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Friends remember NC State hero Charles

Lorenzo Charles provided the NCAA tournament with one of its enduring moments. The video of his basket in the 1983 championship game is replayed every March.

The young North Carolina State forward leaps into the air to grab an errant heave, turns to the rim and lays it in, giving the Wolfpack a two-point victory over Houston and sending the late Jim Valvano running onto the court in wild celebration.

Charles was remembered for that basket Tuesday, along with his imposing presence on the court and gentle demeanor away from it. He was killed Monday when the Elite Coach charter bus he was driving crashed along Interstate 40 in Raleigh. No passengers were aboard.

"He was just a fun-loving guy," former teammate Ernie Myers told The Associated Press by phone. "He was a big, muscular guy — 'Hey, this guy's really intimidating' — but he's a quintessential giant. Goodhearted, loved to laugh. I can hear him laughing right now."

N.C. State said Tuesday its men's basketball players will honor Charles this season by wearing patches on their uniforms, and the school said its fundraising Wolfpack Club is considering endowing a scholarship in his name for a student-athlete. Athletic director Debbie Yow called Charles "a Wolfpack hero."

"The Wolfpack family mourns today as we remember his athletic accomplishments, his excellent character and his winning dunk in the 1983 national championship game," she said.

After Charles' playing career ended in the late 1990s, he began driving buses and limos. He worked for Elite Coach, a limousine and bus company based in nearby Apex, and its clients included Duke's lacrosse team and the North Carolina softball team.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who said Charles drove his team to the airport a few times, called his death "a tragedy, a loss."

"To me, he was a fun-loving, good guy," Krzyzewski said. "Just to hear or read the remarks of his teammates, his family at N.C. State, he seemed a very loved person, and it saddens me and our hearts go out to his family and the N.C. State family."

Charles enjoyed a successful career. He scored 1,535 total points — 15th on the N.C. State scoring list — and his .575 shooting percentage in 1985 remains a school record for seniors.

He played one season in the NBA, averaging 3.4 points in 36 games with the Atlanta Hawks in 1985-86, then played internationally and in the Continental Basketball Association until 1999.

But he'll always be remembered for that putback nearly three decades ago.

The Wolfpack were tied with the Phi Slamma Jamma team of Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon in the championship game in Albuquerque, N.M. Time was ticking away when Dereck Whittenburg hoisted a heave from well beyond the key.

Charles pulled the ball out of the air and dropped it in at the buzzer, giving the Wolfpack an improbable 54-52 victory and their last national championship.

"I lost a very good friend in Lorenzo," former N.C. State teammate Spud Webb said. "He always had a big smile and a big laugh that I will always remember. He was a gentle giant."

Dominique Wilkins, his former pro teammate and now the Hawks' vice president of basketball operations, said Charles "left an indelible impact in sports lore that will never be forgotten."

"He will be forever remembered for his accomplishments," Wilkins said. "The Atlanta Hawks family would like to extend heartfelt condolences to the Charles family."

Details began to emerge Tuesday about the one-vehicle crash that took Charles' life at age 47. Video shows the windshield broken out with tree limbs sticking through the frame. The rear wheels of the bus were on an embankment, leaving the right front tire elevated from the road.

In a 911 call, a frantic woman said a coach bus came off the exit ramp, down a hill and onto Interstate 40, before eventually coming to rest on the embankment.

"It must have been exiting or coming onto 40 westbound and instead of taking the ramp down, it went through the trees and over the hill," she said. "It's tilted pretty far sideways."

She later noted that someone got on the bus and appeared to be giving CPR. In radio traffic about the wreck, authorities note the driver was unconscious and bleeding from his head.

Myers said he and his family were driving on vacation Sunday when he last spoke to Charles.

"He said, 'Ernie, I'll call you back.' His wife called him on the other line, and he never called me back," Myers said. "It's just kind of surreal."

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Associated Press writers Tom Foreman Jr. and Martha Waggoner in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.