The hearts of many area sports fans fell heavy yesterday upon learning the identity of the driver in the fatal bus accident on Interstate 40: Lorenzo Charles. Charles and his Cardiac Pack teammates captured the hearts of not only the vast majority of North Carolinians on April 4, 1983, but those of many across the nation.
The 1983 season carried few national story lines: Could Ralph Sampson finally win it after turning down the NBA again?, Could Michael Jordan and a strong UNC team earn another title? Could Guy Lewis’ incredibly talented team continue its dominance through the post-season? That Houston team had names like Micheaux, Franklin, and Young, but it also had Akeem “The Dream” Olajuwan and Clyde Drexler, who would go on to be two of the NBA’s Greatest 50 Players. The team was perhaps the greatest fast-breaking team in history, easily earning the moniker “Phi Slamma Jamma”. The way they dismantled a sensational Villanova team in Kemper Arena in the Regional Finals was nothing short of scary. They were a great rebounding team, too, so dominant that only a miracle could stop them.
Lorenzo Charles came to Raleigh in the fall of 1981 from Brooklyn and quickly became a household name; for the wrong reasons. One night during his first semester, Charles mugged a Domino’s Pizza delivery man and became the brunt of jokes across the ACC. Duke students greeted him with pizza boxes as (yet another) NCSU player had gotten in trouble with the law (see Tiny Pender). Charles settled in, worked on his game, and became a bona fide starter his sophomore year.
The 1983 team was a solid team on paper, but they were thin in the backcourt. Things got worse one night in January when Virginia’s Othell Wilson landed from a jumpshot on Derrick Whittenburg’s right foot, breaking the DeMatha product’s Right 5th Metatarsal bone. Whittenburg would not play for roughly six weeks. During that 14-game period, the Pack struggled going 9-5, but taught us a valuable lesson about laying down a foundation when times are tough. Young shooter Terry Gannon got more reps, and Ernie Meyers’ game really flourished. Little did we know how important they would be spelling starters in tight, more important games.
Whittenburg, coincidentally, returned to play in the Pack’s game at Virginia, and it took a few games for the team to find its rhythm. However in the regular season’s final game, the Pack flexed its muscle in a way that hadn’t been seen since David Thompson left early to the NBA; a 130-89 thrashing of a solid Wake Forest team. “Hmm,” we thought.
Still, NCSU had lost 10 regular season games and needed to get to the ACC championship game to even be in the NCAA tournament conversation, by most accounts. Its first opponent in the ACC tournament was a familiar face; Wake Forest. This time, though, it was a nip and tuck game to open the tournament, coming down to two free throws with a dead clock to win the game 71-70. Who made those two shots? Lorenzo Charles, a 67% free throw shooter.
Next came an improbable OT win against the defending National Champion Tar Heels, led by Sam Perkins and the eventual greatest player to play the game, Michael Jordan. Only Ralph Sampson and the Virginia Cavaliers stood between the Pack and the Big Dance now. NCSU squeaked out a 3-point win for the ACC title, and earned the automatic bid to the tournament. “Four for Albuquerque!” my family announced as we facetiously begged scalpers for Final Four tickets while leaving The Omni.
Of course the Cardiac Pack went on to dispose of Jim Harrick’s Pepperdine team in a double OT heart-stopper in the middle of the night. Next was a last-minute upset of nationally 6th–ranked UNLV. In the Sweet 16 State got a bit of a break, as Utah was no match for the Pack. However the Pack would have another legendary game in a 4th game against the mighty Virginia Cavaliers. The one-point win disposing of 4-year media darling Ralph Sampson sent the city of Raleigh into a frenzy. Horns could be heard across the city as fans poured into the Brickyard for the Pack’s first return to the Final Four since winning it all in 1974.
The Pack went on to handily beat the Georgia team that knocked off UNC, and the well-documented championship became the Houston coronation that wasn’t. State found itself in familiar territory against Houston; down by 6 with around a minute left. We’ve all seen the desperation shot by Derrick Whittenburg and the miraculous stuff by Lorenzo Charles. Almost equally as bewildering, though, is that it was the game’s only dunk, and that Lorenzo Charles only scored 4 points.
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Books have been written about the miraculous ‘83 team, however none quite address how the experience keeps teaching lessons and keeps impacting the Raleigh area. For this 8th grader, it was a bright light in a dismal education period. Junior High was not easy, but NCSU’s win brought the school together as fans of all schools stunningly celebrated the miraculous championship. I was obsessed with jumping and increasing my vertical jump during that period, and it was the first time that I was able to touch a 9-foot ceiling. As the grade’s second-shortest person, the touch taught me that we can go beyond our perceived boundaries, especially when we are truly inspired.
Lorenzo Charles was basketball role model. I always wanted to have a tough, back-to-the-basket game like his. While playing a big-man basketball game was never in the cards for me, it still was a fun escape. More importantly, though, Charles stood as a testament to those who have gotten in trouble; you are not eternally damned and are still capable of greatness.
The ‘83 championship inspired dreams of many, and one of those dreams was that of having a first-class arena. Both Mayor Avery Upchurch and Coach Jim Valvano lobbied necessary people for years to achieve that dream, and today, Raleigh’s RBC Center is one of country’s finest. It is Raleigh’s first climate controlled space that can accommodate more than 2,000 people.
The ‘83 Wolfpack team marked the beginning of an era in the NCAA tournament. Until Charles’ moment, the tournament was predominantly about big programs winning it all. We were less than a decade removed from UCLA’s dominance, and still the rule was that in order to win it all, one needs to be a Top 5 kind of program all season long. Most of the tournament games were predictable and parity was just a concept. After ‘83, tournament games became anyone’s. It was a moment that forever changed the course of the tournament, and turned it into one of the top annual sporting events.
Lorenzo Charles’ professional basketball career was modest, and he went on to be the most recognized limousine driver in the area. Always carrying a smile, he was instantly recognizable to those who were here before Est Est Est was the only decent restaurant downtown. Lorenzo was a walking trophy, representing Hope and all that we can do. Those were some of the favorite moments in our lives, and we will never forget them. We will miss you, Lo Man.
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