College Basketball Legend Lorenzo Charles Dies

Robert Siegel speaks with Dereck Whittenburg about the death of Lorenzo Charles, a member of the NC State Wolfpack who made the 1983 NCAA national title-winning dunk. They were the underdogs to the No. 1 Houston Cougars — also known then as Phi Slamma Jamma — a team that included future NBA greats Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Whittenburg threw the ball that Charles grabbed and dunked in the last seconds of the game, upsetting Houston and giving NC State the stunning win.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

It was one of those moments that make college basketball magical - the final game of the men's NCAA tournament 28 years ago. There were giants on the court that night. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, who both went on to be professional superstars, were playing for the University of Houston. They were heavily favored to beat North Carolina State.

The score was tied. Time was running out. State's Dereck Whittenburg had the ball near half court. Lorenzo Charles, a six-foot seven-inch wide-body kid out of Brooklyn, was under the basket.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: It's down to seven seconds.

Unidentified Man #2: You can see the time.

Unidentified Man #1: Whittenburg, Olajuwon, way down the court.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: They won it...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: ...on the dunk.

SIEGEL: Whittenburg's shot was an air ball. But Lorenzo Charles jumped and caught it, as if it had been the most carefully planned alley oop pass ever thrown and he dunked it. North Carolina State won the championship in one of the sport's greatest upsets. Lorenzo Charles was a hero, a star in a state where they take their college basketball stars very seriously.

Lorenzo Charles died this week when the bus he was driving crashed in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was 47 and the bus had no passengers.

Joining me now to talk about the life of Lorenzo Charles and the shot that links them together is Dereck Whittenburg, who went on to coach college basketball at Wagner and Fordham in New York. Welcome. And I'm sorry for the loss of your friend and teammate.

Mr. DERECK WHITTENBURG (Sports Commentator, ESPN): Well, thank you very much, and our condolences from my family to Lorenzo's family. And what a tragic loss but what a lot of great memories about a wonderful teammate.

SIEGEL: How about that one memory, that shot that - I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, that shot or pass you threw to Lorenzo Charles.

Mr. WHITTENBURG: Well, Lorenzo and I will be linked together for the rest of my life and for college basketball history. For the past 28 years, every day, somebody's come up to me from an airport, across the country, Europe, anywhere, and always want to talk about the infamous pass or the shot. And they always mention Lorenzo and I together. And I will always remember that play, you know, for the rest of my career and life.

SIEGEL: You made a career out of basketball - assistant coach and then head coach in college. Lorenzo Charles was a kind of low draft pick, played briefly in the NBA and then played in Europe, minor league basketball, coached a little bit, didn't quite make a whole life out of it, though.

Mr. WHITTENBURG: He didn't choose to. He had a short stint with the NBA and then, like you said, played overseas, came back and settled back in Raleigh. And a lot of my friends and family and colleagues have asked me several times, you know, why was he driving a bus?

And he really enjoyed it. Speaking with him a month ago at a memorial services at - one of our assistant coaches who suddenly passed away, and he explained to me he enjoyed it, being around people and kids. He was still involved in the game. He still thought he was very much involved in basketball.

SIEGEL: It's always a mystery to me why it is that you look at a college basketball team, a great college basketball team, and you think you know who could go on to be a star in the NBA. Obviously, seeing Drexler that night, you could tell this guy was going to be a star in the NBA. But is it obvious to everybody on the team? I mean, would you all have known, you know, Lorenzo Charles, very good college basketball player, probably not going to be a starter in the NBA, or do you think maybe he could be a starter in the NBA? What was your thought in those days?

Mr. WHITTENBURG: Well, he certainly had the talent. Sometimes in the NBA, you have to get with the right team. Obviously, he was with Atlanta. He had Dominique Wilkins there, you know, had some other personalities. And Lorenzo was - maybe just wasn't the right fit at Atlanta. And I just believe with his ability, if he could have got with the right team, maybe he could've stuck with a team a lot longer if they would have understood his abilities because he definitely was an outstanding inside scorer and rebounder.

But he found his love, he enjoyed it, and that's what he wanted to do. And I -it looks like he was very successful at it.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Whittenburg, thank you very much for stopping with us en route to his funeral in North Carolina.

Mr. WHITTENBURG: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Dereck Whittenburg, who was Lorenzo Charles' teammate at North Carolina State and is himself a veteran college basketball coach.

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