Last month, I had cause to reflect upon a group of underdogs who became the pride of a great nation.
With all due respect to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many others who laid the foundation of the United States, I am referring to the death and burial of Lorenzo Charles, whose unforgettable buzzer-beating basket in the NCAA men's basketball championship gave North Carolina State University and Wolfpack Nation an improbable victory over the vaunted “Phi Slamma Jamma” team of the University of Houston.
On June 27, Charles was killed in a one-vehicle accident when the bus he was driving inexplicably slid off an exit ramp on Interstate 40 near Raleigh, N.C. Charles was buried in Raleigh on Saturday, July 2. Authorities in Raleigh are still unsure of the cause of the crash in which there were no passengers. No other persons were involved or injured.
For many sports enthusiasts, the mention of Lorenzo Charles engenders memories of April 4, 1983, at “The Pit” in Albuquerque, N.M., and NC State coach Jim Valvano running around the court at the end of the game looking for someone to hug.
Lorenzo’s name takes me back to a special time in my life when I had just embarked upon a new beginning.
Lorenzo was a sophomore role player on the 1983 Wolfpack team led by seniors Thurl Bailey, Sidney Lowe and Dereck Whittenburg. I came to personally know Thurl, Sid and Dereck while a student at NC State before I graduated in May 1981 and started my Mormon mission three months later. They knew me as “Special K” because of my exploits as a DJ on the campus radio station, as well as through my association with my fraternity. Lorenzo arrived to campus a few weeks before I left on my mission, so I never got to meet him.
On Aug. 27, 1981, I reported to the Missionary Training Center in Provo to begin two years of missionary service, 368 days after being baptized a member of the LDS Church. I was originally supposed to start law school at BYU around that time, and how I ended up on a mission is a story that needs telling on another occasion. (The curious can read about it in my book, "Last Laborer.")
Due to a church policy change, I ended up serving just more than 18 months, which led to my return to Raleigh in March 1983, just as NC State’s basketball team began its Cinderella run toward and then through the NCAA tournament.
Being one who believes there are no coincidences with God, I also believe there is a connection between the timing of my return from my mission and NC State’s improbable March Madness run, and what that experience taught me. I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out.
During the 1982-83 regular season, NC State had gone 17-10, making the task of winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament — its only shot of getting into the NCAA tournament — very unlikely. NC State would have to beat nationally ranked ACC powers Virginia, led by three-time college player of the year Ralph Sampson; and reigning NCAA champion North Carolina, led by Michael Jordan.
I returned home to Raleigh on Saturday, March 12, 1983. The day prior, my last full day in Puerto Rico, Thurl and his Wolfpack teammates began the ACC tournament by squeaking out a 71-70 victory over Wake Forest. On Saturday, a few hours after my airplane touched down at the Raleigh-Durham airport, the Wolfpack upset Jordan and UNC in a 91-84 overtime thriller for the ages. Their two down-to-the-wire victories earned them the nickname “Cardiac Pack."
On Sunday, March 13, not long after I was officially released as a missionary earlier that morning, Thurl and company shocked Virginia 81-78 to win the ACC championship and advance to the NCAA tournament, a k a “The Big Dance.” They continued their Cardiac Pack ways as they marched to the Final Four by beating Pepperdine (69-67), UNLV (71-70), Utah (75-56; even before becoming a Cougar and getting immersed in the BYU-Utah rivalry, I must say it felt REALLY, REALLY good to see the Wolfpack blow out the Utes!) and Virginia (63-62, with game-winning free throws by Lorenzo Charles).
Under circumstances too lengthy to explain in this column, but contained in my book, I gave up an opportunity to attend the Final Four and instead came to Utah to begin my stay in Provo for my law school years. The Final Four games also coincided with the church's April general conference.
On Saturday, April 2, 1983, I missed most of NC State’s semifinal game against Georgia while attending general conference broadcasts. But in between the Saturday afternoon session and priesthood session, I caught the end of the game and saw the Wolfpack close out Georgia with a 67-60 victory. I had been in Utah only a few days and things were already going very well for me.
The victory earned Thurl, Sid, Dereck, Lorenzo and the rest of the Cardiac Pack a date with destiny on Monday night against the high-flying University of Houston Cougars, featuring Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler — and captained by current BYU head basketball coach Dave Rose. I could hardly wait for Monday evening’s game to come.
That weekend, I encountered John McHenry, a returned missionary from the North Carolina Raleigh Mission. I got to know him the few months between my baptism and his return home. He invited me to watch the game with him at the apartment of some friends, and I accepted.
On Monday evening, April 4, 1983, I found myself watching NC State play for the championship in a city and environment, and under circumstances, I would have never imagined, even a few weeks earlier while still in Puerto Rico. Yet the reality of my incredible situation did not surprise me, especially after the fantastic voyage I had been on the past 32 months since I had joined the LDS Church.
In a sense, that night was a date with destiny for me as well as for Thurl, Sid, Dereck and especially Lorenzo, who dropped in Dereck’s long and badly-missed shot a micro-second before the game's final buzzer sounded.
Similar to Coach Valvano’s running around the court looking for someone to hug, for a brief moment I didn’t know exactly what to do among the group of strangers I was with, all of whom were Caucasian males. When that moment passed, I instinctively began hugging John, which broke my bashfulness. I then began to jump around and scream without regard for anyone or anything. I was so happy — with a deep and intrinsic joy that went beyond just having my alma mater win a championship.
My pure bliss came from the realization that where I was and what I was doing — and feeling — stemmed from my choices to attend NC State, to let the Mormon missionaries into my apartment and to delay law school to serve a mission. In essence, I was at that place, at that time, in that situation and under those circumstances because I had made the right choices at the right time.
To bring this story full circle, I recently had the opportunity to attend a two-week course at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va. That trip gave me the chance to visit Raleigh on the last Saturday of July. While there, I visited with my first bishop, Kermit Nichols, before making my way to Lorenzo Charles’ final resting place at the Oakwood Cemetery in downtown Raleigh.
I paid my respects to Lorenzo and Coach Valvano, whose gravesite is only a few yards from Lorenzo’s. The close proximity of their graves caused me to remember and smile about something I had heard following Lorenzo's death.
“I guess Jimmy V finally found someone to hug.”
My brief visit to Oakwood Cemetery was a moving experience which reconnected me, spiritually and emotionally, with the grandest and best Fourth of my life — April 4, 1983.
I will never forget that night of nights for me, or how it powerfully and perfectly reconfirmed to me that with God, there are no coincidences.
Attorney Keith N. Hamilton, an adjunct professor at BYU law school and former chair of the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole, served as an LDS bishop in San Francisco. He is author of "Last Laborer: Thoughts and Reflections of a Black Mormon."