Lorenzo Charles made the most famous basket in the history of college basketball. What people forget is that he made a few — more than a few, actually — other baskets. He wasn’t just the guy who got lucky and dunked home an air ball to fell mighty Houston. He was a very good player who was drafted by the wrong NBA team.
That team was the Atlanta Hawks. The year was 1985. He was the Round 2 pick (41st overall) of what would become a famous rookie class. The Round 1 pick was Jon Koncak; the Round 4 pick was John Battle. And there was a rookie free agent by the name of Spud Webb whose claim to fame at that time was that he’d played college ball with Lorenzo Charles.
The Hawks were the wrong team for Charles — known as “Lo” or “Zo,” FYI — because he played forward. These were the forwards ahead of him: Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis, Cliff Levingston and Antoine Carr. Charles played in 36 games as a rookie for a rising team that would finish 50-32. He made 49 baskets. He left the next summer for Europe. He would never play in the NBA again, which was a shame. He was a nice man, a hard worker and a talent.
Lorenzo Charles died Monday at age 47 when a bus he was driving — he was the only passenger — crashed alongside Interstate 40 in West Raleigh. I-40 runs near the RBC Center, which is where the North Carolina State Wolfpack plays home games now. Back in Charles’ day, the Pack played at Reynolds Coliseum on campus, and that was a time when the ACC was truly the ACC.
A partial list of ACC players who were Charles’ collegiate contemporaries: Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, James Worthy, Ralph Sampson, Len Bias, Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, Mark Alarie, Muggsy Bogues, Mark Price, John Salley. Let the record reflect that Charles made first-team all-ACC in 1984 and 1985 — the two seasons after his historic dunk.
OK, about the dunk: I was there. It was my first Final Four and, like pretty much everyone else in The Pit that Monday night in Albuquerque, I fully expected Houston to win. Its semifinal dunkathon against Louisville still stands as one of the most stunning games in basketball annals. (N.C. State, by way of contrast, had won a rather plodding decision over the Georgia Bulldogs.)
The championship game began with N.C. State controlling tempo — it had no choice, and there was no shot clock then — and taking a 33-25 halftime lead. The second half opened with Houston outscoring the Pack 17-2, whereabouts you figured order had been restored. But no.
Guy V. Lewis ordered his running Cougars into a delay of their own — Lewis called it the Loco-Motion, and it was truly loco — and the Pack crept back. Dereck Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe and sub Terry Gannon sailed in long jumpers. (No 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament back then, either.) Houston missed free throws. Somehow it was tied with the clock running down, whereupon the irrepressible Houston sub Benny Anders deflected a Thurl Bailey pass that could have become the winning dunk at the other end.
But no. Whittenburg ran the ball down near midcourt and, with nothing else to do, heaved it goalward. And then everything seemed to slow down and speed up at the same time.
One man jumped for it, and that one man wasn’t the guy who had dominated the Final Four. Hakeem Olajuwon, who took 40 rebounds over those two games in The Pit, watched benignly as someone rose to collect Whittenburg’s air ball and stuff it in the hoop.
Sitting there, I thought, “Who? Who was it?” Finally somebody else along press row shouted, “Charles!” And then I was down on the court, looking for someone to interview in the way Jim Valvano had run around looking for someone to hug, and I glanced up and saw Cozell McQueen, the Pack center, standing on the basket — his head was some 17 feet above the court — smiling and waving. And I thought, “I guess they really did win.”
(My dislocation, I should report, wasn’t an isolated case. If you’ve seen the CBS clip of the dunk — and you have a million times — you’ll note that play-by-play man Gary Bender describes Whittenburg’s cast thusly: “Oh, it’s a long way …” Then he falls silent, leaving commentator Billy Packer to shout: “They won it! On the dunk!”)
A forgotten footnote is that State, without seniors Lowe and Whittenburg and Bailey, would meet Houston, still with Olajuwon, in the Hall of Fame game in November 1983 and win again. Charles had 23 points and 13 rebounds that day in Springfield, Mass. From then on you thought of him not just as the lucky dunker but as a really good player. I saw him dominate Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum in 1985, and not long afterward he would come to Alexander Memorial Coliseum and outduel the first great team of the Bobby Cremins era.
Then he got drafted by the Hawks. If I ever went up to him and said, “You know, I was there in Albuquerque,” I don’t recall it. He was a quiet guy on a loud team, and by then the other Pack product — Spud Webb — was the rookie who was the rage. (The 5-foot-7 Spud dunked in his first NBA game.)
When news of his death arrived Monday night, my first thought was of Albuquerque, but I’m glad to say I had a few other memories of Lorenzo Charles. I only wish he’d stayed a Hawk longer. The guy could really play.
By Mark Bradley