RALEIGH — N.C. State University basketball hero Lorenzo Charles who died a year ago this month is still the center of some pretty magical moments.
A special grave marker for the humble star, who made the game-winning dunk to give the Wolfpack and coach Jim Valvano a national title in 1983, was installed in Oakwood Cemetery recently. Only a handful of people were present and it was raining, but Oakwood Cemetery executive director Robin Simonton said it was a special morning. She was there with Charles sister, Patrice; Oakwoods superintendent Sam Smith; and the setting crew installing the stone.
They treated it with such respect, Simonton said. And Patrice was very moved. I felt honored to have been here.
Charles died in a bus crash on Interstate 40 in Raleigh on June 27, 2011.
His resting place, situated near the center of the historic cemetery in an area called Cedar Hill Terrace, is now marked by a black granite headstone with a block-type NCS logo on the front and an etching of the strutting Wolfpack mascot Tuffy on the back.
It sits just a few yards from Charles beloved coach Valvano almost close enough for a hug.
The idea for the stone came as Simonton and Cathy Batts, sales manager for Wake Monument Co., were discussing Charles and his legacy this spring, when the N.C. State basketball team was making its run to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.
Already, Simonton said, people were coming to Oakwood in search of Charles grave, which didnt yet have a permanent marker.
So many college kids came out during the weeks of the tournament asking where the graves were, Simonton said. Wed always just say, Down the hill from Jimmy V.
A picture in her head
Batts, who hails from a family of diehard State fans and whose mother, Carolyn Bartholomew, owns Wake Monument, said that as she and Simonton talked, she immediately got a picture in her head of what Charles stone should look like. She made some sketches and called Valvanos widow, Pam Valvano Strasser, who called Charles old teammate Dereck Whittenburg, who then called Charles sister, Patrice.
She and Patrice worked on the details together, with Patrice composing the inscription that sits below her brothers name: His courage, his smile, his laughter, his grace gladdened the hearts of those who have had the privilege of loving him.
Wake Monument donated the headstone not because the family needed them to, said Batts, but because her family wanted to.
In talking about her familys connection to Charles marker, one word comes up over and over: privilege.
Batts was especially thrilled that Charles sister seemed so pleased with the results.
When I saw it in person, it took my breath away, Patrice Charles said. I couldnt have imagined anything so beautiful.
A giant teddy bear
Simonton said the day after the stone was installed, a funeral was taking place nearby and she noticed some people looking over at Charles grave and whispering.
As soon as the funeral cleared, a young man walked over and took a picture of the headstone.
This young man played for Carolina on the baseball team, and Lorenzo was his bus driver, Simonton said. He said We loved him, he was a giant teddy bear, which is exactly how Patrice described him.
The man then told Simonton a story about how the baseball team once talked Charles into putting on a UNC cap so that they could take his picture.
People come to cemeteries to reflect and remember, Simonton said. And having a monument here now gives people the opportunity to kind of fawn over him and remember either the very public Lorenzo Charles, or remember where they were when that basket was made in 83, or like this young man, remember a very personal story of him.
Patrice Charles, who lives in Durham, went back to Oakwood with her daughter on the Saturday after the stone was placed. It was her birthday her first without her big brother.
I knew he would have been the first phone call I would have received that day, or the first visit. He never forgot my birthday. He meant a lot to me.
It puts peace in my heart, Patrice said.