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They Got Next...And Next After That The Charlotte Sting took a grueling route as it chased a WNBA playoff berth

The Charlotte Sting may not get much respect from fans,
newspapers or television schedule-makers, who have allotted the
team just two TV games this season (as opposed to 11 for the New
York Liberty), but it was a team worth watching as it battled
for first place in the Eastern Conference last week. After
starting 5-7 under coach Marynell Meadors, who was fired on July
10, the Sting rebounded under interim coach Dan Hughes, who has
taken a squad of six WNBA vets, four ABL refugees and two
rookies, and molded it into a unit that has clinched a spot in
the playoffs, which begin on Aug. 24.

SI caught up with the Sting in Houston on Aug. 6 to get a view
of life on the road in the WNBA, a league in which coach isn't
just a job title, it's also the part of the plane where players
are jammed as they shuttle from city to city. At stake as
Charlotte played three games in four days in three cities was
first place in the conference and a first-round playoff bye.

Aug. 7, Houston's Intercontinental Airport: 6:45 a.m.

The team's wake-up call came at 5:15 a.m., about seven hours
after a humiliating 81-51 loss to the Houston Comets. While it
may be too early to find a passable breakfast in the US Airways
terminal, it's not too early for Charlotte Smith to get noticed.
While most of her teammates stumbled out of bed and threw on
sweats for the two-hour flight home to Charlotte, the Sting's
willowy 6-foot small forward and defensive stopper has donned
tight black capri pants, a powder-blue sweater set and a pair of
Steve Madden high-heeled sandals. "I don't like sweats,"
explains Smith as she digs into a bag of onion-flavored Funyuns
and begins a round of the card game Uno, the team's staple
airport entertainment. "Besides, I want to get discovered."

By whom or doing what remains unsaid. "Charlotte is our diva,
and a straight-up Virgo," says Rhonda Mapp, the team's
astrological authority. "She likes the finer things in life, and
she has to have things just so." Mapp, a well-balanced Libra who
is, appropriately, the team's center, can tell you the zodiac
sign and corresponding predilections of everyone on the team.
Mapp looks at rookie guard Stephanie McCarty, the hero of
Purdue's 1999 NCAA championship team, who is slouched groggily
in a chair nearby. "A Gemini," says Mapp, "but one with a
generally consistent personality."

Today, however, McCarty is not herself. Last night's game, in
which she had three fouls, two turnovers and three points coming
off the bench, was her first since attending the funeral of
former Boilermakers teammate Tiffany Young, who was killed on
July 31 in an auto accident when her car was struck by an
alleged drunk driver. For two days after hearing the news,
McCarty couldn't eat. "Tiffany was like a sister," says McCarty.
"When [my husband] Brent and I got engaged, she was the first
person I told. This has been very hard to take."

Charlotte Coliseum: 12:00 noon

Hughes has just an hour to prepare the team for tonight's game
against Orlando. But what else is new? This is the sixth of
seven sets of back-to-back games in different cities for
Charlotte, which arguably has the toughest schedule in the
league. "When I took over," says Hughes, "we had to change our
entire offense one practice."

He isn't going to try anything so drastic today, even after last
night's debacle, the Sting's worst loss of the season. In the
locker room he addresses his players, all of whom have arrived
straight from the airport and are fighting off sleep. "Ladies,
if we're successful tonight, we're looking at first place," says
Hughes, whose team is in a virtual tie with the
conference-leading Liberty. After a literally executed
'walk-through,' the bleary-eyed players are released. They have
four hours "to go home and breathe," as reserve forward Sharon
Manning puts it, before returning for the game.

Charlotte Coliseum: 7:30 p.m.

With average crowds of just 6,500, down from 8,500 a year ago,
Charlotte has been the poster child for the WNBA's 10% slip in
attendance this season. But tonight 10,523 fans show up, and
they see a thriller of a game that features 13 lead changes. The
Sting comes away with a 64-60 win and takes sole possession of
first place. Guards Andrea Stinson and Dawn Staley each score 12
points, and center Vicky Bullett, a two-time Olympian, makes six
steals. McCarty, playing against her former college coach,
Carolyn Peck, has her best game in weeks, contributing eight
points, four assists, three steals and two rebounds. But all
that is far from her mind when, sobbing, she embraces Peck in
the hallway after the game. "I'll be fine for a while, and then
something will trigger a memory of Tiff, like seeing Coach
Peck," says McCarty later. "It hits me at the weirdest times."

Back in the locker room Hughes gathers his team and issues his
congratulations. "That was a big win," he says. "It says a lot
that you were able to fight off fatigue and rebound from that
loss last night."

Aug. 8, Charlotte Airport: 12:40 p.m.

Manning is not happy with this morning's Charlotte Observer,
which she rattles in front of her. "Look at this. Are we
anywhere on Page One of sports?" she says, ignoring a tiny Sting
blurb in the upper-left-hand corner. She flips to page 9 before
she finds a small article with the headline: STING RECLAIMS
FIRST. "We get no respect," she says. "We're not treated like
the NBA."

