Hoops Coach Relives Iconic NCAA Tournament Moment

Every year right around now, it’s time to go dancing! Not in the ballroom, but in the NCAA Tournament. 

There’s always a memorable upset during March Madness: Villanova taking down the mighty Georgetown in the 1985 national championship; No. 16 University of Maryland-Baltimore shocking No. 1 UVA in the first round in 2018; and the string of impressive upsets by George Mason throughout the 2006 tournament. 

Still though, one of the most memorable upsets — and most memorable college basketball moments in general — occurred during the 1983 national championship between N.C. State University and the heavily favored University of Houston, a team featuring future Naismith Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. 

In miraculous fashion, a last-second heave near half court by N.C. State’s Dereck Whittenburg fell short, but the ball wound up right into the hands of teammate and Brooklyn Technical H.S. graduate Lorenzo Charles, who dunked the ball to cap off the 54-52 win. 

It’s a scene that college basketball fans will never forget, especially the lasting image of N.C. State’s vivacious head coach Jim Valvano running around the court looking for someone to hug as the Wolfpack pulled off the upset. 

This game — played April 4 in Albuquerque, New Mexico — featured some local diocesan ties. Valvano grew up in Queens and attended St. Leo’s Elementary School in Corona, while his assistant coach, Ray Martin, started his hoops career in the Catholic Youth Organization for St. Rita, Long Island City. Martin, a 2017 inductee into the Basketball Old-Timers of America Hall of Fame, recalls the bedlam of that raucous moment to this day. 

Martin went on to play for coach Jim Gatto at Mater Christi H.S., Astoria, where his teams won three city championships in four years and he was named a high school All-American. He played his college ball at the University of Notre Dame before settling in to the coaching ranks at N.C. State. 

“Coach Valvano was ahead of his time,” Martin said. “Coach had the uncanny ability to make sure that if we were going to lose, we would not let their best player beat us. We’re going to make somebody else beat us, somebody that’s not used to having the ball in their hands at crunch time.” 

After beating the University of Georgia in the Final Four, the Wolfpack were not given much of a shot against Houston. Yet the team, led by the resilient “Jimmy V,” knew full well they had a chance. 

“The one thing Coach V always instilled in his players — and his coaches too — was a sense to believe,” Martin said. “He always had our guys believing they could win any game. Coach V was an unbelievable motivator. You talk about the greatest speechwriters in sports history, Coach V is right up there.” 

An important note here is that Martin was the one who recruited Charles to come to N.C. State out of Brooklyn Tech. Martin noticed immediately that Charles was physically college-ready and had incredible hands. 

“Anytime you’d throw the ball in his vicinity, he caught it and was like a vice,” Martin said. “Nobody would take it from him.” 

Fortunately, those hands came up big during the title game’s enduring moment. With the score tied at 52 in the closing seconds, Valvano called a timeout. The team moved the ball around the perimeter during the final possession but couldn’t set up a baseline shot. With just seconds left, Whittenburg heaved up a prayer. 

“Dereck always said it was a pass, but we know it was a shot,” Martin said. “When he took the shot, Lorenzo Charles was able to slip in behind Olajuwon, who was out of position, to get a rebound. It was the perfect location for Lorenzo to catch it and dump it in.” 

Martin said he was so elated as time expired that he leapt off the bench, ran onto the court, and jumped into Charles’ outstretched arms. The reason why Jimmy V had no one to hug, as told by Martin, was simple: Everyone was already hugging someone else! 

“Now everybody’s hugging everybody,” he said. “Coach V is running around trying to hug somebody, but everyone is taken. V was saying, ‘Who am I supposed to hug?’ It was a great moment.” 

Valvano’s spirit continues to linger during the NCAA Tournament. We’ll find out soon which coach will be looking for a hug following a national title victory.