For most people, Lorenzo Charles, who died last week in a bus accident at the age of 47, is little more than a footnote in sports history. If you are under the age of 35 or do not follow sports, you have probably never even heard of him. In some ways, Charles is the very definition of the old cliché “in the right place at the right time.” In the spring of 1983, it was Lorenzo Charles who caught a last second desperation shot by Wolfpack guard Dereck Whittenburg and stuffed it into the basket as time expired to give N.C. State the NCAA National Championship over the prohibitively favored Houston Cougars, a victory that is still regarded by most experts as one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
The night Lorenzo Charles capped the most improbable run ever by a college basketball team with his last second heroics, I was in the basement of Owen Dorm on the N.C. State campus, surrounded by friends I had made during the previous two years when I was still a student at State. I had dropped out of school and drifted off, but not so far that I could not easily swim back for something this big. After all, these same friends and I had, during my freshman year, formed something called the HOZE Squad, which began as a way to get in on the 10-cent draft beer nights at a bar called Edwards Grocery (a promotion aimed at fraternities, but we found a loophole by ordering shirts with Greek letters. What could they say?).
There were about eight of us on the second floor of Owen Dorm, and we were all rabid sports fans, willing to camp out all night to get the best possible seats for football and basketball games. We wore our HOZE shirts on 10-cent draft night at Edwards Grocery, and we wore them to football and basketball games.
One sunny Saturday, one of us went to Radio Shack and saw a plastic fireman’s hat with a siren on top. Now the HOZE Squad had shirts and matching firemen’s helmets to wear to the games. Since we always sat in the first few rows of each game and were fairly raucous and creative in finding new ways to taunt and distract the opposing team, we soon began getting a lot of attention. The crowds at Reynolds Coliseum soon began taking cues more from us than the Wolfpack cheerleaders, so they eventually invited us to join forces with them to pump up the crowd.
Lorenzo Charles was still in high school that year, but it was Coach Jimmy Valvano’s first year at State, while Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg, and Thurl Bailey, who would form the nucleus for the 83 championship team, were all just sophomores. Led by Art Jones and Kenny Matthews, the team had a so-so year, finishing 14-13, but the next year, the team went 22-10 and made the NCAA tournament, losing in the first round.
Even though I was gone by the time the 1982-1983 season began, there were high hopes for the team going into the season, although the Virginia Cavaliers had this fellow named Ralph Sampson and the UNC Tar Heels had this other fellow named Michael Jordan. Bailey and Lowe were marginal prospects to play in the NBA, but neither had great star potential, and when Whittenburg went down during the regular season with a bad ankle, the season was in jeopardy. In fact, by the time Whittenburg returned, the team was pretty well mired in the lower middle of the conference standings and literally had to win the ACC Tournament to squeak into the field for the NCAA tournament.
Of course, the Wolfpack DID win the ACC tournament — they won three games by a grand total of 11 points, including wins over Jordan’s Tarheels and Sampson’s Cavaliers — and did earn a bid to the “big dance,” where they were slotted as a sixth seed in the West regional. The Pack was almost bounced out of the tournament in the very first game, as they were down by six points with less than a minute to go in a game against Pepperdine, but Pepperdine missed some key free throws and Cozell McQueen made a shot to put the game into a second overtime, ultimately resulting in a narrow escape for NC State in the first round.
There was even more danger the next round, when the Pack fell behind the favored Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, this time by 12 points with about 12 minutes to play, but once again State rallied and won 71-70 on a shot by Thurl Bailey with four seconds left in the game.
The “Cardiac Pack,” as someone dubbed them, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen, where they had their one and only “ordinary” win, a 19-point win over Utah, which resulted in a rematch in the western regional final with the University of Virginia, ranked sixth in the nation and looking for revenge after the Wolfpack win in the ACC Tournament. Once again, State eked out a one-point win, 63-62, when Charles made two free throws with just seconds remaining in the game.
There is no way to overemphasize what a shock and delight it was to see N.C. State in the Final Four that year. Few, if any, fans expected anything more from that team at that time, especially with Houston and Louisville also in the Final Four. Luckily, those teams had to play each other in the semifinals, while State had Georgia in the other semifinal game. State did get by Georgia, while Houston, led by future NBA Hall of Fame players Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, looked every bit as dominant and scary as a college team featuring two future NBA Hall of Famers could possibly look in beating Louisville.
It has been nearly 30 years, and I still believe that if those two teams had played 10 more games after the championship game, Houston would have won all 10, most by double digits. But Valvano’s approach throughout the tournament had been to find a way to stay in the game, force other teams to make their free throws, and find a way to survive if they didn’t.
The only conceivable way State could hope to stay in the game was to control the tempo and get off to a good start, which they did by jumping out to a 32-25 halftime.
In the basement of Owen, we were about to come utterly unhinged. We were oh so close to winning it all, but we also knew that Houston could easily put up 50 or 60 points a half and win going away, as it had been expected to do.
Sure enough, the Cougars did rally and take a seven-point lead, but then the Wolfpack started to foul, a strategy that had served them well in getting to this point, and sure enough, the Cougars began missing their free throws. State eventually clawed to a 52-52 tie and had a chance to win the game in regulation, but the play Valvano had called broke down and all Dereck Whittenburg could do with time running out is fling up a wild shot from well beyond the top of the key.
That is when Lorenzo Charles changed our lives forever. When he stuffed the ball into the game and the buzzer sounded and Jim Valvano ran around the court looking for someone to hug, there was a frenzy of pure joy unlike anything that I have ever seen or felt. In the basement of Owen Dorm, everyone hugged everyone else. There were a lot of tears. People streamed out of the dorms and swarmed the campus, moving as one giant organism toward Hillsborough Street, where the party went on for hours and hours.
It was fitting that Lorenzo Charles had made the shot, and not Thurl Bailey or Sidney Lowe, because of how unlikely it all was. For the people who were there, Charles and the Wolfpack gave us an experience that we will never forget, a party to remember for the rest of our lives. For the HOZE Squad, eight guys who obsessed over the team as it developed over the course of three years into a national champion, Lorenzo Charles gave us something even more. He gave us a moment that any of us would name among the greatest of our entire lives, up there on the list where things like “birth of son” and “wedding” are listed, a notch below, perhaps, but JUST a notch.
On April 4, 1983, Lorenzo Charles taught us that literally anything can happen if you never give up. It sounds like some trite nonsense you would say to your child, perhaps half believing what you are saying, even as you say it. Except that we really do believe it. We believe it, because we saw it. We were there.
That’s why Charles’ death last week hit us hard. Oh, there were no more than a few Facebook posts to mark his passing among us, but there was a feeling in those posts that we all shared and all recognized. Lorenzo is gone too soon, but the spring of 1983 will burn brightly forever in our hearts. For us, he is no footnote; he’s an entire chapter, one we’ve dog-eared, highlighted, and committed to memory, a part of our very DNA.
May you rest in peace, Lorenzo Charles. The HOZE Squad says, “Thanks.”