NORMAL - Charlotte Lewis made the 1976 United States Olympic team in just her third year of organized basketball. That speaks volumes for the former Illinois State All-American's ability on the court.
It cannot convey the 6-foot-2 Lewis' stature as a person.
"I called her a gentle giant," said Jill Hutchison, Lewis' coach at ISU. "Physically, she was awesome. Inside, she was the most gentle, caring kind of person you'd want to know."
Lewis, 52, died Monday night in Kansas City, Mo., after suffering a heart attack. Lewis was traveling by train from her native Peoria when she became ill and was taken to a Kansas City emergency room, Hutchison said.
Lewis' No. 30 is among three retired numbers hanging from the rafters at Redbird Arena, joining Doug Collins and Cathy Boswell. She led ISU to 63 victories and four AIAW state championships from 1974-78, earning Kodak All-America honors in 1977. The following year, she was among 30 finalists for the Wade Trophy, given annually to the nation's top female athlete.
"She was the best female athlete during our time that I had seen," said Lincoln's Cyndi Slayton Jackson, a friend and former ISU teammate of Lewis. "We would scrimmage against the men, and they couldn't penetrate the lane against her. She also could dunk the ball, and at the time that was rare.
"But the best thing was she was as big a person as a player. She always talked about giving back. She came from a disadvantaged area, and someone had helped her along the way. She wanted to give those individuals the same chance she had."
Lewis, who grew up in Peoria's Taft Homes, helped the United States to the silver medal in the 1976 Olympics at Montreal. After completing her career at ISU, she played 15 years of professional basketball in Italy, Brazil and the U.S.
Lewis returned to ISU at age 40 to earn her degree in recreation and parks administration, working three jobs while taking nine to 12 hours per semester.
She worked with Jackson at the Logan Correctional Center in Lincoln for a while, but moved to Peoria to begin an after-school youth program focusing on academics and recreation.
"If there was anything that floated her boat, it was working with kids," Hutchison said. "But she wasn't comfortable in a classroom, so she decided to go the recreational route. She was just a special person."
Lewis ranks among the top 10 in career rebounds (658), rebounding average (7.4), scoring average (12.4) and field goal percentage (.505) at ISU. She averaged 17.5 points and a school-record 11.0 rebounds as a senior.
Lewis was inducted into the Illinois State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1983, and her jersey was retired on Jan. 12, 2002.