Remembering Lorenzo Charles (1963-2011)

June, 28, 2011
Editor's Note: For reaction on the death of Lorenzo Charles from his friends and former teammates, click here.

The late Jim Valvano's desperate search for someone to hug was the iconic image of NC State's impromptu postgame celebration on the Pit floor after winning the 1983 national championship at the buzzer.

But it was Lorenzo Charles' look of disbelief that I've always been drawn to even more from that moment.

Charles' instinct to read the trajectory of Dereck Whittenburg's last-second shot is still one of the greatest plays in college basketball history. Charles timed his jump and converted the basket perfectly. He was focused, clearly aware of time and score.

And what I love more than anything else about that play is his reaction after the basket. He was in disbelief, like everyone else on the floor for the Wolfpack. But he also didn't pump out his chest, draw attention to himself nor signify that he was the savior.

The self-gratification era that we're in now just didn't exist as much in 1983. Charles was humble and it showed.

In discussing his sudden passing Monday night with several of Charles' friends and former teammates, including Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe, they all kept coming back to that he didn't want to be known simply for that shot. He didn't dismiss the importance of it, of course. He celebrated that moment in time. But he never wanted the title, the shot to be about him.

Charles had a career after that day. He still had more games to play for the Wolfpack. He played in the NBA for Atlanta. He went overseas. And eventually he came back to North Carolina, where he settled in to be a part of the community, driving a bus and carrying passengers who probably had no idea who was behind the wheel and his importance to college basketball, a sport so beloved in that community.

In the Charlotte Observer, Duke lacrosse coach John Danowski spoke glowingly about how Charles helped his team's drive toward a national title this season. He literally drove the team bus and gave the players a spirited pep talk about winning a title.

"It's great that he scored that winning basket but he was so much more than that," Danowski told the Observer. "He was such a good person. He was just the kind of guy you wanted to be around. Everyone here loved him. We are all heartbroken."

New NC State men's basketball coach Mark Gottfried, who played against Charles in a 1985 NCSU-Alabama NCAA tournament game, had reconnected with Charles just a day before the accident. Gottfried said he had a wonderful conversation with Charles on Sunday after camp and was likely going to reach out to him even more now that he was the head coach, trying to get Charles even more involved with his alma mater.

That would have been quite a bridge for the program, especially in light of Lowe being fired by the school in March.

But now Charles is gone, killed in a bus accident on Interstate 40 in Raleigh on Monday. He was just 47 years old.

For many of us 40-somethings, the Bird-Magic game of 1979 was the start of our love and appreciation of college basketball. The 1982 North Carolina-Georgetown title game with Michael Jordan's shot and Freddy Brown's errant pass is also hard to forget.

But Charles' bucket at the buzzer to take down mighty Houston and deliver the sixth-seeded Wolfpack the upset national title is the greatest shot in NCAA tournament history. Christian Laettner's shot to beat Kentucky in 1992 is a close second, but that shot was for a trip to the Final Four. Charles' bucket won the championship. And he had to read his defender, react to the flight of the ball and convert before the buzzer.

I remember the shot. I've seen it countless times on video, too. But I didn't know the man. On Monday night, I got a sense of him through the words of Lowe and Whittenburg.

They are all heartbroken now. There were audible tears on the phone Monday night. They are shocked. They are in disbelief.

They have lost a teammate, a friend and, as Lowe said, a part of their youth. It is sobering for them and for all of us who follow the sport.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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