Lorenzo Charles: Wrong Place, Right Time
Editor's note: This story originally appeared as a chapter in "Legends of NC State Basketball," by GoPack.com managing editor Tim Peeler (SportsPublishing LLC, © 2004). It is reprinted here with permission.
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. –Lorenzo Charles admits it: no one ever got more out of a total screw-up than he did.
There was no reason on that night in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for him to be unattended under the basket. He should have been further away, like Thurl Bailey was, worrying about boxing out Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston's All-America center. He should have been anywhere except directly under the cylinder, the last place you go for an offensive rebound.
"Most people say I was the guy who was in the right place at the right time," Charles says nearly a quarter century after the most famous put-back in NCAA Tournament history. "Actually, I was in the wrong place at the right time, because as an offensive rebounder, the particular position I was standing in when Dereck (Whittenburg) shot the ball was the wrong place to be.
"I was standing under the cylinder, which is exactly where you don't want to be if you are going to be a decent offensive rebounder."
But in the aftermath of what followed, no one pulled Charles aside to review his rebounding fundamentals. Jim Valvano was too busy looking for someone to hug. The rest of the players were too busy celebrating one of the most unlikely championships in the history of the NCAA Tournament. And everybody back home in Raleigh was too busy storming the Brickyard and Hillsborough Street.
What Charles did that night was purely reactionary. Every time the shot is replayed, he looks like someone who has done something wrong. All he did on the night of April 4, 1983, was grab Whittenburg's airball from 30 feet, and stuff it through the basket. Then he started looking around to see if anyone was going to yell at him. After all, he had scored only two points in the game to that point, and no one in the building expected the ball to end up in his hands.
In fact, during the final timeout, with the game tied at 52, Valvano pulled Charles aside before he went back onto the floor and chided him for his lackadaisical effort in the most important game off his career.
"Lo, you haven't done anything all night," Valvano told him. "I wish you would wake up."
Boy, did he ever.
But after he made the shot, there was a long pause, as everyone waited to see if the officials might somehow wave off the basket. Then, pandemonium ensued.
There was a long pause, as everyone waited to see if the officials might somehow wave off the basket. Then pandemonium ensued.
"I never heard the buzzer," Charles said in a 1984 interview. "I couldn't hear what the guys were telling me. They were trying to tell me that the shot was good, the dunk was in time, that we had won."
But there was enough doubt in Charles' mind that he didn't start celebrating immediately, mainly because all he could think was that he was standing where he shouldn't have been.
"I was right up under the basket, so I had the best view of anybody on the floor," Charles says. "Had I been where Thurl was or Hakeem was, I wouldn't have jumped for fear of offensive goal-tending. That's probably why no one else made a move to the basket.
"There wasn't a whole lot of thought involved. I just went up, got my hands on the ball and put it in. I knew there wasn't much time left."
What astounds Charles, though, is that the dunk that gave the Wolfpack its 54-52 victory over the famed Phi Slamma Jamma, is still replayed over and over and over during highlights of March Madness.
"Here it is, more than 20 years later and people are still talking about it," he says. "When it happened, I thought I would have my little 15 minutes of fame and that would be it."
But when he sees the play, there are always certain things that come to mind for Charles, turning his demure face upside down with a broad grin. He remembers the pep rally in Reynolds Coliseum the day the team returned, and addressing the crowd wearing his long-sleeve T-shirt and his askance fishing hat.
"I remember the euphoria, the pandemonium, the all-out great college atmosphere we came back to when we returned from New Mexico," Charles said.
But what he should also remember is not only that the shot that changed the dreams of every basketball underdog, the basket that put the craziness into March Madness, was also the transforming moment of his career.
Until the Wolfpack went on its nine-game run to the ACC title and NCAA championship, Charles was a regular in the Wolfpack lineup, but he was hardly a big contributor. He left the scoring up to Whittenburg, Bailey and Sidney Lowe, the heart-and-soul seniors playing their final season of basketball.
