Charles leaves behind primer in how to handle fame

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He never quite believed it himself.

At least that’s what Lorenzo Charles always said _ from the second after he flushed one of the most dramatic baskets in the history of the college game all the way to the end of his life. Sadly, that came Monday, when the charter bus that Charles was driving crashed along Interstate 40 in Raleigh, N.C. He was 47.

I heard him say it near the end of a phone conversation one April afternoon three years ago. Charles was one of several North Carolina State players contributing memories for a story to mark the 25th anniversary of the Wolfpack’s improbable 1983 NCAA Championship. Like his teammates, he was asked to recreate the last few seconds of the final game against a Houston team fronted by two future Hall of Famers _ Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler _ that almost no one believed could lose.

Charles recalled where everyone else was on the floor, and what they were doing, heartbeat by heartbeat. When he got around to Olajuwon, his opposite that night, the description was so vivid you could have guessed what the Houston center ate during the pregame meal. Charles didn’t enter his own highlight reel until the very end, and even then, reluctantly.

In the video clip, though, he looks like the only player with a clue of what’s about to unfold. He leaps out from underneath the basket just in time to grab guard Dereck Whittenburg’s desperate heave from 30 feet out and dunk it in one fluid motion: N.C. State 54, Houston 52.

“I was out of position,” Charles chuckled, “because when you’re going for a rebound and putback, you’re supposed to be a step or two away to build up some steam. But it turned out to be the perfect place.”

That’s all?

“I could see the ball was going to fall short, and my only concern was Hakeem. I was waiting for that big arm to swoop by and block my shot. “And,” he paused, still marveling all those years later, “it never happened.”

No matter how the question was asked, Charles kept describing his contribution as a lucky break. It was too humble. There had to be more.

“No, that’s pretty much it. “Turned out to be right place, right time,” he said softly. “Just maybe not the guy people expected.”

Another long pause ensued.

“I have a hard time,” he said softly, “believing it myself.”

It was neither the first nor the last time he said that. His teammates confirmed that was vintage Charles. Opportunistic and tough as nails the second he stepped on the court, just the way you’d expect a kid from Brooklyn to be; saying only so much and laughing a lot as soon as he stepped away. Always deflecting the attention somewhere else.

So it came as little surprise that Charles hardly cared the moment after his dunk has become even more memorable still. That was when the buzzer sounded and NC State coach Jim Valvano stormed the floor like a one-man tidal wave, looking for someone to hug.

Maybe it’s because Valvano was at his absolute peak as a showman. Or because a decade later, his body wracked by cancer, Valvano cast the same magical spell over a national TV audience _ “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up,” he said that night _ he had cast over a dozen youngsters for a few months in 1983.

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