SALT LAKE CITY — The thing that struck me about the death of Lorenzo Charles this week wasn't that he made one of college basketball's most famous shots. It's that he was a bus driver.
I had assumed what almost everyone does, that former basketball stars always make money. They start out with a lot, at a young age, and just keep going. Restaurants, car dealerships, real estate. But apparently that didn't happen with Charles. He ended up with a humble but honorable job, driving limousines and private buses. In fact, it was a bus crash on a North Carolina freeway that ended his life.
I found myself admiring him, but not because he snatched Dereck Whittenburg's air ball and dunked it to give North Carolina State the 1983 national championship. It was because he held an ordinary job. Although he didn't go on to become general manager of an NBA team like Danny Ainge, coach like Jerry Sloan or make millions on movie theaters like Magic Johnson, he did work.
I only think about him once a year, in March, when they show highlights of tournaments past. It's still one of the memorable moments in sports history, a play that will live forever. But time is a thief. Coach Jim Valvano has been dead 18 years. Charles only played a year in the NBA, then internationally.
Why his bus crashed hasn't been determined. But stories say Charles maintained a gentle, unpretentious view on life. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told the A.P. that he was "a very loved person." North Carolina State coach Mike Gottfried added that he was "an uplifting spirit." A Nashville columnist said Charles drove the Duke lacrosse team, delivering pep talks on the way to games.
As far as I can tell, Charles was just a guy who didn't think he was anything special. ESPN's Jay Bilas, who played against him in college, said Charles always seemed a bit nonplussed when people got teary-eyed at meeting him.
On the website lorenzocharles43.com he modestly recalled his famous shot thusly: "I remember when if first happened, I figured I would have my 15 minutes of fame and that would be it. Here we are and it is still a conversational piece."
I don't know how Charles ended up driving bus, but I'm a sucker for celebrities and athletes who take ordinary jobs. I was impressed a few weeks ago when I talked with Luther Elliss, the former Detroit Lion, who lost millions but is now working two jobs to support his 11 kids. It made me smile when ex-BYU star Reno Mahe waited tables during the offseason when he wasn't playing for the Philadelphia Eagles.
A year ago I interviewed former featherweight boxing champion Danny Lopez, who replaces sewer lines for a living. He didn't seem to think it was shameful work, and neither did I. He told me he tires more easily as the years pass, "but I'd rather be working."
In 2004 I found former Detroit Lion Luke Staley selling cell phones at a kiosk at Fashion Place Mall. He said it was still "nice" when people recognized him. He also said his wife was pregnant and they were very happy. It was heartening to see a former Doak Walker winner finding satisfaction in something beyond football.
Hall of Fame baseball player Harmon Killebrew once told me he worked in a clothing store during the offseasons and sold insurance after retirement. It made me like him even more than when I was a hero-worshiping kid.Comment on this story
I was also impressed last year with former NBA player Luther "Ticky" Burden, who spent time in prison for a crime he insists he didn't commit. True or not, he has worked for years at a North Carolina YMCA. When I talked with him, he was struggling to pay medical bills for his wife, who had cancer.
Yet he didn't seem angry, just grateful.
"Bitter? If you keep being bitter and hold a grudge against whoever, it will only make you miserable," Burden said at the time, "and I don't want to be miserable."
Ex-athletes who take honest, unpretentious jobs teach lessons they never did in their prime.
In fact, I respect Lorenzo Charles more for his job than his famous shot.