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Classic catches up with Dereck Whittenburg

Great Final Four moments

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Classic catches up with Lorenzo Charles
By Phillip Lee
Special to ESPN Classic

Lorenzo Charles scored the dunk heard 'round the world. His jam of Dereck Whittenburg's desperation miss gave North Carolina State an improbable 54-52 win over Houston and the 1983 national championship. After college, Lorenzo went on to a professional career that included a two year stint with the NBA's Atlanta Hawks. He has played in 11 countries and three american minor leagues. Last season he played in Uruguay where he averaged over 24 points and 12 rebounds. Charles is married to Teresa and resides in Raleigh, North Carolina during the off-season. Phillip Lee recently got in touch with Lorenzo to find out how things were going.

Phillip Lee: What are you doing these days?
Lorenzo Charles:
This year I coached basketball in the minor leagues in the International Basketball Association. I was coaching in Fargo, North Dakota -- the Fargo-Moorhead Beez.

Lorenzo Charles
North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano embraces sophomore forward Lorenzo Charles moments after Charles had dunked a shot to give North Carolina State the win over Houston in the 1983 NCAA final.
PL: How did the team do?
We made it to the playoffs, but we bowed out early. It was my first year of coaching. Originally, I was an assistant coach and then during the season, they decided to make a coaching change. They asked me if I wanted to take over, so I figured I'd give it a shot. It was a pretty good experience.

PL: What were you doing before coaching at Fargo?
I played in so many different countries over the past 13 or 14 years. After I left NC State, I got drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1985. I stayed there a couple of seasons. Then, I started the long trail of playing in different countries. I started off in Italy then Spain, Turkey, Sweden, Venezuela, Uruguay, Israel and China.

PL: What was it like playing in those countries?
It was different. You've got different cultures and different languages. Everywhere you go it's a different way of life. For the most part, the only constant was the basketball.

PL: How did you get the job at Fargo?
I was basically done with (playing). It was 13 or 14 years. I just hung up the sneakers. Then I got a call from the Fargo Beez asking me to help run the team and I figured I'd take a look at it -- I wanted to see what coaching was like. Coaching and playing are two different things entirely. As a player, there's always something that you can do to help decide the outcome of the game. As a coach, all you can really do is sit or stand there. It's all on the players to get the job done.

PL: What's more satisfying? Being a coach and seeing your team do well or being a player and doing well?
I actually thought about that the other day. What's better? Playing or coaching? You know what? You get the same feeling. We had a couple of close games this year where we pulled them out by a point or two, and, it was like, I had the same exact feeling as if I had scored points. I think for me, as a player, I was always excited on game day. I was always excited coming into the locker room seeing my uniform with my name on the back and knowing I was getting ready to go into competition against someone else and try to come out with a victory. Basically, it was the same thing as a coach. I'd wake up on game day and have that same feeling like I was getting ready to go into battle trying to come away with a victory. Even though I wasn't putting on the uniform, the thrill was still there. To just be involved in something and you look up at the end of the game at the scoreboard and the organization you're involved with is on top. That's the same feeling.

PL: How much satisfaction do you get as a coach in getting your players to play as a team?
A lot of times people want to give a lot of credit to the coach and say he made them do this and he made them do that. I don't really think so. You've got to have 10 mature individuals who are willing to police themselves. They're coming together because they're trying to reach a common goal. Like I said, it's minor leagues and everyone is basically trying to use things as resume-builders, as stepping stones to try to get to a higher level. So, basically, guys realize that if they don't come together and do it as a team, nobody's going to get out. So, okay, the coach calls the time-outs and the substitutions, but still, it's on the guys, they're going to have to want to do it.

PL: So, is coaching something that you want to pursue further?
I think so. I enjoyed it. There are so many more things I have to learn. I believe I'm a long way away from being where someone can say, "You're a good coach." There are tons of situations I still need to be in. But, I guess you learn as you grow. It's like on the job experience.

PL: Let's talk a little bit about 1983, NC State and the championship game. What was the point where you guys believed that you had a shot at willing it all?
We took every game one game at a time. We had the Pepperdine game, and the next game was against UNLV. For me, it probably wasn't until we actually beat Virginia in the West Regionals and advanced to the Final Four. Because the semifinal game was against Georgia, I felt as though we could at least get to the final round. I thought we could beat Georgia for the plain and simple fact that we played in the ACC. What a lot of people don't realize is the Atlantic Coast Conference is like no other conference in the country. Every league game you play is like an NCAA [Tournament] game. Every time you go on the road, or a team comes to your building, every game seems to be filled with March Madness euphoria. I don't know why that it, but it just is.

PL: I was talking to Dereck Whittenburg, and he told me the exact same thing saying that the ACC was the best league.
The ACC is a unique conference -- I'm telling you, when you can go into Cameron Indoor Stadium and play against Duke, and the Dean Dome and places like that. You can go in and play well and sometimes come out with victories. To tell you the truth, when you go into NCAA [Tournament] play, it's more or less the same. You've been doing it for two months. Like the Houston team we played in the finals, they were a good team. They had [Hakeem] Olajuwon and [Clyde] Drexler, players of that magnitude. But, if they had played in the ACC that year, they might have taken four or five losses.

PL: So there was really no intimidation going into the championship game?
Not when you have to play against Virginia with Ralph Sampson and the University of North Carolina and they have Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins and James Worthy and players like that. You come out of those wars, obviously there's no intimidation.

PL: How did the media affect you guys? The media didn't give you much of a chance against Houston. Did that play a part? Did you use it as motivation to say, "we'll prove these guys wrong."
No. We just wanted to go out and win a national championship. You know, it was there for the taking. So, we just went out there and took it. We didn't really pay much attention to the media. We just went out with our game plan and executed like we had been doing the whole year.

