Local News

Friends remember former Wolfpack star as 'gentle giant'

Posted June 28, 2011 11:59 a.m. EDT
Updated June 28, 2011 6:27 p.m. EDT

— Friends and fans shared memories and mourned Tuesday when they learned that former North Carolina State University basketball standout Lorenzo Charles died in a bus wreck on Interstate 40 in Raleigh Monday afternoon.

Charles, 47, was pronounced dead at the scene. Tire tracks in the grass show that the bus careened off the interstate, hitting branches and sustaining heavy damage to its front end.

"I think it must have been exiting or coming onto 40 westbound and instead of taking the ramp, down it went through the trees and over the hill," a woman told 911 dispatchers in a call released Tuesday. "It's tilted pretty far sideways."

The cause of the crash is still under investigation.

For the last 10 years, Charles was a driver for Elite Coach, a limo, charter bus and car service based in Apex.

"He was a gentle giant and people loved him," friend Derrick Perry said. 

Perry drove with Charles for several years. He said they traveled the Triangle together, often carrying fans of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels to the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill.

"People would take a double take like, 'Is he driving?' Yes, he's driving. That's what he likes to do. That's what he liked to do for the last 20-something years," Perry said. 

Charles thrust the game-winning dunk into the hoop at the 1983 NCAA men’s basketball championship game and secured his spot in sports history.

In an 2008 interview with WRAL News to celebrate the 25th anniversary of that famous game, Charles called N.C. State his "Wolfpack family" and said that while he wasn't sure he could recreate his legendary dunk, he could definitely touch the rim.

"Yeah, I still got it," he joked. 

Perry said Charles asked him to be his driver when N.C. State held a ceremony in 2008 to honor Charles' jersey. 

"I took that as an honor, and it was a pleasure to drive for him," Perry said. 

Perry says Charles loved N.C. State, basketball and driving. But most of all he loved people.

"He made people feel good when he drove for them. Help them with their luggage. Help them get on and off the bus," Perry said. 

Wolfpack nation remembers Charles 

N.C. State Director of Athletics Debbie Yow said the school plans to honor Charles through a commemorative patch on men's basketball uniforms next season. He will also be recognized during the football home opener against Liberty University on Sept. 3.

Charles will also be honored Wednesday at the the James A. Naismith Sportsmanship Award ceremony at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium.

A potential endowment in Charles’ name for the men’s basketball program through the Wolfpack Club is also being discussed, Yow said in a statement. The idea will be discussed with his family. When fully endowed, the Lorenzo Charles Scholarship would pay the scholarship costs for a student-athlete.

"I think that the affection that Wolf Packers everywhere have for Lorenzo is reflective of how emotional the attachment that fans have for their athletic programs," Yow said. 

The news of Charles' death was a shock for those who played alongside him. 

"He was very happy in life, with his family and he loved his work. He loved people," former N.C. State teammate Dereck Whittenburg said. 

Thurl Bailey, who played with Charles on the 1983 championship team, said, "I guess Jimmy V finally found somebody to hug."

Coach Jim Valvano, nicknamed Jimmy V, who died of cancer in 1993, famously ran up and down the sidelines after Charles's shot clinched the title looking for someone to hug. He too was 47 when he died.

"Everyday for the last 28 years, someone has reminded me about the infamous play, said Whittenburg, who launched the shot that Charles nabbed for that legendary dunk.

“So, Lorenzo and I will probably be connected to each other not just in college basketball history but in life," Whittenburg said.

Teammate Mike Warren remembers Charles' reaction to making the shot.

"I grabbed him around the neck and told him what had happened and the only thing he said was, 'Look, let go of my neck. I can't breathe,'" Warren recalled. "I'll always remember that, but there was so much more than just that one play."

Valvano's brother, Nick Valvano, said he remembers when his brother recruited Charles.

"I remember him telling my mom, 'I got this Italian kid from Brooklyn. His name is Lorenzo Charles. I'd like you to meet him,'" Nick Valvano said laughing. "Here comes the biggest man in the world with this great big, beautiful smile."

Valvano, who is the chief executive of the Jimmy V Foundation, said Charles' image was to appear on the front of invitations for the charity's annual auction. The invitations arrived from the printer on Friday.

"We were going to tell him as a surprise. I told the folks here, and they said, 'Oh my God, he'll love it,'" Valvano said. "It's not fair."