RALEIGH — Lorenzo Emile Charles, who is best known for catching a last-second desperation shot from teammate Dereck Whittenburg and slam-dunking the N.C. State Wolfpack basketball team to a 1983 NCAA championship title, died Monday afternoon in a bus crash on Interstate 40 in West Raleigh.
Police say Charles, 47, was driving a charter bus westbound on I-40 when he lost control on an exit ramp and crashed into a stand of trees. He was the only person on the bus.
A Raleigh police accident reconstruction unit remained at the crash scene Monday night, along with a unit of the state Highway Patrol, to determine what caused the crash, police spokesman Jim Sughrue said. The accident blocked two lanes of I-40 for several hours.
News of Charles' death spread quickly and widely among Wolfpack fans and others whom he had touched.
New NCSU head basketball coach Mark Gottfried played for Alabama against Charles in the 1985 NCAA tournament. The two reminisced about that game, a Wolfpack win, when Charles visited the new coaching staff last week on campus.
"He had a big smile on his face, and he was so full of life," Gottfried said. "We lost a great one, and I'm not just talking about the basketball player. He had a great personality."
Charles' reach in the sports world went beyond his contributions on the court. He drove for the Duke lacrosse team and became a part of the family, coach John Danowski said Monday. Danowski had Charles talk to the team during the NCAA tournament in 2010, before the Blue Devils won the national title.
"It's great that he scored that winning basket, but he was so much more than that," Danowski said. "Everyone here loved him. We are all heartbroken."
Charles was driving for Elite Tours, an Apex company also known as Elite Coach. Calls to the company were not returned Monday, and no one came to the door after business hours.
Elite Tours has been registered as an interstate carrier since June 2009, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The company has five drivers and a fleet of seven vehicles, including limousines, vans and two full-size motor coaches.
The company had a good safety record. It was cited for a minor violation in April, when an Elite driver stopped for an inspection in Alabama failed to produce a current record of duty status to show that he or she had not driven too many hours without rest.
Charles, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., was a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School. After his days at NCSU, he was selected 41st overall in the 1985 NBA draft and went on to play briefly with the Atlanta Hawks as well as with several pro teams in Europe.
He'll always be remembered, though, for that game-winning dunk in the championship game of the 1983 NCAA Tournament over the heavily favored Houston Cougars. The Cougars were led by future NBA all-stars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde "The Glide" Drexler. That moment was quickly followed by another that Wolfpack fans will never forget: late Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano running around the floor in amazed euphoria looking for someone to hug.
Valvano's wife, Pam, said Monday that she was heartbroken to hear of Charles' passing and described him as always laid-back and polite.
"That night in Albuquerque, you'd never known he'd made the big shot. He was so humble," she said. "That was just Lorenzo, though. He was the same nice young guy whether we'd won or lost. He was quiet, but he loved people and loved being around those guys on that team."
Charles lived in Wake Forest with his wife, Theresa Charles.
Staff writers Bruce Siceloff, Chip Alexander, Caulton Tudor and J. Andrew Curliss contributed to this report.
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