N.C. State's return to the Final Four stirs fond memories in New Mexico

Apr. 1—An afterlife: is there or isn't there? It's a question for the ages.

For our limited purposes here, though, we'll assume there is — because that means Jim Valvano and Lorenzo Charles, wherever their essences may be, are smiling.

Their North Carolina State Wolfpack has (or have, another question for the ages) made it back to the Final Four.

Remember? Of course you do, even if you weren't there, say you were anyway, didn't see it or weren't even born yet. In 1983, at the Pit in Albuquerque, the Wolfpack shocked the heavily favored Houston Cougars — not to mention the world — to win it all.

I was there.

Pandemonium. After Charles slammed home Dereck Whittenberg's air ball for the game-winner a tick before the final buzzer sounded, Valvano, NC State's colorful coach, ran in circles trying to find someone to hug. Houston star center Akeem (later Hakeem) Olajuwon stood frozen in disbelief, then collapsed to the floor.

That was then. N.C. State hasn't been back to the Final Four since. But, Sunday, led by burly big man D.J. Burns, the 11th-seeded Wolfpack dispatched Atlantic Coast Conference rival Duke to win the NCAA Tournament's South Region and advance to a national semifinal on Saturday against 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and the Purdue Boilermakers.

Given that 11th seed, the odds of another national title for the Wolfpack are longer than those of the 1983 team, which entered the Big Dance that year as a No. 6 seed.

In no way does that make the '83 Wolfpack's championship run any less Cinderella-like.

After a patchy, 17-10 regular season that saw N.C. State enter the ACC Tournament as a No. 4 seed, the Wolfpack defeated Wake Forest (by a single point), North Carolina (by seven) and Virginia (by three) to win the tourney.

In the NCAA Tournament, Valvano's Cardiac Pack beat Pepperdine by two, UNLV by one, Utah by 19, ACC rival Virginia by one to win the West Region and Georgia in the Pit by seven in advancing to the April 4 title game against Houston.

The Wolfpack was ascribed virtually no chance to beat Houston, which entered the championship game with a 31-2 record and a 26-game winning streak. The Cougars had raced paced Louisville, a No. 2 seed, in the semifinals, 94-81.

So, what was Valvano to do? Clearly, N.C. State needed to control the tempo. But how? The day before the title game, I called Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse coach, who was in Albuquerque for the coaches' convention that annually takes place during the Final Four. Syracuse was one of two teams, the other being Virginia, that had beaten Houston back in December.

Boeheim wasn't optimistic on N.C. State's behalf. But in terms of controlling the tempo, he said, "If anyone can do it, Jimmy (Valvano) can."

That, Valvano did. The Wolfpack led 33-25 at halftime.

Houston, though, regrouped in the second half and took a 52-45 lead. But Cougars coach Guy Lewis then made what proved to be a fateful mistake: he put in his team in its delay game, "The Locomotion," in hopes of bleeding the clock and getting to the finish line.

The Cougars missed some free throws and Whittenberg drained a couple of jumpers, setting the stage for Charles' game-winner.

Afterward, Valvano was jubilant. "This team has never, ever let me down," he said. "They never stopped believing in me as a coach."

That night, it turned out, wasn't Valvano and Charles' last visit to the Pit. The Wolfpack returned to Albuquerque for an NCAA Tournament sub-regional in 1985.

Upon arrival, Valvano climbed down the steps of the team's chartered plane and kissed the tarmac — bruising his lip, he said later. "Hello, Albuquerque, I'm home!" He shouted.

Of 1983, Charles — now a senior and the team's undisputed star — said, "Sure, I still think about it. When something like that happens to you, there's no way it could ever leave your mind."

The Wolfpack remained undefeated at the Pit, beating Nevada and UTEP — Charles scored 30 points against the Miners — to reach the Sweet 16. But after a victory over Alabama, the Pack was/were denied another trip to the Final Four by Chris Mullin, Walter Berry and St. John's.

N.C. State and Valvano made it back to the Elite Eight in 1986 but lost to Kansas. The Pack hasn't been back to the Elite Eight, let alone the Final Four, until now.

Valvano coached at North Carolina State until 1990, resigning amid recruiting violations (while not found to have had personal responsibility for them).

He died in 1993 at age 47 after a heroic, much-publicized battle with cancer. The V Foundation for cancer research is still going strong, its motto — taken from Valvano's inspiring speech at the 1993 ESPYs — "Don't Give Up. Don't Ever Give Up."

Charles played only briefly in the NBA, with a skill set that would have required him to be at least a couple of inches taller than his 6-foot-7 to succeed at that level. He went on to play another 15 years internationally and in U.S. minor leagues.

He died in 2011 in a bus crash. He was, like his old coach, 47 at the time of his death.

We know there will never be another Final Four in Albuquerque, with bigger, multiple-purpose facilities having supplanted college arenas like the Pit.

But we'll always have 1983.

So, always, will Jim Valvano and Lorenzo Charles.