First the apology: This will be more about me than it will be Lorenzo Charles. These are the feelings coursing through me. Lorenzo Charles died on Monday, a shocking thing. He was driving a bus for Elite Tours and the crash happened on Interstate 40, near Raleigh, N.C., where he was beloved. Charles had lived a basketball life — he was an excellent college basketball player, of course. Then he played in basketball leagues all around the world, and he coached for a while before settling back in Raleigh and driving busses. He also made a famous shot. Buck O’Neil, who lived to be almost 95, always said that we should save our tears for those who die young. Lo Charles was just 47 years old.
I met him only once. But I thought about him often. It had something to do growing up. And that’s what I think about now.
When I was a freshman in high school, our family moved from Cleveland to Charlotte. That kind of move is the stuff they make saccharine family movies about. Charlotte was a different place from now. Emptier. There was no NBA team in Charlotte then, no NFL team certainly, a Class AA baseball team and no obvious connection to the America I knew. Everything felt barren to me. The sports in town were NASCAR (before it went national) and pro wrestling (before it went national). ESPN was still featuring Australian Rules Football, and the Internet was only available to museum directors. There seemed no place to turn.
This was bad for me because I had a thoroughly unhealthy obsession for sports in those days. I was a catatonically shy kid, easily embarrassed, thoroughly uncertain. The sports world was the only one that made any sense to me at all. And for me the sports world meant professional sports in Ohio — the Cleveland Browns, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cleveland Indians, the Cleveland Barons for a time. I only knew about college football because of Woody Hayes. I can say with some confidence that the only college basketball player I had ever cared about before the move was Ohio State’s Clark Kellogg — that mainly because they called him “Special K.”
My first day at East Mecklenburg High in Charlotte — it may not technically have been my first day but that’s how my memory chooses to organize the story — I was asked if I liked Carolina or State (there were NO Duke fans in 1981). I had no idea what that even meant. The question, of course, revolved around Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. Everything did. I was in a place where they literally would cancel classes when the ACC tournament was happening, a place where conversation began and ended with last night’s game and identity was wrapped up in the college team you cheered.
I chose Carolina because … I had to choose one. I did not know that North Carolina was one of the best teams in the history of college basketball. Nobody knew yet because nobody knew that a freshman on that roster named Michael Jordan would become the best player in the history of the sport. Anyway, off the top of my head, I can still recite the rotation of that team: Jimmy Black played point, Michael Jordan was shooting guard, Matt Doherty the small forward (famous, locally, for his shot fake), James Worthy played big forward, Sam Perkins was the center and the Tar Heels had Jim Braddock come off the bench to run the point, Buzz Peterson in to shoot, Warren Martin stepped in as a shot blocker and rebounder, Cecil Exum electrified the crowd in garbage time …
I remember that team so vividly because I remember everything about ACC basketball in those days vividly. It became my life. I watched every game available on television (on Jefferson-Pilot). I memorized the names on every ACC roster. It felt like I cared more about whether Vince Taylor at Duke or Vince Hamilton at Clemson made shots than I cared about my own life. I feel sure that if we had moved to England at that particular moment, I would have become Britain’s most obsessive soccer fan (sometimes I read Nick Hornby’s soccer writing and feel like, though the names are unfamiliar, he is writing from inside my chest). I feel sure that if we had moved to Birmingham at that particular moment in our lives, I would have been an insane Alabama or Auburn fan. I feel sure that if we had moved to Indonesia, I would have gone nuts for badminton. I was often lonely and scared and quite sure that I was going to be a failure. In other words: I was a teenager. I threw all of my doubts, my fears, my hopes, everything, into those winter nights and ACC basketball.
