Lorenzo Charles, the former N.C. State basketball player best known for his dunk capping the Wolfpack's unlikely run to the 1983 NCAA national championship, died yesterday in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was the driver and sole occupant of a charter bus that crashed on Interstate 40. He was 47 years old.
Charles, his '83 teammates, and their legendary coach Jim Valvano are one of the greatest underdog stories in sports history. They were a bubble team at best as they entered the ACC conference tourney that year, but rattled off nine straight wins, most over favored opponents, en route to the NCAA title (including victories over teams featuring Ralph Sampson, Akeem Olajuwon, and Michael Jordan). The '83 Pack, with the charismatic Valvano and Charles' slam for the ages, were a bona fide sensation. I'd argue that along with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird's '79 title game, the '83 Wolfpack squad did more than any other to create the March Madness phenomenon we know today.
I grew up in Raleigh, and watching the '83 championship game is one of the first concrete memories I have. I remember sitting in my parents' bedroom watching the game, I remember seeing fireworks out the window, and I remember my dad taking me up the block to Hillsborough Street to watch folks drive by in their convertables and pick-ups, honkin' and hootin' and hollerin' in an impromptu victory parade (Raleigh was a little more of a hootin' and hollerin' place then than it is now). It was a truly magical night.
In 2007 I had the sports fan's ultimate dream come true when I interviewed members of the '83 team for an oral history I compiled for SLAM. I met Charles and his teammates Cozell McQueen and Ernie Myers for lunch in Raleigh, a two-hour meal where I hardly talked or ate. McQueen was the comic, but Charles, with his sonorous but understated Starrett City, Brooklyn accent, provided the most in-depth basketball analysis of anyone I spoke to for the piece. He was famous for being in the right place at the right time, but talking to him I realized that was as much a product of design as it was luck. Dude had a great basketball IQ.
I get paid to (occasionally) write about sports, but I also tend to think the world has an unhealthy obsession with them. If people spent as much at P.T.A. bake sales as they do on season tickets, or got as excited about city council meetings as they do about the Super Bowl, the world would probably be a better place. But certain teams and certain players just stick with people. For me, and a lot of other people in North Carolina and around the world, the '83 Pack and Lorenzo Charles are that team and that player.
Lorenzo Charles had an all-world smile. Obviously he died far, far too young. And he was my favorite player on my favorite team. That's about all I know about him. I never knew the man, but I'm hurting today thinking about him and his family, and a lot of other strangers are too. Rest in peace, Lorenzo.