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Either way, Charles was happy the spotlight settled where it did. His own NBA career didn’t last as long as he’d hoped. He stayed in the game by playing in smaller leagues all around the world, then tried his hand at coaching. Charles eventually wound up back in Raleigh driving a bus.

Somehow, the unending interest in Charles‘ singular feat always caught him by surprise. Maybe that’s how he made you feel better simply for asking.

What Charles chose to remember most, though, was the effort Valvano coaxed from his team night after night during that meat-grinder of a season. Whittenburg, the Wolfpack’s best shooter, broke his foot early on and N.C. State had to run the table in the ACC tournament just to make the tournament. Then came a series of squeakers. Last up was high-flying Houston, whose destruction of the field justified the moniker “Phi Slamma Jamma.”

“I’m sure lots of people figured we didn’t even belong on the same floor,” Charles said, “But a lot of them forgot how tough it was just surviving the ACC week in and week out. North Carolina had Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins. Maryland had Lenny Bias. Virginia had Ralph Sampson.”

And so convincing was Valvano in the role of underdog that according to most retellings, he was all N.C. State had. In fact, the Wolfpack had a topflight trio of guards _ flanking Whittenberg was Sidney Lowe and Terry Gannon _ and rugged, reliable presences underneath on both ends of the floor in Charles and Thurl Bailey.

But once Valvano got going, even his own kids forgot about that. He’d be in the middle of drawing up the pregame sets, then put the clipboard under one arm and scream, “You got to be a dreamer.” A moment later, a composed Valvano would point to the blackboard and add, “And if all five of you don’t get back down the floor and play defense every time, they’re going to break that dream into little, bitty pieces.”

Whittenburg, who recounted that story three years ago, added, “Then. he’d have to stop himself from cracking up. He never failed to make you laugh or feel good about yourself, and there aren’t a lot of people you meet in life who can do that.”

And even more unfortunate, another one of them is gone.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org