Another reminder that this is not the NBA is the line of
players--including Smith, stunningly attired in a
brown-and-white-striped tank dress, high-heeled sandals and a
brown wig--waiting to get boarding passes. "We tried to get
charter flights put into the collective bargaining agreement,"
says Manning, the team's union representative, who helped
negotiate the preseason contract that gave players higher
salaries, year-round health benefits and a retirement plan. "But
the league said no." It is a decision the Sting will have
particular cause to curse today.

As the team disembarks in Atlanta for a connection to Salt Lake
City, trainer Kim Moseley, who doubles as a kind of traveling
secretary, discovers that the 19-member party has been issued
tickets to Delta flight 1296 but boarding passes to flight 633,
which is scheduled to leave in 30 minutes. The team crams onto
the next tram heading to the A concourse. A clutch of young men
standing near Bullett ask for her autograph. She politely signs,
then grimaces when one asks her to add her phone number. "I
don't think so," she says as the doors open and the team rushes

Flight 633, scheduled to leave at 3:50, has already been delayed
until 4:15 and will ultimately take off nearly two hours late
because of bad weather elsewhere, but the good news, the gate
agent assures Moseley, is that "you are all on it together."
Moseley is more exhausted than the rest of her group, having
traveled in the last four days from Charlotte to Biloxi, Miss.,
to visit her mother, who is dying of cancer, then to Houston for
the game, back to Biloxi to pick up her two children, then back
to Charlotte. Now, as she stands before the nutritional black
hole of Atlanta's A-concourse food court, she practically weeps
in despair. "I've been on too many planes in too many days," she
says into Manning's shoulder. "I want caffeine, but I don't want
to stay awake." She doesn't want fried rice from Manchu Wok,
either, but it is the least offensive offering she can find.

When the team finally boards flight 633 at 5:20, Smith settles
into a middle seat between Manning and reserve guard Sonia
Chase. After plopping a Bride's magazine onto her lap, she
removes her wig. "I have a really long wig, too, my Cher wig,"
says Smith, "but I didn't bring it. No room."

At the Salt Lake City airport, Smith doesn't get discovered, but
she is seen, briefly, in the company of Carl Lewis, who
politely pauses for a few pictures with the Sting players before
rushing off to catch a plane to Houston. Outside, Stinson uses
her cell phone to find out how New York has done against the
Comets. "The Liberty won by three!" she shouts. Charlotte is now
percentage points out of the lead.

Aug. 9, Utah's Delta Center: 12:00 noon

Most of the players look sharp and well rested, except McCarty,
who has just suffered another blow. This morning she learned
that her husband's 55-year-old uncle died unexpectedly in the
night back in Indiana. She is close to the man's children and
isn't sure what she should do. Leave the team for her second
funeral in a week? "It's so frustrating to be so far away when
all this is going on," she says after practice. "It is so hard
to focus on basketball, to focus on anything."

Delta Center: 9:00 p.m.

A hard-fought game comes down to this: With 12.9 seconds
remaining and the Utah Starzz up 66-65, Bullett gets a pass in
the paint, goes up for a layup and gets hammered by 7'2" Utah
center Margo Dydek. There is no call. Rebounding the ball,
Starzz forward Natalie Williams gets fouled and makes one of two
free throws. With nine seconds left the Sting needs two to tie
and three to win. But the stars don't align for Mapp's
last-second three-point shot, and Utah wins 67-65.

Assistant Sue Panek sweeps into the silent Charlotte locker room
and pops the game tape into the VCR. Over and over Panek and the
players watch angrily as Dydek body-slams Bullett right in front
of an official. When Hughes watches later, he winces. "Oh my
god," he says. "That hurts."

On the bus back to the hotel, a player who later asks to remain
anonymous vents her frustration over what she and several others
on the team see as a league conspiracy to reserve the spotlight
for certain franchises. "We get hammered all the time with no
calls," she says. "Why is it that we get only two games [on
television] when we've been to the playoffs both years, and New
York gets 11? We joke all the time about how, when we get to the
championship game, we don't want TV there, since they haven't
been with us all year."

Aug. 10, Salt Lake airport: 11 a.m.

No one on the Sting is much looking forward to spending four
days in Sacramento before the team's next game, against the
Monarchs--"There's nothing to do there," says Smith--but
Sacramento will be a better place to be 24 hours hence than Salt
Lake City, whose downtown will be hit by a tornado that kills
one and injures more than 100 others. Among the buildings
damaged will be the Delta Center, where the Starzz were last
seen celebrating wildly on the court. The arena, it will be
noted in newspapers across the land the next day, is "the home
of the Utah Jazz."

COLOR PHOTO: JAN SONNENMAIR/AURORAWhile Smith (far left, with Manning) jokingly hoped to be "discovered" at 7 a.m., McCarty (above) struggled to cope with a friend's death.


COLOR PHOTO: JAN SONNENMAIR/AURORA Fine dining Forward Tracy Reid enjoys a staple of WNBA road life: airport pizza.