Authors: Charles Barkley
I want to thank all of my family and friends who have supported me and helped me to achieve great things. I also want to thank my enemies for keeping me motivated. I’ve had a wonderful life and I thank God every day.
The trouble is, the greatest athletes in these times usually aren’t all that interested in expression, and the ones who have so much to say aren’t the ones we want to hear. But Charles Barkley has always been both: compelling on the court and fascinating when holding court. Basketball has always been just the half of it with Barkley, which is why two years into athletic retirement he is still irresistible.
What professional athlete in the last twenty years participated more fully, peeled back all the layers, and loved it any more than Barkley? The games, the riches, the teammates, the foes, the confrontations, the adoration, the climb, the fall, the verbal sparring, the needling, the provoking, the joking, the challenging, the indulging; we can’t imagine Barkley without all of it, all of the time.
We marveled when a man his height scored 40 points and grabbed 20 rebounds in a game. We laughed when he asked the devoutly religious A. C. Green, “If God’s so good, how come he didn’t give you a jump shot?” We cringed when he said an Angolan Olympic basketball player might have been carrying a spear. We wondered if he was serious when he said he would consider a career in politics, as a Republican. Usually, we were unaware when he stuffed wads of bills in the bag of a homeless woman in Spain, or gave a million bucks to his high school, or changed a stranger’s tire, drove him home, then waited until the guy’s kids arrived from school so they would believe it really was Charles Barkley who changed their daddy’s tire.
Some folks loved it, some hated it when he said parents shouldn’t depend on athletes to be their kids’ role models. The folks at PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) gritted their teeth when Barkley went on TV, eating an all-beef hamburger, and said the only thing animals were good for was eating and wearing.
He’s never been one for political correctness. He has carried a gun for protection, but never run with a posse. During the Gulf War, when most of the players tended to keep their views to themselves, Barkley came to the NBA All-Star interview room wearing a cap that said, “Fuck Iraq.” He is not for the easily offended, those stuck in neutral, and certainly those without a generous sense of humor.
One day last spring, while Barkley and I were talking for the purposes of writing this book, a woman walked into an upscale and very adult restaurant in the ultra-fashionable section of Atlanta known as Buckhead. With her were a dozen twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls, their heads newly coiffed and braided and teased to the tune of $50 a head from a group trip to the salon. As she greeted Barkley and told of her daughter’s group birthday present, he said, “Whatever happened to Chuck E. Cheese? Ain’t no Dairy Queens in Atlanta?” Everybody sitting within earshot smiled appreciatively, wishing they could have expressed exactly that, so casually and innocently but still right to the point. The woman blushed and said, “Oh, Charles,” not the least offended that she had been the prop for a dead-on Barkley commentary on parental misjudgment. It was the perfect thing to say, and I don’t know anyone else who would have said it.
Years ago, Michael Jordan observed that we all want to say the stuff Barkley says, but we don’t dare. And particularly, most athletes don’t dare. I don’t enjoy going into locker rooms as much as I used to, not because there aren’t plenty of smart and observant guys—there are. It’s that guys with commentary in their souls are afraid to say what they’re really thinking, particularly on sensitive issues. Sadly, it’s understandable. The league might be offended, and if not the league then the shoe sponsor that is shelling out three mil a year or whatever it is for the athlete to
to customers, not potentially offend them. And if not the corporate sponsor, then the women or the gays or the blacks or the whites or the Hispanics or . . .
. And rather than take that public beating or risk losing that endorsement income, or sound like an uninformed fool, most guys just say the safe thing, or clam up altogether and put on headphones to shut out the noise of the world. I’ve never seen Barkley wearing headphones in public. Never.
Early on, Barkley made his peace with mixing it up, and decided the consequences were very much worth it to him. And that makes him as radically different in these modern celebrity times as a 6-foot-4-inch power forward. And most days it makes him a compelling figure in the world of sports and entertainment. When I was approached about editing his words I was excited because I knew from seventeen years of hanging around him that Barkley had things to say, things worth writing and hearing and debating, some of it about touchy and even volatile subjects of which most celebrities are deathly afraid. Not sound bites, not thirty-second commercial clips that have at times gotten him into swirling controversy, but fully developed thoughts he’s been mulling and shaping for years. I may have edited this book, but it was written by Charles Barkley.
The first time I ever saw Charles was November 5, 1983, in Auburn, Alabama, on the campus. I was the beat writer covering college sports for the
and I was there to see Maryland play Auburn in football. The football game would be memorable enough since Maryland was led by a young quarterback named Boomer Esiason and Auburn that day would unleash a third-string running back named Vincent (Bo) Jackson on the college football world.
But while I’ve covered football, I’m a basketball junkie. My friend, mentor and columnist colleague Ken Denlinger—an even bigger basketball junkie—made the trip as well. He knew the Auburn basketball coach, Sonny Smith, and had arranged for us to go watch the basketball team scrimmage that Saturday morning before the football game.
College basketball was a regional pleasure back then; you pretty much only watched the teams where you lived. You didn’t get to see North Carolina and Duke if you lived in Chicago; you got DePaul and Notre Dame and Marquette. ESPN was only about three years old, so there was no Big Monday. There also was never any Big West game starting at midnight Eastern Time. So I’d heard a little bit about Charles Barkley, but I’d certainly never seen him play.