Charles, almost negligible in the Wolfpack's first 20 games, grew up after Whittenburg suffered what was thought to be a season-ended broken foot in January. In the Wolfpack's final 13 games that year, he averaged 11.5 points and 8.5 rebounds, and scored the winning points in three of his team's nine post-season games.
By the next season, his game - and body - had completely transformed.
"He used to try to dunk everything,'' Valvano once said of the player who eventually evolved into an All-ACC and All-America selection. "I mean everything. A little child walked by, and he tried to dunk him."
Despite his rippling, muscular arms, it was a frequent misconception that the Brooklyn, New York,-born Charles was always a muscle-bound monster in the paint. He never lifted weights in high school, and didn't start in college until Cozell McQueen finally shamed him into making regular trips to the weight room.
"There were times," Valvano once said of Charles, "when he couldn't run up and down the court three times without asking to be taken out.''
But between his sophomore and junior seasons, spurred by the notoriety he gained from making the game-winning shot and the confidence that it gave him, Charles spent the summer lifting weights, doing 500-pound squats and dozens of pull-ups wearing a 50-pound belt.
The result was a well-defined body that had 15 more pounds of muscle than when he made his famous jam. He became a fearsome offensive player, who had a surprisingly soft touch on his mid-range jumpshots.
"He is so strong," Missouri coach Norm Stewart said of Charles following a 1984 contest. "We tried to front him and the only thing that did was give him good board position for easy putbacks. But I had promised the other players' mothers that I wouldn't put their sons on Charles."
His physical presence helped the Wolfpack win 10 of its first 12 games in 1983-84, but teams eventually learned to double- and triple-team him, taking advantage of the Wolfpack's lack of depth inside. State lost its last seven games and was not invited into the NCAA field to defend its championship.
"I think he has the greatest touch for a player his size that I have ever seen,'' Valvano said of his rising star following his junior season. "He's a physical-finesse player."
Charles improved so much that junior season that there were reports – unfounded, he says even today – that he might declare early for the NBA draft. But he came back as a senior and dominated, earning first-team All-ACC honors and finishing second in the ACC Player of the Year voting to Len Bias. He helped the Wolfpack get back to the Final Eight in the NCAA Tournament, thanks to a pair of wins in a return trip to Albuquerque. But he missed out on a chance to return to the Final Four when the Wolfpack lost to St. John's in Denver in the West Region finals.
Though Charles' physique would have seemed to make him a strong prospect for the NBA, at 6-foot-7, he was just between sizes for a power forward and a small forward. He was a second-round pick (No. 41 overall) in the draft by the Atlanta Hawks.
"I was disappointed in going only in the second round," Charles says. "I honestly thought I had played to the level of what a first-round draft pick needs to play to. There are times it doesn't work out like that.
"I know size is a big deal, but I think desire is something you should measure a player on. The way the NBA goes, everybody doesn't get an equal shot. When you are not drafted in the first round, you don't get as much opportunity to be successful as a first-round pick gets. Going in the second round, opportunities for playing time were few and far between. When you are a second-round pick, you have to wait your turn and sometimes that turn never comes.''
While he played only one year in the NBA, averaging 3.4 points and 1.1 rebounds with the Hawks, he played professionally for some 13 years, in the NBA, the Continental Basketball Association and the United States Basketball Association. He played abroad in Italy, Great Britain, Spain, Uruguay, Sweden, Turkey and Argentina.
"You more or less go where the job is,'' Charles says.
He eventually settled down in Wake Forest, N.C., where he works for a local transportation company.
"He was a great college player,'' says former teammate Nate McMillan, now the coach of the NBA's Portland Trailblazers. "His game, his size, everything that he did was perfect for college basketball. He was a monster in the paint, and he just dominated down there.
"For the pros, he was undersized, and he was just a scorer. He didn't do the other things the NBA people look for."
But on one certain night in New Mexico, Charles did exactly what was needed, even if he was in the wrong place at the right time.
You may contact Tim Peeler at email@example.com.