Lorenzo Emile Charles, who is best known for taking a last-second desperation shot from teammate Dereck Whittenburg and slam-dunking the N.C. State Wolfpack basketball team to a 1983 NCAA championship title, died Monday afternoon in a bus crash on Interstate 40 in West Raleigh.
Police said Charles, 47, was driving a charter bus westbound on I-40 when he lost control on an exit ramp and crashed into a stand of trees. He was the only person on the bus.
A Raleigh police accident reconstruction unit remained at the crash scene Monday night, along with a unit of the N.C. Highway Patrol, to determine what caused the crash, police spokesman Jim Sughrue said. The accident blocked two lanes of I-40 for several hours.
News of Charles' death spread quickly among Wolfpack players, fans and others whom he had touched.
"It's just an awful day," Whittenburg said. "An awful, awful day."
New N.C. State basketball coach Mark Gottfried played for Alabama against Charles in the 1985 NCAA tournament. The two reminisced about that game, a Wolfpack win, when Charles visited the coaching staff last week on campus.
"He had a big smile on his face, and he was so full of life," Gottfried said. "We lost a great one, and I'm not just talking about the basketball player. He had a great personality."
Charles' reach in the sports world went beyond his contributions on the court. He drove for the Duke lacrosse team and became a part of the family, coach John Danowski said Monday. Danowski had Charles talk to the team during the NCAA tournament in 2010, before the Blue Devils won the national title.
"It's great that he scored that winning basket, but he was so much more than that," Danowski said. "Everyone here loved him. We are all heartbroken."
Charles was driving for Elite Tours, an Apex company also known as Elite Coach. Calls to the company were not returned, and no one came to the door after business hours.
Elite Tours has been registered as an interstate carrier since June 2009, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The company has five drivers and a fleet of seven vehicles, including limousines, vans and two full-size motor coaches.
The company had a good safety record. It was cited for a minor violation in April, when an Elite driver stopped for an inspection in Alabama failed to produce a current record of duty status to show that he or she had not driven too many hours without rest.
Charles, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., was a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High. After his days at N.C. State, he was selected 41st overall in the 1985 NBA draft and played one season in the NBA, averaging 3.4 points in 36 games with the Atlanta Hawks in 1985-86. He played internationally and in the Continental Basketball Association until 1999.
Charles finished his college career 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'll always be remembered, though, for that winning dunk in the 1983 NCAA tournament championship game against the heavily favored Houston Cougars. The Cougars were led by future NBA all-stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde "The Glide" Drexler.
That moment was quickly followed by another Wolfpack fans will never forget: late coach Jim Valvano running around the floor in amazed euphoria looking for someone to hug.
Valvano's widow, Pam Strasser, said Monday she was heartbroken to hear of Charles' passing and described him as always laid-back and polite.
"That night in Albuquerque, you'd never known he'd made the big shot. He was so humble," she said. "That was just Lorenzo, though. He was the same nice young guy whether we'd won or lost. He was quiet, but he loved people and loved being around those guys on that team."
Charles lived in Wake Forest with his wife, Theresa Charles.
Published in Charlotte Observer from June 28, 2011 to June 28, 2012