It just so happened, without my even realizing it, that I landed smack in the middle of the golden age of college basketball. Think about this: Michael Jordan had just started for the great Dean Smith at North Carolina. Ralph Sampson — a 7-foot-4 force of nature — was the center at Virginia. A young Bob Knight disciple from West Point named Mike Krzyzewski had just started coaching at Duke. A young and brash coach from the Bronx, Bobby Cremins, had just started to coach at Georgia Tech. Maryland’s Lefty Driesell — a legendary character — had just recruited a promising young player named Len Bias. Wake Forest had a feisty team featuring good players whose names that still sound like childhood to me — Anthony Teachey, Delaney Rudd, Mike Helms …
And up in Raleigh, an absurdly charismatic coach named Jim Valvano was creating a stir. I could never summarize the many sides of Valvano, but he was like a movie star who owned every scene. His North Carolina State teams were brash and unlikely and featured three guards — Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg and Terry Gannon — who would shoot jump shots more or less the second they crossed half court. That was staggering to watch. One of the guards would shoot from 28 feet away, and it seemed ridiculous, and the next time down one of them would shoot from 32 feet away, and the next time … Wolfpack games felt like a games of H-O-R-S-E. They also had a terrific forward named Thurl Bailey who could do a little bit of everything. They had a center named Cozell McQueen who was famous for his Yogi Berra like pronouncements — when asked why he chose N.C. State for college, he supposedly said that he just wanted to get out of the South.
And the team had Lorenzo Charles, a 6-foot-7 forward with a broad smile and a body that was born to block out.
While I chose North Carolina as my team — and watched them win the NCAA Championship my first year in town — I had no deep feelings for the rivalries. I had not grown up around it, and so had not learned that to love Carolina meant hating Duke, or that to cheer for Wake Forest meant rooting against everyone else. In high school, I kind of liked every ACC team. I rooted for the LEAGUE — it felt like the league was playing for me. I would feel both good and bad when Maryland beat Clemson or when Virginia knocked off N.C. State or whatever. The games mattered more to me than they should have; I would sit in classes and daydream about them, scribble down starting lineups and stare at them and play imaginary games in my mind.
I was 16 years old when N.C. State went on its magical run in the 1983 NCAA Tournament. That whole season felt magical to me. The ACC, in an effort to add a little enthusiasm to the game, instituted crazy rules — a 30-second shot clock, an absurdly short three-point line (17-feet-9 inches to be exact) — and that did not just supercharge the game, it made the game almost unrecognizable, like something out of a video game. The rules should have played right into N.C. State’s hands with those amazing shooters, but the truth is that the Wolfpack wasn’t very good that season. Their star shooter Derek Whittenburg broke his foot. The team lost five of six at one point. They were only 17-10 with an 8-6 conference record. I remember they got absolutely blitzed by North Carolina and Wake Forest in back to back games in January. When the ACC Tournament began, I’m not sure N.C. State was even a bubble team — they were just out of the NCAA Tournament.
Then — it happened; the most dramatic and unlikely run of victories in the history of college basketball, I think. They beat Wake Forest by a point in the first round of the ACC Tournament — won it when Lorenzo Charles made a free throw with three seconds left to play. He had two shots for the win, and I remember he missed the first one very badly to the left. When asked how he made the second, he said: “I aimed more right.” N.C. State went on to the next round.
In the second round, N.C. State beat North Carolina in overtime — Whittenburg, who had returned but was still limping a bit, scored 11 points in that overtime. It didn’t hurt that Michael Jordan had fouled out of the game. Then, in the ACC Final, N.C. State’s players collapsed around Virginia’s Ralph Sampson — the Gulliver’s Travels comparisons were made, I recall — and somehow won. That qualified the Wolfpack for the NCAA Tournament. It was already something of a sports miracle. And it was only beginning.
In the first round, N.C. State beat Pepperdine in double overtime … and in one of the most unlikely victories I’ve ever seen. Pepperdine led by six with less than a minute left in the first overtime, led by three in the second overtime (and remember there was no three-point shot in the NCAA Tournament then). But the Waves players could not make a clutch free throw. Those were the days when every non-shooting foul was a one-and-one, which meant ridiculous last minute comebacks were more possible. Valvano’s teams relied on the heat of the moment. They relied on teams missing those free throws when it mattered most. It would not be the last time.
N.C. State beat UNLV by a point the next game — again they trailed late (by 12 in the second half) and again relied on the kindness of missed free throws to spark a comeback. The legend is that when the Wolfpack trailed by a dozen that Valvano called timeout and said: “OK, we’ve got them right where we want them.”
