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Charles created one of NCAA’s enduring memories

POSTED: June 29, 2011 9:22 a.m.

RALEIGH, N.C. — Lorenzo Charles always knew how to deliver.
He brought North Carolina State its last national title in 1983 while creating one of the NCAA tournament’s enduring moments. Then, he delivered in a different way during his second career as a bus and limousine driver, with friends and teammates saying he embraced that role with the same enthusiasm.
Charles was remembered Tuesday for his imposing presence on the court and his gentle demeanor away from it, one day after the hero of the Wolfpack’s most recent championship team was killed in a bus wreck.
His last-second dunk off an errant 30-foot heave gave the underdog Wolfpack a two-point win over Houston in the title game, setting off an unforgettable celebration that remains a staple of NCAA tournament television coverage nearly three decades later.
“He was just a fun-loving guy,” former N.C. State teammate Ernie Myers said. “He was a big, muscular guy — ‘Hey, this guy’s really intimidating’ — but he’s a quintessential giant. Good-hearted, loved to laugh. I can hear him laughing right now.”
Charles, 47, was killed Monday when the Elite Coach charter bus he was driving crashed along Interstate 40 in Raleigh, a bus company official said. No passengers were aboard.
“I lost a very good friend in Lorenzo,” N.C. State teammate Spud Webb said. “He always had a big smile and a big laugh that I will always remember. He was a gentle giant.”
After Charles’ playing career ended in the late 1990s, he began driving buses and limos, Myers said. Charles worked for Elite Coach, a limousine and bus company based in nearby Apex, and among its clients were Duke’s lacrosse team and the North Carolina softball team, Myers said.
“He loved doing it. ... He loved driving and traveling around the country. He loved taking the trips,” Myers said, adding that North Carolina softball coach Donna Papa once “came up to me and said, ‘Be sure to tell Lorenzo he’s like part of our family.’
“This part of town, that would be kind of sacrilegious,” Myers added, nodding to the fierce college rivalries in the North Carolina Triangle. “But he did a good job of what he was doing, and he liked doing it.”
Charles will be remembered for his split-second reaction to a teammate’s last-gasp airball nearly three decades ago in Albuquerque, N.M.
The Wolfpack were tied with Clyde Drexler- and Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston in the ’83 championship game with time ticking away when Dereck Whittenburg hoisted a heave from well beyond the key.
Charles pulled the ball out of the air and slammed it home at the buzzer, giving N.C. State a 54-52 win. That sent late coach Jim Valvano spilling onto the court in search of someone — anyone — to hug.
Charles finished his college career two years later with 1,535 total points — 15th on the school’s scoring list — and his .575 shooting percentage in 1985 remains a school record for seniors. He played one season in the NBA, averaging 3.4 points in 36 games with the Atlanta Hawks in 1985-86, and played internationally and in the Continental Basketball Association until 1999.
“Lorenzo left an indelible impact in sports lore that will never be forgotten, and while he will be forever remembered for his accomplishments at North Carolina State, the
Atlanta Hawks family would like to extend heartfelt condolences to the Charles family,” said Dominique Wilkins, a pro teammate of Charles’ and now the Hawks’ vice-president of basketball operations.
There were few details about the one-vehicle crash that took Charles’ life. Video shows the windshield broken out with tree limbs sticking through the window frame. The rear wheels of the bus were on an embankment, leaving the right front tire elevated from the road.
Myers said he and his family were driving on vacation Sunday when he last spoke to Charles.
“He said, ‘Ernie, I’ll call you back.’ His wife called him on the other line, and he never called me back,” Myers said. “It’s just kind of surreal.”

Associated Press Writer Tom Foreman Jr. in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.

 

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