Lorenzo’s Dunk

I saw the news scroll across the bottom of the TV screen Monday. Lornenzo Charles had been killed in a bus accident.

It took me a while to recall who that was. It wasn’t a name I’d heard in a while, but I knew that I SHOULD know who he was. Then I remembered… and smiled. Not, of course, because Charles had passed away, but because of the memory… the only memory I have, really… of watching him play basketball.

Charles, Valvano and the Wolfpack (Picture: Sports Illustrated)

Charles, of course, is famous for “the dunk”. On the night of April 4, 1983, he found himself standing under the basket (out of rebounding position, actually) at the end of the 1983 NCAA Championship Game. Trailing Houston, Charles’ NC State teammate Derek Whittenburg launched about a 30 foot shot with just a few seconds left in the game. The shot was clearly going to be short, sealing the National Championship for the Phi Slamma Jamma guys from Houston. Then a single figure in red uniform rose from under the basket, grabbed the ball just as it fell short of the rim and slammed it through. The Wolfpack won and suddenly there was coach Jim Valvano running around the court looking for a hug.

I’ve lived in Big Ten country pretty much my whole life, so I’m not an ACC guy. But I’ll always remember that game. See, I was watching it in a hospital room.

My wife was pregnant with our first child in early April of that year and on the morning of April 4, her water broke and we headed in to the hospital. She didn’t start having contractions, however, so eventually they induced labor. We had a student nurse “shadowing” our delivery all day, so the three of us just sort of spent the afternoon together. It happened to be MLB’s Opening Day, so we watched the Reds play someone in the afternoon (OK, mostly it was the student nurse and me watching the game… Cedar Rapids was the Class A affiliate of the Reds in those days, so she and I both knew some of the Reds players).

As the sun set, there was still no baby, but there were occasional contractions. That night was the NC State/Houston National Championship Game, so we started watching that, too. My wife’s contractions started coming a bit more frequently, so we turned the sound off on the TV (see how considerate I was?) and I did my husbandly duties as I learned them to be in Lamaze Class.

The final minutes of the game, as I recall them, were a blur of intentional fouls, puffs of breath in time with my wife’s contractions, and missed Houston free throws. Finally, with mere seconds remaining, the Wolfpack took the ball out of bounds for the final possession.

Naturally, my wife chose that exact time to start another contraction, which could have led to a guy having to make some very difficult choices.

But, it turns out, I’m pretty good at multi-tasking.

I managed to blow in her face, watch that final amazing dunk by Lorenzo Charles, catch the student nurse’s eyes with a mutual “did you see that!?!?!” expression, all without the wife even knowing (much less caring) what had happened. Am I good or what?

It certainly wasn’t the highlight of my night (though, technically, our son was born after midnight, so the BIG highlight came on April 5), but it made the night even more memorable than it already would have been.

Charles was just an underclassman in 1983 and never became an NBA superstar. He apparently played professional ball at lower levels around the world and did some coaching, too. He was working as a bus driver for a charter bus company when his bus crashed Monday, killing him at the age of 47. By all accounts, he was a good human being and I’m sure he’ll be missed by friends and family, alike.

It would be an overstatement to say I will miss Lorenzo Charles. But he did play a significant role in one of the most important nights of my life. For that, he’ll always have a spot in my heart. Rest in peace, Lorenzo, and thank you for the memory.

– JC