The Wolfpack then won its one easy game of the run — a 19-point victory over Utah — before facing Ralph Sampson and Virginia one last time. I’ve always thought Ralph Sampson would make for a great book. When he went to Virginia, he was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. He 7-foot-4, but he saw himself as a point guard. He was brilliantly coordinated, could shoot the outside jump shot, could block shots, could handle the ball, could pass the ball — if anything, it seemed like he had too many gifts and was blunted by the overwhelming array of choices. As a freshman, it seemed like he would change the face of basketball. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated six times during his college career. But, in the end, the career was defined by sadness. Individually, yes, he won the Naismith Award as named college basketball player of the year three times (something only Bill Walton has achieved). But he could not lead Virginia to the championship.
And here, in his last chance, N.C. State once again swarmed around him, and with 23 seconds left in the game and Virginia leading by a point, Charles found himself under the basket with the ball. Sampson could only foul, and once again the game was in the hands of Lorenzo Charles. He was only a sophomore then, and he had played a supporting role all year. But he had emerged during the run. He had become a scoring and rebounding force. When he would be asked about his transformation in later years, he would shrug and say that it just happened that way. He made both free throws, and N.C. State went to the Final Four.
Every one of these games lit up my life. I was not an N.C. State fan, not exactly, but somewhere along the way I began to see myself in that N.C. State team — the absurd underdog, the unlikely heroes, the team of misfits with the magnetic coach and a run of luck that seemed like something out of Disney. I have never understood why Disney had not made a movie about that team. They beat Georgia in the Final Four in a game without much drama, and then they played Houston in the championship game nobody thought they could win. It had been weeks, of course, since N.C. State had played a game anyone thought they could win, but the odds were especially stark against Houston. Those Cougars seemed unbeatable. They featured two future Hall of Famers (Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon). They did not just win games, they thundered. They were so dunk-happy they became known as Phi Slamma Jamma. The Cougars had just beaten Louisville in a Final Four game so thrilling and powerful that in my memory it is just a series of cartoonish dunks — players jumping over buildings, players stretching out their arms from one side of the court to the other like Mr. Fantastic and so on. There was no way N.C. State could beat Houston.
Of course, N.C. State did win the game. Houston — and coach Guy Lewis never heard the end of this — seemed to want a slower pace, and this suited the Wolfpack just fine. Houston’s players also missed nine of 19 free throws. It had to be this way. This was destiny. The game ended with perhaps the most famous sequence ever in college basketball history. The Wolfpack was scrambling to get a shot. The ball ended up in the hands of Whittenburg out near halfcourt. He tried a desperation shot (though Whittenburg had shot from out there before a few times). The shot was short, but the only one who seemed to realize it was the 6-foot-7 sophomore from Brooklyn with the broad smile, Lorenzo Charles. He was standing under the basket in what he would call “the wrong place for a rebounder.” But it was the right place for the moment. He was the only player who jumped — everyone else seemed lost in the moment. He caught the ball. He dunked it.
Two seconds later, Jim Valvano was running all over the court looking for someone to hug.
Outside our apartment window, I heard car horns blaring. Telephones rang up and down the street. And I felt about as happy as I had ever been. I’m not going to tell you that moment changed me or inspired me or anything like that. I can only say that the happiness consumed me. When you’re a little kid, it seems to me, everything seems possible. And as you get older, you find that it isn’t exactly true — you can’t really fly, Santa Claus might not land on your roof, Superman is not a career path. And the disappointments keep coming: You might not become president, you might not sing in front of a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden, you probably won’t play center field for the Dodgers or quarterback for the Cowboys or point guard for the Celtics, you probably won’t be the host of The Tonight Show. Those years of growing up can be a cold splash of reality. Wonder becomes myth. Magic becomes magic TRICKS. Possible becomes impossible.
But when Lorenzo Charles dunked the ball — the possible lived again.
And that’s what I think of now. Lorenzo Charles was too young to die. His friends talk about what a good person he was. They mention that smile that I remember so clearly. And again on television, they play video of the shot. Countless people through the years told Lorenzo Charles what that shot meant to them. When I met him, before a game, I heard someone else tell their own story about that shot, how he remembered it, how it affected his life. And I remember Lorenzo Charles nodded and said, “I still can’t believe it happened.”