PL: Take me through those last few possessions of the championship game and what exactly went on.
What happened was the score was tied and I remember Alvin Franklin was at the free throw line for a 1 and 1. He missed the front end, and we rebounded and called a timeout. Coach (Jim Valvano) diagramed a play. It was a simple play. It wasn't really a bunch of X's and O's. Basically, all he diagramed was for Thurl Bailey and myself to camp out by the basket. He wanted Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg or Terry Gannon, one of our perimeter players, to just get the ball in the middle of the floor and make a move to the basket. Basically, go all the way to the basket and score, or draw one of the defenders off Thurl or myself and just dump the ball off to one of us. Somehow it got screwed up. I think, I'm not sure who got caught up in the corner with the ball, but someone did, and the outlet pass went to Dereck near the midcourt line. He just caught the ball and heaved it.

PL: And you were at the right place at the right time?
What happened was, somehow, someway, I was actually not standing in the right place. I wasn't standing where I should have been. I was standing up under the basket, which, as an offensive rebounder, you shouldn't. You should be around it. But, somehow I was standing directly below the basket and of the 10 players on the floor, I had the best view. So, I could see the ball was going to fall short, and no one else could. That's why I'm probably the only one who left the floor. I remember that Olajuwon didn't leave the floor because he probably didn't want to be called for goaltending. But, if he had been standing where I had been standing, he would have jumped. I saw the ball was going to fall short and basically what I did was I just jumped. I knew I was near the basket, so I didn't have to catch the ball, come back down and try to go back up, because I knew where I was. The only thing on my mind was "did I do it with enough time remaining on the clock?" Actually, what happened was, after I made the dunk, I came back down on the floor, looked up, and there were still two seconds remaining. They could have actually called a time out. But, I guess because it was so sudden, or whatever, everyone was in shock and no one reacted from the Houston team. Everyone was watching two seconds tick off the clock, and that was it. Next thing I know, everyone's on the floor, and it was just complete pandemonium. People rushing at me and this and that, and we won, and you know it was just awesome.

PL: Was it just an instinct play, because a lot of people may not have reacted as fast as you did?
I just reacted. I saw the ball was falling short. I just jumped and caught the ball and put it in. Plus, as far as pressure, I knew the score was already tied. So, it's not as though, if I had missed, we lose the game. We go into overtime. So, there was a lot of calmness on my part.

PL: How has that shot impacted your life, your philosophy and how you deal with your basketball career, your coaching and your life in general?
Basically, as far as the coaching part, this year was easy for me to always reflect back whenever things weren't going right because everyone on the team knew the whole come-from-behind victory. It was always easy for me to give the guys motivation, and it was easy for them to buy into it because it was coming from someone that had been through it. There were games this year when we were down 10 to 12 points with three to four minutes to go, and I could motivate the guys. There was always something I could share with them whenever they felt as if things weren't going correctly. As far as the dunk, it just stayed with me a long time. You look 18 years later, and people are still calling me to talk about it. I never imagined that. Back in 1983, I never imagined I'd still be talking about it at age 37.

PL: Talk about the chemistry of that North Carolina State team.
The team, as a whole, had a good bond. We did things together. I think that's important because to win big you need to have that bonding, that camaraderie in the locker room, things of that nature. You need to interact with each other, off the court as well as on the court.

PL: I was joking with [Dereck Whittenburg] and said, "You stole his thunder." He had 14 points, and you only had four, but you had the biggest two points of the whole game.
Yeah. I was a role player that year, actually, because it was my sophomore year. And, Sidney Lowe, Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey, they were our three leaders. They handled the bulk of the scoring. Cozelle McQueen, the center, and I were the role players. We basically rebounded and set picks for the other guys. We more or less did the dirty work. We weren't out there to get points -- most of my stuff that year came from the garbage baskets and things of that nature.

PL: How has the shot changed your life?
Well, it's made me a whole lot more recognizable in places I would never even imagine. Even in South America, they got things like HBO, ESPN and things like that just within the past four or five years. So, what happened was that one of the guys on the team was watching a Final Four show or something about the 1983 season. It was funny because throughout the program, they'd mention my name. Basically, what he thought was that I wasn't the same person.

PL: He thought it was someone else?
A lot of people, when they hear my name, they know of a guy who played at NC State who won the national championship, but they just think I'm someone else with his name. Then, what happens was they showed me and this guy was like "he plays on our team." After practice, I'd have to take them into the locker room and explain to them the whole shebang. You know, it's like "why are you hear with us?" I got that a lot.

PL: Do you ever think "I'm the guy who won the NCAA championship" and just sit back and go "wow"?
Sometimes I do, and I ask myself "why?" That's not a normal thing to happen. You don't play on national television in front of millions of people and dunk in basketballs to win national championships. That just doesn't happen. It rarely happens. For whatever reason, I just happened to be standing there.

PL: The Gods were just looking favorably on you, it seems.
There's another story, too. There was a reserve forward on our team, a guy by the name of Mike Warren. When we left the huddle to go out for that last play, he pulled me to the side, and he said, "Lo, you've got to get up and dunk, so we can win the game." And, I just looked at him like "yeah, whatever." Throughout the tournament, I had been averaging about two or three dunks a game, but it was pretty tough to get that off because Olajuwon was an outstanding shot blocker. I hadn't had one the whole game. And, so for whatever reason, Mike, before we walked out of that huddle, said, "Lo, you don't have any dunks yet that's why we're struggling. You've got to get a dunk to win the game." I was like "yeah, whatever." And, I went out there, and it happened.

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