Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Dunk Heard 'Round the World

Ever since I heard the news of Lorenzo Charles' death in a one–vehicle accident Monday in North Carolina, I have been thinking of the spring night in 1983 when his upstart North Carolina State Wolfpack upset the heavily favored Houston Cougars in the national championship.

I remember the night vividly. I was working as a reporter for a newspaper in central Arkansas — my first job out of college.

One of my standing assignments was to cover city and county government meetings (I wasn't alone in that; it was a small newspaper staff so everyone — even those whose job titles might make you think they were above such routine duties, like managing editor — had to cover some city and county government meetings) ...

... and such a meeting was being held that night.

But the meeting was scheduled to begin at 6:30, as I remember, and the game wasn't supposed to begin until two hours later.

I had been following the NCAA Tournament closely that year, as I tended to do at that time in my life, and I was interested in seeing the championship game — even though I was sure I knew how it would turn out.

When the meeting wrapped up earlier than I expected, I was elated. It meant I could go home and see most, if not all, of the game.

As I was walking down the hallway of the building in the direction of the exit, I recall a brief conversation I had with a city police officer who was on hand (why he was there, I do not know, unless he was assigned to provide routine security that night).

I told him I was on my way home to watch the game. He wanted to know which team I thought would win.

"Houston," I told him. "No way N.C. State can win."

But I was wrong.

Oh, Houston did race to the lead, but the Cougars squandered it with terrible free throw shooting in the second half. The game was still anyone's to win as the final seconds ticked off.

That was when one of the most iconic moments in modern sports history occurred.

With the score tied at 52–52, one of Charles' teammates fired a shot from 30 feet (it would have been a three–point shot under modern rules, but the three–pointer was still a few years away).

The shot appeared to be coming up just short of its mark when, seemingly from nowhere, Charles came into view, grabbed the ball in the air and dunked it for the winning points.

It was one of those moments when the entire world seemed to stop for maybe a split second — and tried to absorb what had just happened. I have only experienced a couple of these moments in my life, and they are never merely upsets or the unexpected.

They are unthinkable.

It was a time when 12 teams were seeded in each region (the 12th seeds had to win the equivalents of play–in games), and N.C. State had been seeded eighth in its region. That season, the Wolfpack (who lost 10 games in all) had earned the nickname of the "Cardiac Pack" for winning seven nail–biters in their last nine games just to get into the tournament.

Houston, meanwhile, was ranked #1 in the nation, was making its second consecutive Final Four appearance and had the look of a dynasty.

The 1982–83 Cougars went undefeated in the Southwest Conference, losing only three games all season — and, in fact, they returned to the national championship game the following year (but lost to Georgetown).

Six members of the team eventually were drafted into the NBA.

A stunned N.C. State coach Jim Valvano dashed madly around the court, looking for someone to hug, some way to express his delight at winning the upset of a lifetime.

It was for such a moment that the song "The Impossible Dream" was written.

Some of N.C. State's players might have ended up in the NBA, anyway, even if the Wolfpack had not won that game. But the fact is that three players were drafted into the NBA later that year, including the fellow whose lob Charles plucked out of the air and dunked for the winning points — and it is possible that some or all might not have been chosen had it not been for their victory over Houston.

Later, Charles and another teammate were drafted into the NBA as well, bringing to 11 the number of future NBA draftees who were on the court that night.

Charles' NBA career was brief, however, and the Brooklyn native had short stints with some European teams, but his basketball career had been over for more than 20 years. He was operating a bus for the rental company for which he apparently worked when it crashed in Raleigh, N.C.

Sadly, it seems, great things did not happen for Charles after that evening of almost unimaginable glory.

But if you have ever watched an NCAA Tournament game, you are almost sure to have seen in the archival footage Charles' sublime, almost tentative, dunk that clinched a championship ...

... and seized a slice of immortality.

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