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Holding Court

Published on January 09, 2024

Joshua Cooley

This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of the FCA Donor Publication. The FCA publication is a gift from our FCA staff to all donors giving $50 or more annually. For more information about giving, visit here.

Charlotte Smith remembers picnics with crispy fried chicken, smothered pork chops, mouthwatering melons, delicious peach cobbler and oodles of fresh veggies from her grandmother’s garden. She remembers tree-climbing, building go-karts from scratch and getting in plenty of scraps with her three brothers. She remembers good times with family and friends.

Smith also remembers the “bootleg houses,” where residents brewed homemade moonshine. She remembers the drug addicts. She remembers seeing people suffering on the dead-end streets of life.

For Smith, who is entering her 13th season as the women’s basketball head coach at Elon (N.C.) University, this was life growing up in Shelby,IrGsr-_k N.C., a modest town in rural southeastern part of the state. She grew up at 1010 Spann Street, a snug 1950s-era home where her parents raised four children on a small-town pastor and cosmetologist’s salaries.

“Well,” she says, “it was adventurous.”

As Smith got older, her mind began drifting toward the future—and leaving Shelby behind. Her home was the last on a dead-end road, as Spann Street dissolved into a grove of trees. She couldn’t help noticing the symbolism.

“I grew up thinking, I live on a dead-end street, but a dead end is definitely not my future,” Smith says. “God’s plans were bigger than what I saw.”

Indeed they were. Before long, Smith would hit one of the most famous shots in NCAA women’s basketball history, launching a prolific career in the sport she loves.

* * *

Smith’s basketball bloodlines run deep. Her uncle, David Thompson, is an NBA Hall of Famer. One of her cousins, Alvin Gentry, is a former NBA coach and currently the vice president of basketball engagement for the Sacramento Kings. Another cousin, Dereck Whittenburg, was a star guard on Jim Valvano’s legendary 1983 NCAA championship team at N.C. State. It was Whittenburg’s errant desperation three-point attempt in the title game that teammate Lorenzo Charles famously rebounded and dunked as time expired to shock the “Phi Slama Jama” Houston Cougars, a team featuring future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

Smith could hold her own on the court, too. After a standout prep career, she joined Sylvia Hatchell’s program at the University of North Carolina in 1991. By 1994, UNC would go from afterthought to the summit.

Boasting a 32-2 record, the Tar Heels entered the 1994 NCAA championship game as a force, but their opponent was mighty Louisiana Tech, a juggernaut program with 25 straight trips to the NCAA tournament and two national championships between 1982 and 2006. With 0.07 seconds left in the game, UNC trailed, 59-57, and was in its second time out after earning the possession arrow on a frontcourt rebound. In the huddle, Hatchell drew up an audacious play. The inbounds pass would not go inside to 6-foot-5 star Sylvia Crawley; or to All-American guard Tonya Sampson; or to point guard Marion Jones, the future Olympic track and field star. It would go to Smith—for a three-pointer. No tying for overtime. It was win or bust.

As she walked back on to the court, Smith was so nervous that Crawley had to remind her of the play. But Smith got free on a screen, received a crosscourt inbounds pass, and coolly swished a sweet-as-cobbler three from the right wing as the buzzer sounded for a 60-59 win. To this day, it remains North Carolina’s only women’s basketball championship.

“I lifted my hands up and was just thanking God,” recalls Smith, who recorded 20 points and 23 rebounds in the game.

“And then the mob got me.”

Smith earned All-American honors the following season as a senior, and UNC retired her jersey number (23) a year later. In 2015, she was inducted into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.

Bvg6kXEcAfter a 12-year professional career (1995-2006) and nine seasons as a UNC assistant coach under Hatchell (2002-2011), Smith was hired as the head coach at Elon in 2011. Suffice it to say, she inherited a fixer-upper. At the time, the Phoenix had only registered one 20-win season (2010-11) since 1982. Twelve years later, Smith is the program’s all-time winningest coach with a 195-163 overall record. In 2016-17, she led Elon to a 27-7 season and the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance, and as an encore, she guide the Phoenix to a 25-win season and a second straight NCAA bid in 2017-18. Since then, though, success has been more elusive. Elon has only averaged 12.3 wins over the last five years (excluding the COVID-19-shortened campaign of 2020-21), and the Phoenix endured a 9-21 mark last season. Yet Smith hasn’t changed.

“What Coach Smith does so well is help her players see beyond the court,” says Alex Mebane, FCA’s campus representative at Elon. “I’ve seen her many times use adversity as a platform to show that. The most important thing a coach says is when the shots aren’t falling. She models for them how to handle defeat.”

* * *

Back in 2011, Smith had barely blown a whistle before she noticed a problem: There was no FCA presence at Elon. FCA had once met on Elon’s campus but was dormant by the time Smith arrived. So she started a group and worked hard to get it recognized as an official campus ministry.

Since then, FCA at Elon has grown exponentially. One hundred eighty-five Elon student-athletes participated in FCA during the 2022-23 school year. Unless she’s traveling, Smith is at every twice-a-week coaches Huddle and every Thursday lunch, usually with her entire staff. She often shares Scripture with her players and leaves uplifting sticky notes on their lockers:

You’re OK.
Take your time.
You’re beautiful.

These small, simple encouragements go a long way.

“She’ll say basketball is a game of mistakes, but she’ll also be transparent about herself and her own mistakes,” says redshirt freshman guard Diamond Monroe, an FCA leader. “It’s encouraging. I know I’m not alone.”

In April 2022, Smith received FCA’s prestigious Kay Yow “Heart of a"I want to do God's will through basketball and what He's called me to do--and that's to shepard the lives of the young ones that He's entrusted me with."
-Charlotte Smith
Coach” Award.

“When you think about your greater purpose and why you do what you do, it’s like winning the national championship,” she says. “Because at the end of the day, I want to do God’s will through basketball and what he’s called me to do—and that’s to shepherd the lives of the young ones that he’s entrusted me with.”

Those young lives aren’t always on Elon’s roster. Take for instance what happened on March 9, 2019. A year removed from its second straight NCAA tournament appearance, Elon was entering its final regular-season game during a brutal 9-21 season, its worst record in 10 years. The contrast was painfully stark.

Shortly before the game—a home matchup against Northeastern—Smith paused in the locker room and prayed, “Lord, please let us end on a good note.” The game, however, did not go well. Northeastern, a 20-win WNIT team that season, crushed Elon, 83-57.

After her postgame press conference, Smith returned to the court to find Wesley, Elon’s young ball boy, waiting for her. All season, Wesley had listened and watched as Smith walked out her faith amidst many losses and frustrations. Now, he wanted to follow Jesus, too. Smith shared the gospel and led him to Christ.

That dead end on Spann Street never felt further away.

“We didn’t win that game,” Smith says, “but we did win a soul right there, courtside on our bench. To God be the glory.”


Photos courtesy of Clare Grant, Andy Mead, UNC Athletics Communications and Elon University