Lorenzo Charles, whose unforgettable dunk at the end of the 1983 NCAA championship game against Houston gave NC State its second men’s basketball title, died Monday in an accident on Interstate-40. He was 47.
Charles, a forward from the Bronx, N.Y., emerged as a key player in Jim Valvano’s Cardiac Pack, scoring the winning points in three of the Wolfpack’s nine postseason victories en route to the national championship.
But one play will always be remembered: On the night of April 4, 1983, Charles grabbed a rebound of Dereck Whittenburg’s airball with just a few seconds remaining in the tied game and jammed it through the basket while he was still in the air. The sophomore forward landed, paused to make sure the basket counted and ducked to the sidelines, looking for obscurity while his teammates celebrated on the court.
The dunk gave the Wolfpack a 54-52 victory that shocked the college basketball world and left Houston’s Phi Slama Jama speechless on the court of The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. The play has come to define the excitement of March Madness and will always symbolize the triumph of the underdog over a heavy favorite.
“It was kind of a David and Goliath thing,” Charles remembered some 20 years later.
Charles grew stronger and bigger during his final two years with the Wolfpack, earning first-team All-ACC and All-America honors his senior season. He was the 41st draft pick by the Atlanta Hawks in 1985 and played professionally in the NBA and overseas for more than a decade.
Return to the Triangle
When Charles retired, he returned to Wake Forest, where he worked as a bus driver for various transportation companies in the Triangle. On Monday he was driving a bus for Elite Coach of Apex when the accident occurred. According to reports, there were no passengers on the bus and no other injuries were reported.
Charles was a regular at NC State basketball games after he returned to the Triangle, usually taking a seat behind the team bench. He always smiled and listened to every fan who had the nerve to tell him exactly what they were doing when he scored the dunk that made him famous.
Yet Charles always maintained he was in the wrong place at the right time on the iconic play.
“As an offensive rebounder, the particular position I was standing in when Dereck (Whittenburg) shot the ball was the wrong place to be,” Charles said. “I was standing under the cylinder, which is exactly where you don’t want to be if you’re going to be a decent offensive rebounder.”
But when he saw that Whittenburg’s shot was going to be short, he just grabbed it and put it through the hoop. He didn’t think it was that big of a deal.
“I really can’t believe we’re still talking about it,” he said in 2008 when he represented NC State at the ACC Legends Breakfast.
Hard to Accept
The Wolfpack family expressed shock on hearing of Charles’ death.
“We will be forever connected because of that play,” said Whittenburg from his home in New York. “It’s just too hard to accept—he was too young.”
Whittenburg said he will always remember Charles’ great smile and the fact that he never let his famous play go to his head.
“That’s just what a humble guy he is,” said Whittenburg, who visited with Charles recently. “He was just a quiet, easygoing guy who loved to have fun and was great to be around.”
Former teammate and longtime friend Ernie Myers talked with Charles on Sunday. “It’s kind of surreal,” Myers said. “He’s the biggest, strongest guy I know. This couldn’t have happened. I just spoke with him yesterday. I just can’t wrap my mind around it. He had the softest hands, and the softest heart, of any big man I ever knew. The face he had during games was just bravado. Lorenzo was just a fun-loving guy who loved to be around his teammates.”
New Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried met Charles for the first time last week, when Charles dropped by his office.
“The entire Wolfpack family is devastated to hear the news about Lorenzo Charles,” Gottfried said. “He holds a special place in Wolfpack history and in the hearts of generations of fans. Our staff was stunned to hear this terrible news.”
The university has plans to honor Charles in several ways, including a commemorative patch on the men’s basketball uniforms, a special video tribute Sept. 3 during the first home football game and possible establishment of a scholarship endowment in Charles’ name.