In the photographs of that moment, he doesn't show an expression of power, of joy, of triumph or even relief. His eyebrows are arched back, his eyes are wide, his face drawn into a grimace. N.C. State's Lorenzo Charles does not look like a man dunking a basketball, but rather a man returning to Earth, to a world that had changed forever in the time he spent floating above it.
From that day until he died tragically in a highway accident yesterday, Charles's life was defined mostly by that instant, a single touch of the ball in the chaotic last seconds of the 1983 NCAA Tournament Final. It is a play relived every year, in montages opening CBS's tournament coverage, and in retrospectives when round-numbered anniversaries roll around.
Houston's Benny Anders lunges after a pass, running off the screen; State's Dereck Whittenburg gathers up the ball, turns and heaves a 30-foot airball. Charles, practically anonymous behind the Cougar defense, rises and plucks it about a foot in front of the basket and gently stuffs it back. The clock hits zero, and the Wolfpack, the most hopeless of underdogs, wins the national championship.
The moment is beyond holy to N.C. State. When I was sports editor of the university's newspaper a decade later, Charles's slam dunk still had the aura of something that had just happened. Faculty and administration still commented on the surge of applications created by the 1983 title. I recall that we were still writing about it all the time, although some of that came from the 10-year anniversary of the game, a lot of it came from former coach Jim Valvano's death a month later, and frankly, the present-day team wasn't doing anything that made you feel half as good as that memory.
Yet as transformative as the play was to N.C. State, it was of even greater significance to what has, in the 28 years since, become a billion-dollar television production and a three-week obsession, outranked only by the Super Bowl in how deeply it penetrates the American consciousness. None of that was in place at the time of State's 1983 national championship, the one that would give March Madness the meaning by which it is known today.
Consider the time. Yes, the 1979 final featuring Magic Johnson and Larry Bird had helped make the event into appointment television, but that was for the final round only. A national over-the-air broadcast of play in every round was in its second year in 1983. The bracket had just expanded to 52 teams, and seedings, the indispensable shorthand for identifying upsets, had been in existence for only five years. More likely, one would judge a team by its poll ranking, and not since 1959 had a team begun the tournament ranked outside of the Associated Press top 10 and won it all, and that was No. 11 California.
State, unranked, was the tournament's Prometheus, who stole the fire of March Madness and lit a zillion television sets with it. Even through shocking runs by Villanova in 1985 and Kansas in 1988, and after the first ten-figure contract was signed, it remained CBS's highest-rated tournament broadcast ever, averaged across all games. That mark is unlikely ever to fall.
What gives State's run its unique power is how it close it came to ending, not only in the Wolfpack's six tournament victories (then unprecedented) but also in the three preceding it. State wouldn't have made the NCAA field had it not pulled off a startling upset in the ACC championship the week earlier. Lorenzo Charles was nearly the goat ending the run before it could begin.
Tied with three seconds left against a Wake Forest squad the Wolfpack had beaten by 41 in the season finale, Charles bricked the first of two free throws. He banged the second one through off the back of the rim, and State held on for a 71-70 victory. The rest of the near escapes included North Carolina in the ACC semis (trailing by 7 in overtime), Virginia in the ACC final (trailing in the last minute); Pepperdine in the first round (down by four with 26 seconds to play; won in overtime); UNLV in the second (taking the lead on ithe last possession) and Virginia again in the regional final, where Charles hit two free throws to give State its sixth last-seconds victory in the preceding seven games.
Nothing, of course, compares to the mayhem of April 4, 1983, when State, with 10 losses and six players, essentially, faced a No. 1 Houston team that had won 26 straight games, 31 overall, and with future hall of famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, wiped the floor with No. 2 Louisville in a dunkfest two nights earlier.
There were only two dunks in this game, however, both by State: Thurl Bailey for the Wolfpack's first two points and, of course, Charles for the last. Far from a masterpiece, it was a game noted for sloppy play—Drexler picked up four fouls in the first half—and never moreso than in the game's climactic possession, after Houston's Alvin Franklin clanged the front end of a 1-and-1, giving State the ball with the score tied at 52.
Valvano, for all his motivational and defensive brilliance, had simply called the wrong play. The Wolfpack was trying for a drive-and-kick play predicated on man-to-man defense. Instead, Houston came out in a 1-3-1 trap, leaving guards Terry Gannon, Sidney Lowe and Whittenburg in the extreme backcourt attempting to bleed the clock and get the play set up, with no timeouts if anyone got pinned along the sideline.
Charles roamed the far corner, ignored the entire time by Olajuwon and even his own teammates. Indeed, with 15 seconds left, Charles flashed to the post behind Olajuwon, waving his hands. But Gannon had his back to Charles and passed back out to Lowe. In all, State passed the ball 18 times. Charles did not touch it until he put his hands on Whittenburg's miss.
When Lorenzo Charles went airborne, a team didn't win the national championship unless it was ranked in the top 10. People didn't root for schools, with bar-pounding, high-fiving, stranger-hugging ecstasy, unless they were alumni or lifelong fans of the winner. They didn't pick brackets and look at the stair-steps and convince themselves that Virginia Commonwealth or George Mason could win it all.
When he landed, he had given N.C. State more than a national title. He gave the Wolfpack a permanent national identity. And he didn't give a nation a reason to believe as much as he gave it a reason to care, and care deeply, in far-off cities like Albuquerque, and Ogden, Utah and Corvallis, Ore. I've met people from all of these places, and because of Lorenzo Charles, they still tell me my university is something special in their cities, places where N.C. State worked miracles that will last forever.
Owen Good writes about sports video games for Kotaku. He is a native of Elkin, N.C., and a 1995 graduate of North Carolina State University.