Lorenzo Charles was 47.
"Always a good guy. Always," said former teammate and NC State coach Sidney Lowe. "He always made you feel like he was excited to see you ... he was always just so positive. We talked about things. He always just had the right thing to say. He didn't talk much but when he did he was profound and supportive. He's just a good guy.''
"Lorenzo Charles was a wonderful human being and if you know anything about Lorenzo, you look at him and the first thing you notice is his smile and he would make you smile," former teammate Alvin Battle said.
Charles was behind the wheel when the bus left the road and crashed along westbound Interstate 40 at the Highway 54 exit. Charles was pronounced dead at the scene. Pictures from Chopper 11 HD showed the track of the vehicle up an embankment, through a wooded area, and then back down an embankment into the road.
It happened around 5 p.m. The cause of the wreck was under investigation. 911 and police radio calls released Tuesday said Charles suffered head injuries, but offered few clues about why his bus went off the road. There were no passengers on board.
Records show the bus belongs to Elite Coach of Apex. The company has no accidents in the last 24 months and a satisfactory Carrier Safety Rating.
Charles had been working as a tour bus driver for 10 years.
He brought North Carolina State its last national title in 1983 while creating one of the NCAA tournament's enduring moments. His last-second dunk off an errant 30-foot heave gave the underdog Wolfpack a two-point win over Houston in the title game, setting off an unforgettable celebration that remains a staple of NCAA tournament television coverage nearly three decades later.
"He was just a fun-loving guy," former N.C. State teammate Ernie Myers said. "He was a big, muscular guy -- 'Hey, this guy's really intimidating' -- but he's a quintessential giant. Good-hearted, loved to laugh. I can hear him laughing right now."
Charles was remembered Tuesday for his imposing presence on the court and his gentle demeanor away from it.
"I lost a very good friend in Lorenzo," 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."
After Charles' playing career ended in the late 1990s, he delivered in a different way during his second career as a bus and limousine driver, with friends and teammates saying he embraced that role with the same enthusiasm. As a driver for Elite Coach, among his clients were Duke's lacrosse team and the North Carolina softball team, Myers said.
"He loved doing it. ... He loved driving and traveling around the country. He loved taking the trips," Myers said, adding that North Carolina softball coach Donna Papa once "came up to me and said, 'Be sure to tell Lorenzo he's like part of our family.'
"This part of town, that would be kind of sacrilegious," Myers added, nodding to the fierce college rivalries in the North Carolina Triangle. "But he did a good job of what he was doing, and he liked doing it."
Charles will be remembered most for his split-second reaction to a teammate's last-gasp air ball nearly three decades ago in Albuquerque, N.M.
The Wolfpack were tied with Clyde Drexler- and Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston in the '83 championship game with time ticking away when Dereck Whittenburg hoisted a heave from well beyond the key.
Charles pulled the ball out of the air and slammed it home at the buzzer, giving N.C. State a 54-52 win. That sent late coach Jim Valvano spilling onto the court in search of someone -- anyone -- to hug.
N.C. State retired Charles' No. 43 jersey in 2008, the 25th anniversary of the championship.
"The entire Wolfpack family is devastated to hear the news about Lorenzo Charles," current NC State Coach Mark Gottfried said in a statement. "He holds a special place in Wolfpack history and in the hearts of generations of fans. We just reconnected with him last week and our staff was stunned to hear this terrible news."
Charles finished his college career two years later with 1,535 total points -- 15th on the school's 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, and played internationally and in the Continental Basketball Association until 1999.
"Lorenzo left an indelible impact in sports lore that will never be forgotten, and while he will be forever remembered for his accomplishments at North Carolina State, the Atlanta Hawks family would like to extend heartfelt condolences to the Charles family," said Dominique Wilkins, a pro teammate of Charles' and now the Hawks' vice-president of basketball operations.
Below are the plans NC State has to honor Charles:
· Adopt a commemorative patch for use on the men’s basketball uniforms for the 2011-12 season.
· Recognize the contributions of Charles at the Football Home Opener v. Liberty (All-American Day) on September 3rd, with a video.
· Recognize Charles during the James A. Naismith Sportsmanship Award ceremony at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium on Wednesday evening, June 29th, sponsored by the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame.
· A potential endowment in Lorenzo Charles’ name for the Men’s Basketball program through the Wolfpack Club. This idea will be discussed with the family upon their availability. When fully endowed, the Lorenzo Charles Scholarship Endowment would pay the scholarship costs for a student-athlete at NC State.
Associated Press writers Joedy McCreary and Tom Foreman Jr. contributed to this report