It’s the single-greatest highlight in NCAA Tournament history: NC State’s Lorenzo Charles last-second dunk to win the 1983 NCAA title followed by pure chaos: Players, fans and mascot Mr. Wuf storm the court as the late Jim Valvano desperately looks for someone to hug.
Charles has seen the replay himself a couple hundred times, not that he needs reminding. It follows him everywhere he goes, whether it’s a pro basketball career that spanned 11 countries, a coaching stint in the now-defunct International Basketball Association or his current gig working for the Elite Coach limousine service in Cary, North Carolina.
Twenty-six years later Charles is still finding himself in the right place at the right time, as he’s also just-so-happened to drive the likes of Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and James Earl Jones in his limo.
We recently caught up with Charles to talk about his everlasting legacy, the pandemonium at The Pit, and a chance-encounter with our current Commander in Chief.
Lost Lettermen: Do you ever get sick of talking about the play?
Lorenzo Charles: There’s really no way you can get tired of talking about something like that. A moment like that that happened in sports. It was obviously a scenario that touched a lot of people’s lives, obviously Coach V. That team really meant a lot to a lot of people. It’s almost 30 years later and I’m still doing stories about it.
LL: How many calls do you get every March?
LC: Well, I get dozens of calls. Sports Illustrated, you name it. There’s so many. It always happens two weeks before the tournament. People call and they want to do a story on what happened that night. Sometimes I look back and I think NC State isn’t the only team to have won the national championship in the last 25 years. But for some reason, anytime this particular time of year comes around, they do these stories that talk about what happened that night.
When I reflect back on it, I would imagine it was probably the way that team won the national championship. Come-from-behind victory, the close game, winning the NCAA Tournament with ten losses. Things like that are just not common. I don’t think there have been many national championship teams that have had ten losses. I think it just makes for a very interesting story.
LL: Are you still driving for Elite Coach?
LC: I don’t drive as much as I used to. What I do now is go out and try and market the company and try and bring business into the company. It’s a little less driving now than I used to.
LL: But driving seems to be a great fit for your personality. Is it?
LC: It works out well around here. For the most part, you pick up someone that’s into sports – and how can you not be into sports in this part of the country? If I happen to mention my name, someone remembers and we end up going from there. So it works out pretty well for me.
LL: How often do people end up asking for your autograph?
LC: It doesn’t happen a whole lot. For the most part people are just grateful to have 5 to 10 minutes to talk about what happened that night. Everyone wants to know: What was I thinking right before I touched the ball? That’s a moment I get to relive time and time again.
LL: So, what were you thinking at that moment?
LC: I mean, I saw the ball coming. I knew Olajuwon was nearby. I really didn’t think I was going to be able to grab the ball and put it into the basket uncontested because I knew Hakeem was nearby and, for the most part, throughout the night his presence was a huge impediment for me trying to make baskets. And I just thought he was going to swoop by and swipe at the ball, or do something to try and stop me from making that basket.
I guess because of the way it all unfolded – it happened so quick – that nobody had enough time to react. I knew once that I grabbed the ball I wouldn’t be able to come back down and go up with it and put it back in. I knew that any opportunity at scoring that basket, I was going to have to grab that ball and in one motion try and put it through.
LL: Could you describe the moment afterward?
LC: Oh my God, it was complete pandemonium. As I said, I grabbed the ball, I came down, I watched two seconds click tick off the floor. I looked up, I saw the score was 54-52 NC State-Houston. I saw a sign that (said) “NC State National Champ.”
Initially I had to just stand back there and say to myself, “Did this really happen?” I mean because, obviously things like that don’t happen in real life. You’re not on national television in front of millions of people and have something that has a final say in a game such of that magnitude.
Stuff like that is just the stuff of dreams. When you’re growing up as a kid, you make believe that you score a basket – a jump shot or a dunk and you win the game and you’re a hero. But you really don’t believe that that’s going to happen in your life.
So when it happened – the way it happened – I just had to sit back and, as I said, almost pinch myself. “Did that really happen? Did we just win the national championship? Are we the really the kings in college basketball?”
LL: What’s your favorite memory of Jimmy V?
LC: There’s so many things to reflect on when you think about Coach V. For me, I think it was his enthusiasm he brought to the game – not just the game, but the enthusiasm he brought to everything he did. He always excited about coaching a game, he was always excited about practice. He was always excited about putting in a new play. Just like I said, the enthusiasm he brought, the work ethic, the excitement he brought into every day is something that I will always remember about him.
LL: Your friend and former teammate Sidney Lowe is already under fire after his second season as head coach. Could you talk about the pressure to win on Tobacco Road?
LC: Well basketball is really big here. College basketball is huge in this part of the country. Everybody wants to win. You’ve got the pressure of being 15 miles from two of the top teams in the country in UNC and Duke, with the great coaches that they have…
With those two programs around it’s very hard to be coaching a team that’s close to those guys and not be on the same par. The pressure to win here is huge. The pressure to win in the Atlantic Coast Conference is huge. If you’re not from this part of the country, you just don’t really understand how it is in this conference.
LL: Back to your job: Is it true you ended up as the driver for Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and James Earl Jones all just by chance?
LC: It was all by chance. It just happened. Actually our company this year – when Barack Obama came to Raleigh – his press campaign used our company for their transportation. And I actually got to take my picture with him. And him being a basketball guy, he knew who I was.
LL: What did he say?
LC: Like most people, they want to talk about that game and that night. Everyone I come in contact with, they always reminisce about what they were doing the night we won the national championship.
LL: How special was that?
LC: Just standing there thinking to yourself, “This guy is the next leader of the country and he wants to take a picture with you. He wants to ask you a question.” For me it’s just unbelievable.
When I made that shot in 1983 I honestly thought it would be a nice 15 minutes of fame, and two months from now it will be forgotten and I won’t have to talk about it any more. And here it is 26 years later, and I’m still talking to people like you.
LL: Do you ever say to yourself, “What are the odds of all these things happening to me?”
LC: Exactly. I had no idea I would ever be coming in contact with people of that magnitude and just have the opportunity to soak it up and enjoy the moment. Things like that – Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, James Earl Jones – for me that rates right up there with being the hero of the national championship.