Joe Kleine on Charles Barkley
On Saturday, March 20, Charles Barkley will become the 10th member of the Suns' Ring of Honor when his No. 34 is retired during halftime of the Suns-Bucks game. In honor of the big event, Suns.com is turning the tables on the always-opinionated personality, and asking some of his former teammates, coaches and opponents for their opinions and stories of Sir Charles.
Former Suns center Joe Kleine played with and against Barkley, and became a close friend and golf buddy of the Chuckster during his time with the Suns. One of the truly good guys in sports, Kleine spoke with Suns.com from his home in Arkansas, where he is now a radio analyst for Razorback basketball, on the impact Barkley had in Phoenix and throughout the league.
Suns.com: What are your memories of playing against Barkley before your time with the Suns?
Joe Kleine: I used to have to guard him a lot. I enjoyed being on his team much more than I did playing against him. If you can’t beat him, join him (laughs).
My only hope was to get about three feet off of him and try to dangle the carrot so he would shoot the ball from the perimeter instead of going by me. Sometimes I could dangle that carrot but when he started making that shot, it was a bad feeling. It didn’t work very often.
Suns.com: What was is like to play with Barkley after matching up against him?
Kleine: It was great. It was never a dull moment. I’ve always said that there’s a better chance that you’ll see another Jordan, another Bird, another Chamberlain, before you’ll see another Charles Barkley. A guy at 6-4, 6-5 in his heels, that could dominate an NBA game in the paint at that height, it was just amazing. I will be shocked if we ever see somebody like that again.
Suns.com: How did your opinion of Barkley change when you became teammates?
Kleine: For being a superstar, he was probably the most accessible. I don’t want to say normal, because normal’s not the right word for Charles. For being a superstar, he was very approachable. He was team first guy. He wanted to win and that was his motivation. I came to respect that from him.
Suns.com: What was the team atmosphere like coming to Phoenix after the ’92-93 season?
Kleine: You could tell it was a special team. You had Charles, you had (Dan) Majerle, (Danny) Ainge, Kevin Johnson, Mark West. You could see why it was a great team because it had some good guys on it who could play. coming from Boston, we had some good guys and that’s so important. That’s underrated. People get so caught up in talent and ability, and they forget about character. Charles was probably a character than he had character (laughs), but he did have character. He played and he wanted to win. As far as a teammate, he was great because he looked out for his teammates and he knew that winning benefited everybody. Him making the All-Star team or winning the MVP mostly benefited him, and he wanted his teammates to share in his success. That’s probably the thing I really came to admire about him. He had a genuine respect for his teammates.
Suns.com: What was it like matching up against Barkley in practice?
Kleine: I never matched up to him in practice because he never practiced (laughs). If there’s anybody out there saying Charles worked really hard in practice, they’re lying. On a veteran team like we had, you don’t get mad at a guy who doesn’t want to practice who just played 40 minutes, got 22 rebounds and 32 points. When the lights went on, he performed. Charles was always at practice. He wasn’t going give it to you in practice, but that’s okay because he gave it to you in the game. As long as somebody shows up when the lights come on, most NBA players and coaches don’t consider that a distraction because he’s producing. If he was getting seven points and eight rebounds, and then not practicing and then complaining he needs more time, that’s where that stuff starts to come in.
Suns.com: Can you share some of your favorite Barkley stories?
Kleine: I just think sometimes he was brutally honest about himself. You’d be out there playing and you’d be having a bad game and Charles would come up to you and start laughing. You’re out there in the middle of the court, and I was kind of an emotional guy, and he’d just come over and start laughing, and he’d say, “Man, you really stink.” At first you want to fight him and then he’d just start laughing.
That stuff went on, on and off the court. He was just brutally honest. You’d be sitting down and having dinner with him and somebody would come up asking for an autograph. They’d say, “I hate to bother you,” and he’d say, “Well then, don’t.” Then he’d start laughing and give them the autograph. To see the look on the people’s face when he’d say something like that them, it’s pretty funny. Those are the G-rated versions.
A couple of times people would say, “I can see why somebody poured a beer on him.” If he didn’t start laughing quick enough, somebody might want to pour a beer on him.
Suns.com: What kind of golfer was/is Barkley?
Kleine: We loved playing golf with Charles. The only thing easier than playing golf with Charles is going to the ATM. He’s awful.
We were playing over at Gainey Ranch one time. We had some death match going with Roy Green and Majerle. We’re putting everything out and playing the ball as it lies. His ball was right next to the car path but he’s got a great lie. He and Roy are over there plotting. He said, “I’m not going to take a drop. I’m going to stand on the path and I’m going to hit it.” That’s when they had spikes on the shoes and so he proceeds to start with his back swing and you could just hear (his feet shuffling). It looked like he was moonwalking, making all this noise. It was a par five and he proceeds to smack this ball. He probably hit it 260 yards and it never went higher than three feet off the ground. If somebody would have been standing out there he would have killed them. It was in the air for a long time. After he hits it, the club stops on the way through, and then he goes into his follow through and poses. We just sat there. He’s the worst golfer I’ve ever seen.
The thing that was weird, when I first came to Phoenix he had this really nice swing. It was a normal swing and then he went to Houston. He came back that summer and we were playing golf, and he had that hitch and giddyup and getalong thing. I don’t know who got a hold of him in Houston. My theory is he started teaching himself. It’s painful to watch. He was out there hitting balls on the range and we thought he was joking. Then he went to the first tee and he had the same swing.
Suns.com: What do recall about the two playoff series against Houston in 1994 and 1995?
Kleine: One game both years, if we beat Houston we win (the Western Conference). Of all my NBA memories, those two series haunt me. There are still days I’ll be driving down the road and I’ll just go, “I cannot believe we went down to Houston, won the first two games of the series and then lost four out of the next five, with three of them being at home.” The other year, we’re up three to one. The thing that hurts so much was it was a good bunch of guys. It was a good coaching staff, had a great owner. You just sit there and think how much fun, how great it would have been to have been able to win that championship with those guys and with that organization. It’s very bitter.
Those were a couple of the best years I ever had in the NBA. There was nothing bad about it. If you were in there bitching or complaining about something, it was because that’s the type of person you were, because nobody had anything they could bitch or complain about. It was a good bunch of guys, a good staff, good ownership, and we were winning. It was great.
Suns.com: How often have you kept in touch with Barkley over the years?
Kleine: Every now and then. When I come back to Phoenix, I try to see him. I try to holler at him every now and then after he says something stupid on TNT.
Suns.com: What is your opinion of Barkley the broadcaster?
Kleine: I like it because you never know what you gonna get. Kenny Smith and Ernie (Johnson) may want to talk about the post defense and they’ll ask Charles about the post defense on Shaquille O’Neal. Thirty seconds later, he’ll be talking about what’s wrong with John Kerry’s campaign and somehow he’ll tie it together. It’s good. He makes good points, but he just does it in a manner that’s different, it’s not the same old thing.
Suns.com: What are you up to these days?
Kleine: Yeah, I do the radio and I have a restaurant here (in Arkansas). I do a little volunteer coaching and raising my kids, trying to keep my wife happy. I’m probably looking to coach some day if it’s the right situation. I don’t know at what level. I like the competitiveness and I miss it. Hopefully, some day soon I can get back into it where it’s good for myself but also good for my family.
Suns.com: What are your feelings about Barkley going in the Ring of Honor?
Kleine: I’m just glad. It was something that needed to happen. I’m just glad that both sides were able to see that whole deal didn’t need to keep going. It was just a lack of communication. I’m just glad they both got together and ironed it out, and were able to do the right thing and that was getting Charles in the Ring of Honor.