ATLANTA — The man who supercharged the rise of a young comedian named Eddie Murphy, provided a national platform for a broadcaster named Bob Costas, and gave scores of other undeveloped talents their shot at stardom was suddenly fixated on a basketball player who was untrained and certifiably uncensored.
Thus, there was a degree of danger involved here. Network television historically sheltered itself from the performer who walked the tightrope and too often fell over into the pit of controversy. This was especially true in sports broadcasting before “hot takes” began seeping into studio shows. Searing criticism of players and coaches was best left to the newspapers. On the air, announcers were advised to curb their commentary and watch their mouths.
But that’s precisely why Dick Ebersol was drawn to Charles Barkley, the gregarious and future Hall of Fame power forward. This was a player who collected rebounds and technical fouls. This was a player who in interviews could be profane, annoyed, outrageous and hilarious, sometimes all in the same response to a question.
This was a player who famously declared “I am not a role model” and also caused an international stir at the 1992 Olympics when he said, among other things: “I don’t know anything about Angola, but Angola’s in trouble.”
He was considered risky in the business but also exactly what the business needed, a shakeup from the vanilla. And Ebersol, a leading sports and entertainment executive who helped create “Saturday Night Live” and oversaw the sports division at NBC, knew potential when he saw it, so he chased Sir Charles.
Ebersol to Barkley: “You’re going to be great on television. You’re always going to be in trouble, but you’ll be great.”
Barkley was confused, so Ebersol elaborated:
“Chuck, people don’t want honesty. People want two things: They want you to tell them their favorite player is great, and they want you to tell them their team is great. You’re going to be honest and a straight shooter. Some people are gonna love you, some are gonna hate you. But they’ll respect you for being honest.”
Barkley made a hasty pivot at the last minute, rejecting NBC’s offer and joining Turner Sports. In hindsight, it was his best career move since leaving the Sixers for the Suns, where he won his only MVP award and took the Suns to the NBA Finals.
All you wanted was Chuck to be Chuck. And to his credit, he has been. He’s one of a kind.”
— ‘Inside The NBA’ host Ernie Johnson, on Charles Barkley
At Turner starting in 2000, Barkley became a four-time Emmy winner and arguably the most successful, if not most popular, ex-athlete in broadcast history. His run is 21 years and counting and he’s the soul of “Inside The NBA” on TNT, the unscripted and uproariously entertaining studio show. And, in the ultimate compliment, Barkley the commentator has rivaled Barkley the 11-time All-Star and member of the NBA’s 50th and 75th Anniversary Teams.
The man who spawned a slew of fun nicknames when he played is suddenly the Round Mound of Profound Sound, able to swivel between comedy, thoughtfulness, playfulness and annoyance, depending on the topic and his mood after the commercial break.
As Ebersol said, not long after Barkley’s second career soared: “Charles is one of the most phenomenal talents to hit the TV sports industry in a long time.”
He always sits far right on the “Inside” set, opposite Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal — the chemistry between ex-players is fueled by disagreement — and host Ernie Johnson Jr., the deft on-air traffic controller. Barkley often serves as a punch line to the show’s many gags and is never at a loss for words.
He seemingly has a license to say whatever, without penalty or public thrashing, because it’s excused as “Charles being Charles.” In that vein, Johnson says Barkley enjoys the same “diplomatic immunity” as Ted Turner, the rascally mogul who created the Turner broadcasting empire.
“I’ve seen other players who were very engaging in interviews and off the court, but when they come into the studio and the red light goes on, they’re not as forthcoming, maybe more guarded,” Johnson said. “All you wanted was Chuck to be Chuck. And to his credit, he has been. He’s one of a kind.”
Barkley isn’t a commentator without flaws; more than once he’ll contradict himself, sometimes in the same breath, and some of his predictions are stretches. Yet: His platform is as massive as the attention he commands, and he doesn’t understand restraint.
The trust from the fans, that’s really important to me. With the power I have, I never want to lose that respect.”
— Charles Barkley
Just last week on “Inside,” Barkley was blunt when the subject of the Sixers’ blockbuster trade with the Nets was raised. The Sixers sacrificed Ben Simmons and a batch of add-on goodies for James Harden — then Philly was walloped when the teams met for the first time since the swap, with Harden misfiring all game.
Barkley: “The Sixers have to win the championship in the next two years or else that’ll go down as the worst trade ever.”
