Charles had place in hoops history
Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 30, 2011
He never quite believed it himself.
At least thatís what Lorenzo Charles always said ó from the second after he flushed one of the most dramatic baskets in the history of the college game all the way to the end of his life. Sadly, that came Monday, when the charter bus that Charles was driving crashed along Interstate 40 in Raleigh, N.C. He was 47.
I heard him say it near the end of a phone conversation one April afternoon three years ago. Charles was one of several North Carolina State players contributing memories for a story to mark the 25th anniversary of the Wolfpackís improbable 1983 NCAA Championship. Like his teammates, he was asked to recreate the last few seconds of the final game against a Houston team fronted by two future Hall of Famers ó Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler ó that almost no one believed could lose.
Charles recalled where everyone else was on the floor, and what they were doing, heartbeat by heartbeat. When he got around to Olajuwon, his opposite that night, the description was so vivid you could have guessed what the Houston center ate during the pregame meal. Charles didnít enter his own highlight reel until the very end, and even then, reluctantly.
In the video clip, though, he looks like the only player with a clue of whatís about to unfold. He leaps out from underneath the basket just in time to grab guard Dereck Whittenburgís desperate heave from 30 feet out and dunk it in one fluid motion: N.C. State 54, Houston 52.
ěI was out of position,î Charles chuckled, ěbecause when youíre going for a rebound and putback, youíre supposed to be a step or two away to build up some steam. But it turned out to be the perfect place.î
ěI could see the ball was going to fall short, and my only concern was Hakeem. I was waiting for that big arm to swoop by and block my shot. ěAnd,î he paused, still marveling all those years later, ěit never happened.î
No matter how the question was asked, Charles kept describing his contribution as a lucky break. It was too humble. There had to be more.
ěNo, thatís pretty much it. ěTurned out to be right place, right time,î he said softly. ěJust maybe not the guy people expected.î
Another long pause ensued.
ěI have a hard time,î he said softly, ěbelieving it myself.î
It was neither the first nor the last time he said that. His teammates confirmed that was vintage Charles. Opportunistic and tough as nails the second he stepped on the court, just the way youíd expect a kid from Brooklyn to be; saying only so much and laughing a lot as soon as he stepped away. Always deflecting the attention somewhere else.
So it came as little surprise that Charles hardly cared the moment after his dunk has become even more memorable still. That was when the buzzer sounded and NC State coach Jim Valvano stormed the floor like a one-man tidal wave, looking for someone to hug.
Maybe itís because Valvano was at his absolute peak as a showman. Or because a decade later, his body wracked by cancer, Valvano cast the same magical spell over a national TV audience ó ěDonít give up. Donít ever give up,î he said that night ó he had cast over a dozen youngsters for a few months in 1983.
Either way, Charles was happy the spotlight settled where it did. His own NBA career didnít last as long as heíd hoped. He stayed in the game by playing in smaller leagues all around the world, then tried his hand at coaching. Charles eventually wound up back in Raleigh driving a bus.
Somehow, the unending interest in Charlesí singular feat always caught him by surprise. Maybe thatís how he made you feel better simply for asking.
What Charles chose to remember most, though, was the effort Valvano coaxed from his team night after night during that meat-grinder of a season. Whittenburg, the Wolfpackís best shooter, broke his foot early on and N.C. State had to run the table in the ACC tournament just to make the tournament. Then came a series of squeakers. Last up was high-flying Houston, whose destruction of the field justified the moniker ěPhi Slamma Jamma.î
ěIím sure lots of people figured we didnít even belong on the same floor,î Charles said, ěBut a lot of them forgot how tough it was just surviving the ACC week in and week out. North Carolina had Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins. Maryland had Lenny Bias. Virginia had Ralph Sampson.î
And so convincing was Valvano in the role of underdog that according to most retellings, he was all N.C. State had. In fact, the Wolfpack had a topflight trio of guards ó flanking Whittenberg was Sidney Lowe and Terry Gannon.