RIP, Lorenzo Charles

You have to be, let’s say, of a certain age to appreciate what Lorenzo Charles did. He wasn’t a household name as an NBA player, and in today’s world that seems to be all that matters. No, Lorenzo Charles belonged to another time. And now, sadly, he belongs to wherever it is people go after they die.

I remember Phi Slamma Jamma very well. They were a high-flying college basketball team from the University of Houston in 1983. Clyde Drexler, Larry Michaux, Akeem Olajuwon, and a bunch of other talented players. They got to the Final Four that year and beat Louisville (it’s funny the things you remember sometimes, isn’t it?). The final game on Monday seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

But I was pulling for their opponent, the NC State Wolfpack. I wanted the underdog to win, because anytime a team seems like they’re too good, you want to see them brought down a notch. And so it was with Houston that year.

As all NCAA finals should be, this was a close game that went down to the wire. And the ending couldn’t have been any better if you had tried to script it. A last second desperation heave by an NC State player, Derek Whittenburg,  seemed like it would fall short. But at the last second, an alert State player, the aforementioned Charles, leapt into the air, grabbed the ball, and stuffed it through the hoop as the horn went off.

Why none of the Houston players thought to go up for the ball too, I’ll never know. Maybe the altitude in Albuquerque, where the game was played, had something to do with it. But Charles went up, and in the blink of an eye he became a certified hero.

So all these years later, he was driving a bus when he went off the road and died at the age of 47. Not too much older than I am, by the way. Shakespeare has been proven correct once again.

I wonder how he must have felt at that moment back in 1983, and I wonder if it was tough living all those years after, knowing that nothing else could ever come close to that one moment. Maybe the tragic accident that took his life set him free from that. I don’t know for sure. But as long as I live, I’ll remember that game and what that improbable upset said to me. It said “don’t back down, give it your best, and things could turn out in a way that nobody expects them to.”

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