We went to the gym, and there was Barkley, 280 pounds or thereabouts, stuffed into those Daisy Duke shorts that were still fashionable in the early 1980s. I didn’t want to say anything out loud to embarrass myself. So I just thought, “
Barkley? This is the guy people are raving about?” I was stunned. At a shade under 6-foot-5, he wasn’t much taller than me, and he looked more like a defensive tackle than a basketball player. But when the game started, he was a force of nature, rebounding and leading the break and dunking. Bodies bounced off him. He played taller and more confidently and with greater passion than anybody on the court. A future NBA player named Chuck Person was on the court that day, but I don’t remember anything about him. I just remember Barkley, and feeling like the handful of us at that scrimmage had discovered something delicious, some sweet new secret.
• • •
Every ballplayer who has come along since 1984 has wanted to be like Mike. Nobody wants to be like Charles for the simple reason that it’s too hard, it’s too physically exacting, too punishing. People fantasize about soaring over the competition; nobody dreams of the alternative, the hand-to-hand combat and mauling in the lane. For most of his career, Barkley was listed as 6-foot-6, which is nonsense. He’s 6-foot-4
inches. That’s at least eight inches shorter than Wilt Chamberlain, the only man to finish a professional basketball career with more points, rebounds and assists than Barkley. Barkley stands 10 inches shorter than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, yet averaged more rebounds per season in the NBA. Barkley never picked on anybody his own size; usually it was 6-11 Kevin McHale, 6-11 Bill Laimbeer, 6-10 Karl Malone, 6-9 Charles Oakley, 6-10 Horace Grant, 6-10 Rick Mahorn, or 6-8 Buck Williams.
Over time, Barkley’s shooting got better and his range improved, as did his ball handling. But he lived for the mayhem within three feet of the basket, the elbows to the neck and knees to the kidneys, the slam dancing that allows the acrobats to soar unencumbered. Even at thirty-six years old, his back ravaged, he averaged 12.3 rebounds per game, still mastered this unglamorous but true measure of a man’s determination and toughness. Appropriately, Barkley’s playing career ended, for all practical purposes, with him blowing out his leg trying to block the shot of 6-10 Tyrone Hill. A scout who came back to an NBA general manager with the report that a 6-foot-5 guy could score 25 a night and grab 12 rebounds for 16 years would be fired summarily. Inch for inch, Barkley had to be the toughest and most resourceful sonofabitch to ever play in the NBA.
And the notion that his career is somehow flawed because he didn’t lead a team to the championship is one I reject, the way I reject it about the great Ted Williams, who never won a World Series, the way I reject it about the fabulous Gale Sayers, who never even played in an NFL playoff game. Barkley’s great sin was being born three days after Michael Jordan. He suffered the same bad timing as Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton and Reggie Miller: he was born at the wrong time. His fatal athletic flaw, if we accept such a notion, was not being Michael Jordan.
But it’s doubtful anybody, Jordan included, has enjoyed himself more than Barkley. “Mr. Barkley, where would you like to sit?” often draws the answer, “Right here, at the bar will be fine.” Any meal in public with Barkley—100 percent of the ones I’ve had with him—is interrupted by people wanting an autograph, a picture with him, a hug, a debate. The only time in sixteen years of postgame grub that I’ve ever seen him refuse an autograph is when some adult weasel is clearly trying to hoard signatures to sell. The well-known incident where an angry woman tore up his autograph and claimed Barkley was rude to her resulted from her asking him to sign for the seventh or eighth time.
Other than that, rarely if ever does anybody go away unhappy. Hell, people approach him with the intention of venting and go away smiling. Quick story: One night a few years back in a Phoenix restaurant, an ex-marine who was shorter than Barkley is wide and had had too much to drink decided he was going to start a fight. Why? His nuisance of a girlfriend had asked Barkley to pose with her for a picture. Real problem was, two or three of his buddies were poised to jump in. Charles looked at me and asked, “You ever been in a bar fight?” I told him no. He said, “Well, there’s a first time for everything. Now, take off your glasses.”
Perhaps sensing a sportswriter wasn’t the ideal tag-team partner, Barkley did the prudent thing and simply charmed the drunken bums out of their rage and into a picture-taking frenzy. These are the kinds of encounters you risk when you travel with no bodyguard (the NBA made him hire one at the end of his career but he’s back to traveling solo), when you don’t seek out the table in the booth in the back in the corner in the dark, when you say hello to everybody, pick up the drink tab and tip the waiter too much.
After seeing Barkley need two hours to get through a basic lunch one day in Atlanta because of the interruptions, a patron walked over, signed his name to a piece of paper, put it down in front of Barkley and said, “Charles, I just wanted to give you
autograph. I never knew exactly what to think about you until today.”
Then again, it’s the daily interaction with people that keeps Barkley in touch in a way most celebrities are not. The great attraction to him is that the same guy who said that an African Olympic opponent “probably hadn’t eaten in five or six days” is the same guy who has loaned friends nearly a million bucks with little prospect of seeing any of it again.
I’ve always thought Barkley would make a wonderful talk show host, and he could be moving in that direction. Part of the reason, I hope, Charles wanted me involved with his project is he knows to a great extent we see the world the same way. We don’t agree on everything. I’m a registered Democrat, for example. But we agree to the letter on the need for discussion on just about everything, the more uncomfortable the subject matter the more necessary the dialogue. If the discussion leader can be insightful, irreverent, profane and funny, all the while able to laugh at both himself and others, then it’s so much better. Barkley wants us to examine our own opinions and make him reexamine his, and in the process we may all learn something. Folks are forever asking, “What’s Charles Barkley really like?” Well, here’s the best chance ever to really find out.