At the time, it seemed laughable.
But then the Sting began to win. On June 27, the team crushed the Detroit Shock at home, 74-50. Five more wins followed, then a 4-4 stretch in July. The Sting ended the season on a seven-game winning streak. The 18-14 overall record was good enough to earn the Eastern Conference’s fourth and final playoff spot, and Charlotte upset top-seeded Cleveland in the first round. New York took the first game of the Eastern Conference Finals in Charlotte. Then Smith led the team on its march around the training table in the visitors’ locker room in Madison Square Garden.
“Yes, you miss playing the game, but I miss the sisterhood that we had.” -Charlotte Smith
THE 2001 TEAM’S CORE FOUR remain connected. Texts fly back and forth. It’s a personal bond, of course, but these days, as Black women who have succeeded in a realm once hesitant to grant them admission, all four say they feel a sense of responsibility, too. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, and the nationwide protests that followed, touched them as well. Staley in particular—the coach of an Olympic team—has been outspoken on social media. In July, she publicly responded to former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s criticism of the WNBA’s decision to honor Black Lives Matter during its abbreviated 2020 season. In a tweet, Haley said the WNBA was “dividing people based on political agendas.” Staley responded that Haley’s tweet reflected the “ultimate division” and added, “We shall and will overcome.”
“I think it’s really important that I use my voice in the way that I am because little girls and women who look like me, grew up like me, are the voiceless,” Staley tells me in late June, about a month after the Floyd protests began. “I feel like if I silence myself and don’t speak on things that are near and dear to our lives and our sport, I’m doing a disservice to my mother, who was a very outspoken woman who spoke from her heart. She believed that there is a right and a wrong. There is not a gray area—it’s totally black and white—and when something hits me in my heart like the happenings in our world today, I have to say something.”
All four have spoken up for each other, long past their playing days. It was Staley who encouraged Smith to get “out of the nest” and pursue a head coaching job, and Elon has traveled to play South Carolina several times. Stinson takes her high school team to Elon practices and games every chance she gets. Feaster, who’s climbed through the male-dominated ranks of the NBA, recently invited Staley to speak to the Celtics during a team Zoom call.
Staley could speak with authority, having coached South Carolina to a national championship in 2017 after losing records in each of her first two seasons. Whatever drove the Sting to turn its season around in 2001 lived beyond the franchise’s demise: Elon had never been to the NCAA Women’s Tournament before the university hired Smith as head coach in 2011. Smith led the Phoenix to consecutive appearances in 2017 and 2018. Stinson has found her niche teaching high school girls the skills, consistency, and accountability required to earn collegiate scholarships.
“We were always a family,” Smith says. “Always a family from the start to the end. We stuck together. That’s the one thing I miss the most. Yes, you miss playing the game, but I miss the sisterhood that we had.”
ONE NIGHT AND TWO GAMES after Smith’s Joshua moment in the locker room at Madison Square Garden, the members of the Charlotte Sting screamed, smiled, and exchanged sweaty hugs as they filed back into the same room. They had won two consecutive elimination games. Anne Donovan—quiet, serious Anne Donovan—danced amid the sea of teal jerseys. Feaster, who sealed the win by hitting two three-pointers late in the game, let out a sigh of relief. Back in Stinson’s hometown of Cornelius, friends, family, and neighbors had taken to the streets in celebration. A contingent of fans greeted the team at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
The Finals began August 30 at the old Charlotte Coliseum on Tyvola Road. The Los Angeles Sparks and league MVP Lisa Leslie, a team that had lost only four times all year, won that game, 75-66, then blew the Sting out by 28 points two nights later to win the title. The Sting would not make it past the first round of the playoffs again before it folded. But in that room in New York on that night in August 2001, everything the franchise needed was right there.
“Everybody always talks about the success. It’s easy to be 32-0 and only talk about the success, but that’s a great story that I can use for the rest of my life, even when I am going around giving motivational speeches to young kids talking about the power of belief and never giving up,” Smith says. “Until you have been down, you don’t know how to get up. So I am grateful for those times in my life when we were down and we had to be resilient and learn how to be fighters. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.”
Jarrett Van Meter is a writer based in Asheville and the author of How Sweet It Is, a history of high school basketball in his native Kentucky.