And then this about Harden who, since leaving Oklahoma City and becoming a star, has never reached the NBA Finals, and made the conference finals only once: “James has developed a reputation that, when the lights are brightest, he is awful.”
There’s the faulty notion that Barkley constantly goes for the jugular. Not true. Barkley gushes when necessary and has a particularly soft spot for up-and-coming stars. It’s just that his arrows pierce the chest in ways that few broadcasters dare — some simply don’t have the aim or are afraid of backlash — and they’re usually on-point.
Barkley explained: “I’m always gonna say my truth. I do think there’s a racial element to some of the BS you hear about me. They never call Dan Patrick or Jim Rome or Mike Greenberg `controversial and outspoken.’ Those are code words. We’re saying the same things. I don’t think I’m saying something totally out of whack, but I’m not afraid of a tough subject.”
Speaking of words: Barkley’s vocabulary has spawned “Barkleyisms” that surface nearly every show, almost on cue. They include:
“Turrrible” Pronounced with a drippy drawl from his native Alabama to emphasize the disrespect, it means exactly what it’s intended to mean — something or someone is foul. This is Barkley’s signature expression, much like Marv Albert’s “Yesss!” and Mike Breen’s “Bang!”
“Gair-run-teeed” Barkley just issued a prediction that’s set in stone, because while Barkley isn’t always right, he’s never wrong.
“First of All” Never followed by “second of all,” this is Barkley getting in the first word before he gets the last word.
“Like I Say” Barkley is about to say something he said before, not necessarily word-for-word, but close enough. Or, maybe not.
“That’s Just My Opinion” Barkley reminds you he just gave his opinion, in case you thought it was Kenny’s opinion or, heaven forbid, Shaq’s. And finally …
“Listen” It’s the signal that something interesting is coming, and also what millions of basketball fans have been doing ever since Barkley became a must-watch and a must … listen.
If Barkley is the Howard Cosell of this generation, that designation drips with irony. Because it was Cosell — the bombastic announcer of the 1970s and ’80s whose appearances on “Monday Night Football” and playful spars with Muhammad Ali were legend — who long ago warned of an athletic takeover in the TV industry. He termed it “jockocracy” and that revolution has proven prophetic.
Televised sports are now purposely segregated. Play-by-play announcers and studio hosts are almost exclusively non-athletes, while analysts and studio guests are almost exclusively ex-jocks and ex-coaches. That’s just an accepted arrangement in the biz.
The ex-athletes are supposed to bring a special insight, although this doesn’t always ring true. Scores of former great players flopped famously when given a microphone: Joe Montana, Julius Erving, Emmitt Smith and Bill Russell among them. Rick Barry was a keen observer, but also too acerbic and didn’t last.
He says crazy stuff but does it with a wink in his eye. Nobody has a better time hitting himself than Charles. He’s the most self-effacing person I’ve ever met. Nothing bothers him, and in fact, he enjoys it.”
— Tim Kiely, executive producer of “Inside The NBA”
And there’s no way to train someone to be an analyst. Either they have the delivery and comfort in front of the camera and are able to inform and entertain, or they don’t. Much like singing and sketching, it’s God-given.
Which means Barkley was blessed twice from above. Somehow, at 6-foot-6, he had the impeccable footwork and athletic ability that confounded taller players. A freak, he was, maybe the original freak. Barkley could dribble behind his back, shoot with range and came with quickness that other post players couldn’t match.
Once he received a harsh review from Sixers teammate Moses Malone, who told the rookie he was too “fat and lazy” to be truly special, Barkley ramped up the hard work, transformed his body and made himself into a basketball folk hero. He averaged 22.1 points and 11.7 rebounds over 16 seasons and became endearing through the power of his personality.
That gave him the ingredients for a career in TV sports, a cottage industry for ex-athletes. The spillover has been drastic: Barkley is used on Turner’s NCAA Tournament broadcasts (which kick into high gear this week); made a cameo on the network’s NHL coverage (he’s a huge hockey fan); leveraged his likability into a handful of major commercials; and even serves as guest commentator for “The Match,” the prime-time one-on-one golf tournament, which is quite the coincidence because Barkley’s golf game is often lampooned.
Yet, there’s the rub: Barkley’s appeal also lies with his willingness to poke fun at himself.
