The Tragic Death of NC State Basketball Hero Lorenzo Charles
Every college basketball fan knows exactly where they were when NC State beat Houston on a game-winning dunk in the 1983 National Championship. When Dereck Whittenburg’s desperate heave came up woefully short, Lorenzo Charles sprung to action and capped off the most miraculous playoff run in NCAA basketball history. Charles will forever be remembered as the hero from that unlikely season. Unfortunately, he isn’t around to celebrate today.
Lorenzo Charles had an underrated college basketball career at NC State
Lorenzo Charles is widely remembered solely for his game-winning dunk in the 1983 National Championship, but he actually played his best basketball in the years afterward.
Charles averaged just 8.1 points per game in 1983. He was fifth on the team in scoring and second in rebounds per game (6.0). Charles took a backseat to Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey for much of the season, but he showed up when it mattered most.
After the 1983 title, Charles returned for his junior season and enjoyed his best season at NC State. With Whittenburg and Bailey gone, Charles took their place as the top scorer on the team. He upped his average from 8.1 points per game to 18.0 in just one season.
Charles led the Wolfpack to a 19-14 record in 1984, but he couldn’t lead them to a postseason appearance. In his senior season, Charles led NC State to a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament after scoring a team-high 18.1 points per game. He guided the Wolfpack to the Elite Eight before falling to No. 1 St. John’s.
Lorenzo Charles made one of the most famous shots in NCAA history
When NC State reached the 1983 title game, no one around the sport even gave them a chance. Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jama” team featured future NBA Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, but it had a loaded team from top to bottom.
Houston didn’t just like to beat teams in 1983. They wanted to embarrass them. If there was a chance to dunk on the opponent at any point during a game, they took it. Up two or up 20, it didn’t matter.
NC State had a magical season to that point, but everyone thought it was about to end. Everyone except NC State.
The Wolfpack slowed the game to a sloth’s pace to stop Houston from getting out in transition, and it worked to perfection. NC State got out to an early lead and showed the world they weren’t here to hand the trophy for the Cougars.
Houston battled back and tied the game with under a minute left, but NC State had the chance to take the last shot. Whittenburg, who made seemingly every big shot for the team in 1983, was the obvious choice to take it.
With five seconds left, Whittenburg heaved a prayer from near half-court after a broken play. The game seemed destined for overtime until Lorenzo Charles jumped up and dunked the ball home as time ran out. It remains today one of the greatest game-winners in basketball history.
The tragic death of Lorenzo Charles in 2011
On June 27, 2011, Lorenzo Charles was driving a bus along the highway when he lost control and crashed on Interstate 40. A civilian attempted CPR on the NC State legend, but Charles died at the scene. He was 47 years old.
“It’s a terrible day for the ’83 team, a terrible day,” Whittenburg told ESPN’s Andy Katz. “He’s just a positive, a warm spirit. On the court, he never smiled. He was a competitor. He was tough and all that. Off the court, he was a gentle giant. Man, he came with that bubbly smile.”
Whittenburg and the remaining NC State players from 1983 recently reunited for ESPN 30 for 30’s “Survive and Advance.” They all sat around a table reminiscing on their championship season and telling stories of the old days.
It was a touching day for the memorable team, but there was a massive void as Charles wasn’t around to join them.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference