The loquacious, irrepressible, funny Charles Barkley will hold court no longer. Everyone, especially the media, will miss him.
You’re a Good Man, Charles Barkley!
The following article originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Hoop magazine.
He has been accused of being fat and out of shape for virtually his entire career, yet he almost lasted 16 seasons, is one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, and not only won two Olympic gold medals but was also the leading scorer on both teams.
We could talk about rebounding titles, assists and three-point shots and his years of consistent play, but numbers are indeed only numbers when you're talking about Charles Barkley. And we all know that numbers never really tell the whole story.
The beauty of Barkley goes beyond anything measurable. It's as a man that he made his greatest contributions to the sport. His honesty, outgoing personality, his willingness to admit a mistake and his eagerness to take a stand no matter how controversial all helped make him so fascinating to be around.
His confidence in who he was and how he wanted to live his life and even on how others might want to live theirs is all part of his mystique. If you ever ask Barkley a question, the one answer you know you won't get is "No comment." Charles Barkley is a living comment.
He's a devout republican, an outspoken civil rights advocate and has always been what he calls a mama's boy. He's extremely proud of all three traits. He tirelessly gave his time to visiting children in hospitals and to the downtrodden and never thought or acted like he was special just because he was a rich basketball player. He is as regular as they come.
His mouth often got him into trouble, but only trouble as perceived by others. According to Barkley, his mouth never got him into trouble because it always spoke the truth.
"If the truth can get you in trouble, then you really are in trouble," he said.
The Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill, a 1996 Olympic teammate, once put his finger right on the pulse of Charles Barkley.
"He does the things that you kind of want to do but don't have the gall," Hill said. "You always have to be ready for him because he's going to do what Charles wants to do on the court and off, and it's usually going to be funny."
The Olympics brought out the best in Barkley. Surrounded by the greatest players in the world, it was Barkley's personality that attracted people to him. I remember the original Dream Team and Barkley bopping around Monaco before heading to Barcelona in 1992.
"This place is a trip," he said. "The people here are very neat, very friendly and very well dressed, but you can't stay here long. Things cost too much. If you're an alcoholic, this is a good place to come because a beer can cost you $40. You can't afford to be a drunk here."
I also remember the irreverent Barkley at a dinner hosted by Prince Rainier of Monaco. "We're supposed to stop eating when he stops," he said. "But what if we're still hungry? He may have had a snack before he came over."
When told he should address Prince Rainier as Your Majesty, Barkley said, "I haven't had to call anyone Your Majesty since Harold [Katz, a former owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, the team Barkley played for during the first eight seasons of his pro career]."
After his first look at the topless beaches, he was ready to take up a new sport.
"I'm quitting this team for the Olympic swim team," he said. "I'm going to the pool as long as there are babes with no tops. You'll think I'm Mark Spitz before this week is over."
I had the good fortune of doing a diary with Barkley for USA Today at the Barcelona Olympics. It sure was fun, but it wasn't easy. I remember Barkley saying to meet him at one place at 1 a.m. I'd go there and there would be a message to meet him at another place. I'd go there and there'd be another message to meet him someplace else at 3:30 a.m. It was always a race with the sun to see which one of us got to Barkley first. He never stiffed me, though, and I always eventually caught up to him and the journey was always worth it.
He shared a lot of thoughts before and after games, and he proved to be a remarkable mixture of humor and insight. The biggest mistake one could make is to underestimate Barkley's intelligence. He has always been a media darling, mainly because he understands the media and knows how to make it work for him.
"I'll show you how negative the American media is," he said late one night in Barcelona. "A guy came up to me the other day and said did I know that 37 percent of the people in the USA are tired of the Dream Team. Well, I said, ‘Why can't you write that 63 percent of the people like the Dream Team?' See what I mean? We're living in a negative-conscious society. I know that and that's not the way I want to be."
Being liked or disliked has never been on Barkley's mind. He is, above all else, a realist. He doesn't live his life with blinders on and he speaks out on whatever he feels needs speaking out on, no matter who likes it or not.
"Some people are going to like me and some people are going to dislike me," he once said. "I always live by the 50 percent rule – 50 percent of the people are going to like you and 50 percent of the people aren't going to like you. Some people are going to dislike you because you're black; some people are going to dislike you because you're from the South; some people are going to dislike you because you play for the Suns or for the 76ers; some people are going to dislike you because you're Jewish. I mean, someone is always going to dislike you, but you can't concentrate on the negative stuff."
Barkley has always hinted he might go into politics and maybe even run for governor of his native state, Alabama. He despises one group of people taking advantage of another and is an outspoken champion of the exploited – which might make him an unsuccessful politician. I remember one night in Barcelona when Barkley, with a group of Nigerians, Italians and Israelis listening in, held court.
"I will always believe that blacks will never be treated as equals to whites, poor people will never be treated as equals to rich people and women will never be treated as well as men," he said. "Those are elitist things and it's those things that bother me, but that's the type of society we live in."
Professional sports is a business, but Barkley was one of those who kept it fun. He had fun playing basketball, his teammates had fun playing with him, fans had fun watching him and the media had fun chronicling him. He was as quick-witted as any athlete who ever played. He always seemed to sense what you were looking for when you asked a question and, if he were in the mood, he'd give the cut-to-the-chase answer.
Once, when Larry Bird was injured and Fred Roberts took his place in the Boston lineup, Barkley was asked the difference between Bird and Roberts, he didn't even flinch. "One guy can play and the other guy can't," he said.
After everybody wrote down the answer, laughed a lot and left, I went back to Barkley and asked him if he meant Bird was a good player and Roberts wasn't or if he meant Bird was hurt and couldn't play and Roberts was healthy and could?
He winked and quipped, "I'll read the papers tomorrow and find out."
Sure he's done some things that were just plain stupid, but he's always made amends when he was wrong. He spat on a young fan, we all know that, but as he said, "She wasn't the one I was spitting at. I missed him." But do we all know that he apologized and befriended the person he actually did spit on, providing tickets to future games and other things. He didn't do them because someone told him to, but because that was just Barkley's way.
He fought with Bill Laimbeer and Shaquille O'Neal, among others, and he punched people out in bars and has been known to throw a fellow through a window, but he never started a fight in his life.
But he will always be remembered for his "I am not a role model" stance. His unpopular point, however, was always one of responsibility.
"Parents are the role models," he has always said, "not some overrated and overpaid athlete." He put himself among the latter group.
When we think about Barkley we have to remember that he might clown around, but he isn't a clown and he mastered the art of being a character with character. He can captivate any arena single-handedly. One of my fondest remembrances of him is at the Georgia Dome at the Atlanta Olympics in a game against China, a game Barkley volunteered to sit out so his teammates could get more playing time.
He may not have played, but he still entertained by leading the crowd through his own, hip-swaying, animated version of the song "YMCA," equipped with his arms spelling out the letters and everything.
That was Barkley at his best, and it brought the crowd closer together and provided more heart-warming entertainment in the spirt of Olympics than any basketball game could have. Instead of playing for the fans and to the fans, he played with them. Those are the things people take away and remember for a long, long time.
When one reaches the end of any trail, all he can hope for is to look back and say he wouldn't have done anything differently. We should all be grateful Charles Barkley didn't. He walks (limps) away with his head held high. All of us who have known him tip our hats. We all may have feared the world had ended when Michael Jordan retired, but the game obviously survived.
We're going to miss Charles as much as we miss Michael. He always kept the world in perspective – through his eyes, mind you, but at least it was in perspective.
His longtime friend, Cotton Fitzsimmons, may have summed up Barkley best when he said, "Charles thought he was bigger than life – and sometimes he was."
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