NC State star Charles leaves behind primer in how to handle fame

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by Jim Litke
Associated Press Writer

(AP)—He never quite believed it himself.

At least that’s what Lorenzo Charles always said—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 June 27, when the charter bus that Charles was driving crashed along Interstate 40 in Raleigh, N.C. He was 47.

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TRAGIC ACCIDENT—This April 4, 1983 photo shows North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles (43) dunking the ball to give N.C. State a 54-52 win over high-flying Houston, whose destruction of the field justified the moniker “Phi Slamma Jamma” in the NCAA Championship game in Albuquerque, N.M. (AP Photo/File)

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 Wolfpack’s 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—Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler—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 didn’t 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 what’s about to unfold. He leaps out from underneath the basket just in time to grab guard Dereck Whittenburg’s desperate heave from 30 feet out and dunk it in one fluid motion: N.C. State 54, Houston 52.

“I was out of position,” Charles chuckled, “because when you’re going for a rebound and putback, you’re supposed to be a step or two away to build up some steam. But it turned out to be the perfect place.”

That’s all?

“I 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. And,” he paused, still marveling all those years later, “it never happened.”

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.

“No, that’s pretty much it. Turned out to be right place, right time,” he said softly. “Just maybe not the guy people expected.”

Another long pause ensued.

“I have a hard time,” he said softly, “believing it myself.”

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 you’d 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 it’s 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—“Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,” he said that night—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 didn’t last as long as he’d 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 Charles’ singular feat always caught him by surprise. Maybe that’s 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 Wolfpack’s 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 “Phi Slamma Jamma.”

“I’m sure lots of people figured we didn’t even belong on the same floor,” Charles said, “But 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.”

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—flanking Whittenberg was Sidney Lowe and Terry Gannon—and rugged, reliable presences underneath on both ends of the floor in Charles and Thurl Bailey.

But once Valvano got going, even his own kids forgot about that. He’d be in the middle of drawing up the pregame sets, then put the clipboard under one arm and scream, “You got to be a dreamer.” A moment later, a composed Valvano would point to the blackboard and add, “And if all five of you don’t get back down the floor and play defense every time, they’re going to break that dream into little, bitty pieces.”

Whittenburg, who recounted that story three years ago, added, “Then. he’d have to stop himself from cracking up. He never failed to make you laugh or feel good about yourself, and there aren’t a lot of people you meet in life who can do that.”

And even more unfortunate, another one of them is gone.

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