Arguably, it is one of those seminal moments in college basketball in which everyone who watched it can remember where they were and what they were doing when its miraculous background was written into history twenty-eight years ago.
It happened three years before my time, but I have been fortunate enough to have seen the 1983 NCAA Tournament championship game between a school that epitomized the concept of the underdog in North Carolina State and the team the Wolfpack took on for a national title, the illustrious "Phi Slamma Jamma" Houston Cougars squad led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler; who actually did bring a championship to Houston, albeit twelve years later with the NBA's Rockets. What most people forget (and rightfully so) about the 54-52 final score that night in Albuquerque was Houston's 26-game winning streak going into the opening tip, and the thirty-nine minutes and fifty-eight seconds that led up to one of the greatest conclusions to a sporting event the world has ever known.
Yesterday, another hero from this fairy tale ending perished way too soon; as Lorenzo Charles was killed tragically while driving a tour bus in NC State's home city of Raleigh, prematurely closing the book on a great career and even better life at the age of 47. Coincidentally, the Lord hired Jim Valvano, Charles' collegiate coach, at that same age when "Jimmy V" was taken from us far too soon eighteen years ago.
Charles was everything you could hope for: A player that never let success or past glory go to his head. After his career in the NBA didn't pan out, the forward played overseas and in the CBA and enjoyed moderate success while not resting on his laurels from 1983 or throwing that accomplishment around to get a free steak dinner. In fact, he was amazed that people still hold that performance against Houston in such high regard. "It's still kind of amazing to me that people are still talking about it," said Charles when asked to comment on his championship-winning moment. "When it first happened, I figured I would have my 15 minutes of fame, and that would be it."
After Charles caught Dereck Whittenburg's three-pointer and emphatically slammed it home, NC State completed the impossible; and the lasting image from the 1983 national championship game is Jim Valvano frantically running across the court looking for someone to hug. Valvano succumbed to cancer ten years later; and aside from his poignant speech at the inaugural ESPY Awards in 1993, this show of raw emotion goes down as his legacy.
Fortunately for NC State and college basketball fans around the world, (regardless of who we all root for) those final seconds in Albuquerque will not be forgotten anytime soon.
More importantly, Jim Valvano has finally found someone to hug.
May they both rest in peace.
Jim Valvano, 1946-1993
Lorenzo Charles, 1963-2011