The unlikeliest WNBA Finals participant in league history, the 2001 Charlotte Sting, entered the season with more modest goals.
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The Sting finished 2000 with an 8-24 record, landing them in the cellar of the Eastern Conference. Despite the presence of three-time all-NBA defensive second team member T.R. Dunn as head coach, the Sting finished with a defensive rating of 107.4, good for last in 2001 and, in fact, the worst showing in league history relative to league average.
Ownership made it clear at every turn that the Charlotte Hornets were the priority, the Sting an afterthought.
So as she entered her first season as an assistant—she’d spent the previous year as an Indiana Fever season ticket holder, collecting the commemorative cans and trading cards that went along with the league’s early marketing campaign—Cheryl Reeve understood that the campaign ahead wasn’t simply about success. It was about survival.
“The pressure was to get the thing turned around, so we could make sure we had a team,” Reeve said in a phone interview this summer. “Because we knew if we kept on losing, they weren’t going to want to keep the team.”
Reeve joined the staff of new head coach Anne Donovan, enticed by the big payday.
“I remember Anne calling and saying, ‘I have a specific position, but it’s just a seasonal gig and it’s for $5000,” Reeve said. “I was undeterred.”
Donovan laughed when she was reminded of Reeve’s salary.
“Cheryl was a young buck,” Donovan said in a phone interview. “At the time she was a volunteer, almost a volunteer part-time coach. [But] you could see out of the gates what kind of coach Cheryl was going to be.”
Donovan had served as interim coach for the Indiana Fever before the Sting brought her in, looking for a more defensive mindset. The two Jersey products—Donovan the pride of Ridgewood, Reeve a school star in Washington Township—found themselves with a roster that didn’t necessarily lend itself to getting stops.
The makeup of that team wasn’t really born to play defense if you will,” Donovan said. “But we had enough, they hadn’t had any success so they bought into me really emphasizing it and just over and over again that’s how we’re going to win, that’s how we’re going to get it done.”
The ultimate success of the 2001 Sting was not evident early on. Reeve’s first day of work was the 2001 draft. It was a collegiate crop filled with stars—Lauren Jackson and Tamika Catchings, for instance, rank atop the league’s all-time win shares leaderboard. A Notre Dame center named Ruth Riley was available. Katie Douglas and Penny Taylor were draft eligible as well.
The Sting, picking second overall, selected Georgia guard Kelly Miller, who failed to crack a starting lineup over her three seasons with the Sting. Donovan and Reeve understood what kind of player Catchings was. But the word came down from ownership, the pick needed to be someone who could come in and play right away, and Catchings, who’d suffered a torn ACL in her senior season at Tennessee, would need a year to recover.
“Then Indiana did back flips, and it went down as one of their greatest draft day picks in the history of their franchise,” Reeve said. Catchings retired as the league’s all-time leader in win shares.
So it was left to Donovan and Reeve, along with lead assistant Trudi Lacey, to figure out how to turn things around. The Sting did add a key piece later in the draft, selecting big Tammy Sutton-Brown out of Rutgers, after debating between Sutton-Brown and Janell Burse.
“I remember the conversations around as we were moving through the draft, the picks were being made,” Reeve said. “Burse had a nice career as well but, Sutton-Brown was, ended up being… a pick that actually rounded out the starting five. She went on to be a pretty darn good center in the league, a starting center for a long time and so, it was definitely the right pick. We got that one right.”
The center would go on to start 21 games in 2001, serving as key rim protector in Donovan’s defensive scheme, and led the team in defensive rating.
But the heart of the Charlotte Sting existed within the team’s point guard, Dawn Staley, a basketball mind so impressive that Temple University had already hired her to coach their women’s basketball team during Staley’s offseason.