Thursday, June 30, 2011

Images and thoughts of Lorenzo Charles

Every once in a while something happens that shakes you more than you thought it would. I remember when Tom Seaver retired in 1986 feeling old because Seaver had been my boyhood hero and I remembered so vividly his early years with the Mets when I hung on every pitch he threw as if it was the most important moment of my life.

Seaver taught me a lesson early in my career about athletes and how they view what they do and how different it is from how we (fans) view what they do. He was pitching in Cincinnati—that alone was a jolt to my system that I’m not sure I ever completely got over—and the Reds were in Houston. I was also in Houston covering an NBA playoff series between the Rockets and the Kansas City (yes it was a long time ago) Kings.

On an off-night between games 3 and 4 I went to The Astrodome and asked Seaver if he could give me some time to talk. I had successfully pitched the idea of a Seaver feature to my boss who felt the same way about down time on the road as I did: If you’re somewhere and there’s a story to write, go write it.

Seaver agreed on one condition: That I would tell him everything I knew about Janet Cooke, The Washington Post reporter who had made up a story about a 6-year-old heroin addict. The story had won The Pulitzer Prize but the award had been returned by The Post when a series of events led to Cooke admitting she had made up the whole thing.

As it happened, I had been on The Metro staff with Cooke and knew her fairly well so I was happy to tell Seaver what I knew. I was also intrigued that he knew about Cooke. The story had been front-page news but I didn’t know a lot of athletes who actually read the front page.

What he said that I’ve always remembered came during a discussion of the 1969 Miracle Mets. I had gone to 66 Mets games at Shea Stadium that season, paying $1.30 to sit in upper general admission most days and nights. I had sat in front of the TV and watched—always keeping score—most of the other games the Mets had played.

As Seaver and I talked, I kept asking very detailed questions because my memories were so vivid and the whole thing had been SO important to me. Finally, Seaver smiled indulgently at me.

“You need to understand something,” he said. “You remember this the way a fan does and I get that. But as a ballplayer it isn’t the same. Sure, there are some moments that stick out but not all that many. We played, what 170 games that year including postseason. I just don’t remember as much as you do.”

I was stunned. And yet, now, looking back, I realize that a lot of those moments when I was yelling from the upper deck or my parents living room weren’t that big a deal in the grand scheme of 170 games. I remembered September 10th as a seminal day in my life because it was the first time The Mets ever went into first place. Seaver remembered that at some point in September they went into first place. I remember that it was at 9:07 on September 24th that the Mets clinched The National League East (I can still hear Lindsey Nelson yelling the time right after Joe Torre hit in to a double play to end the game). Seaver remembered that a lot of champagne got poured on people’s heads that night.

Because of that conversation and because he had been so important to me as a kid, Seaver’s retirement, which came ironically after he was inactive for the Red Sox during the 1986 World Series, made me feel very old.

Lorenzo Charles’ death on Monday was stunning in a different, yet similar way. Seaver’s retirement reminded me that my boyhood was long gone, especially since it came at almost the exact moment that my first book was published. Charles’s death brings back what are now bittersweet memories of a time when The Final Four was still the best event there was on the sports calendar, especially for a then-young sportswriter.

I probably saw that 1983 North Carolina State team play at least a dozen times. I watched the Wolfpack grind through February without Dereck Whittenburg (who had a broken foot) and listened to Jim Valvano talk about what might-have-been if Whittenburg hadn’t been hurt.

Everyone knows the rest: Whittenburg hobbled back just before the ACC Tournament and State pulled off one miracle after another. They should have lost to Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC Tournament but somehow won in overtime. Seven wins later—even after winning the ACC Tournament they didn’t receive a first round bye and were very fortunate to beat Pepperdine in the first round of the NCAA’s—they found themselves playing Houston for the national championship.

My friend Dave Kindred wrote a column on the morning of that game declaring, “Trees will tap dance and elephants will drive in the Indy 500 before N.C. State beats Houston.”

We all know what happened that night. The trees tap-danced and the elephants grew racing stripes. State hung in the game somehow; Guy Lewis made the critical mistake of deciding to try to run out the clock and Whittenburg fired a last second prayer towards the basket from 35-feet. To this day I remember thinking while the ball was in the air, “no way can they win this in overtime.”

At the very instant that I got to the end of that thought Charles rose, seemingly from out of the floor, caught the ball and dunked it in one motion. Twenty-eight years later the next few minutes remain a blur: Valvano running in circles looking for someone to hug; Cozell McQueen sitting on the rim; the Houston players on their knees in complete shock, most of them crying. Having watched the tape about a million times I can still hear Billy Packer saying, “They did it!” in total disbelief when he realized that Charles had dunked the ball just before the buzzer and State had won the championship.

Of course nowadays if the same play occurred we would have to wait five minutes for the officials to determine that the shot beat the buzzer. Talk about sucking drama from a moment.

What’s interesting, thinking back to that night, is that I can’t remember a single thing Charles said about his dunk. Valvano developed an entire 15-minute bit about the last play that he used when he spoke; Whittenburg insisted for years that his shot was a pass and he and Sidney Lowe and Thurl Bailey are remembered together as the three seniors who were the glue on that team.

Which they were. But it was Charles, just a sophomore at the time, who made them champions.

I only interviewed him one-on-one once. It was during his senior year in 1985 when he was the respected veteran on a very talented team of knuckleheads that included Chris Washburn and Charles Shackleford. All I can remember about our talk is that Charles was quiet but clearly very in tune with his team and his coach. He was like the wise elder who had seen it all.

Which, in a sense, he had.

He played just one year in the NBA and was apparently a co-owner of a bus and limo company when his bus went off the road on I-40 nearly Raleigh on Monday. The first thing that struck me when I saw the news that he had died was his age: 47. Valvano was 47 when he died of cancer in 1993. It was just a bit eerie.

For me, thinking about Lorenzo Charles at 47, driving a bus down a familiar highway and having his life suddenly end is both sad and depressing. My image of him will always be the same: rising above a scramble under a basket one night in Albuquerque and making a play that will always be a part of the basketball pantheon.

He was just a kid back then. In a very real sense so was I. Time passes in this life much too fast.


Anonymous said...

Great column John. Not much else to say about this one.

John from Indiana said...

Time does pass too quickly. I saw in this morning's paper that Dean Smith made a rare appearance with Coach K. at a Carolina (The State, not the school) basketball event. I've said it before, and I'm saying it again in the context of time... The Dean Smith book needs to be written. Certainly "in person" interviews with him would have been priceless, but you are too gifted a storyteller to walk away from that project. If you can write an entire book about one punch in a single basketball game, certainly a retrospective of a guy that people would knock themselves out to tell you about is a book that needs to be done. Speaking of books, do the readers of this weekly effort get some kind of advance notice as to when the new book is scheduled to hit the shelves?

Cate's Mom and Dad said...

Great thoughts as always John! Once little correction, Shack was not at State until the next season in '86 (he never played with Lo Charles). Additionally, the "Washer" was suspended for the year a couple games into the '85 season for "borrowing" that stereo.

qtlaw24 said...

I too had the "Seaver" realizationwhen I had the chance to sit down for a few hours with Julius Erving about 15 years ago. I asked him what was his most memorable moment and he said (dunk on Landesberger? reverse under backboard?)....."they're all the same." Blew me away.