“Everything he does is to provoke reaction,” said Tim Kiely, the “Inside” show’s long-time executive producer. “Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s a humorous reaction. The other 5-10 percent is when he wants to make a serious point about race and inequality and speaking on politicians he thinks are bums. He says crazy stuff but does it with a wink in his eye. Nobody has a better time hitting himself than Charles. He’s the most self-effacing person I’ve ever met. Nothing bothers him, and in fact, he enjoys it.”
What separates Barkley from the jockocracy is his willingness to touch prickly subjects that might as well be a porcupine to others. Barkley is an industry trailblazer in that regard, for years happily bouncing between sports, race and politics without stuttering.
“I talk about sports,” he says, “but when something serious comes up, I’ll talk about that, too. The social stuff is very important to me. I’m not going to do it all the time because if you do, people will turn you off. We’ve got to be very selective in how we do it.”
Barkley and the “Inside” crew willingly tackled issues stemming from the social unrest of recent years. The show set itself apart in that regard and the reviews were glowing. Barkley did rankle some activists when he drew the line at defunding the police, saying if that ever happened in tough neighborhoods, “Who are black people gonna call, Ghostbusters?”
Once again, as with sports topics, Barkley doesn’t throw his weight to the liberal side or conservative side, the players’ side or owners’ side, your side or your neighbor’s side. He only subscribes to his side, and stays true to that, consequences be damned.
I’m always gonna put my money where my mouth is. It’s easy to get on TV and challenge the system and say America is racist. But what are you actually doing in your community? You’ve got to have an end game.”
— Charles Barkley
“People went crazy,” Barkley said. “First of all, we need the police. One thing that bothers me is we feel like we’re not allowed to disagree with each other. I said wait a minute. I don’t want any black people killed by cops. But I’m not gonna get on TV and say defund the police. When cops make mistakes, we need to penalize them. We need to hold them accountable. But we need them to protect us. And people were like ‘Charles always defends the cops. Charles said it’s OK to kill black people.’ First of all, you need to listen to what Charles is f—— saying.
“But I’m not afraid. I’m so disgusted by black-on-black crime. Let’s challenge black people to stop killing each other. What annoys me is if a white cop kills a kid, all these black and white folks march and go crazy. Why don’t they get upset when black folks kill each other? We gotta start doing better. It’s interesting. I just wrote a check for $5 million for black colleges and y’all say Charles is the greatest thing in the world. And then a week later I’ll say something and its `Charles Barkley don’t like black people.’ So the one thing I don’t do is fall for the BS.”
Barkley is a hard-liner when it comes to hiring practices, especially the disproportion within the coaching ranks. He took his own school, Auburn, to the woodshed in 2009 when it hired Gene Chizik instead of Turner Gill, who is black, and is angry by what he sees in the NFL. Barkley also subscribes heavily to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, paying tuitions and funding scholarships and academic programs at Morehouse College, among others.
He said: “I’m always gonna put my money where my mouth is. It’s easy to get on TV and challenge the system and say America is racist. But what are you actually doing in your community? You’ve got to have an end game. Even when guys boycotted games, I’m like, `What’s your end game?’ You gotta have a plan.”
The Plan for his second career was never plotted; it just hatched. When it did, Barkley made a pledge: Never sell out the audience. So he’s untarnished from hidden agenda-ism, which runs rampant in media circles. He doesn’t have a hit-list nor does he play favorites, and his opinion can’t be bought and sold.
“I never want to give anyone a reason to say ‘Charles likes this guy and hates that guy.’ Even when LeBron (James) came at me a few years ago, my criticism of him was fair. The trust from the fans, that’s really important to me. With the power I have, I never want to lose that respect.”
This makes him a lightning rod among the athletes he discusses. Most of their reactions to him are playful zingers. Tom Brady, after struggling on the golf course during “The Match” two years ago — and hearing Barkley’s smack-talk in his earpiece — holed a birdie and said: “Shut your mouth, Chuck, take some of that medicine.”
More recently, Trae Young told Barkley to “eat a Twinkie” after Barkley thought Zach LaVine deserved a starting spot on the All-Star team over the Hawks guard.
Barkley can dish and take it: “I don’t mind guys getting mad at me. I’m going to do my job.”
Being opinionated without agendas does come at a price. Barkley torched Kobe Bryant for taking only three shots in the second half of the 2006 Game 7 first-round series against the Suns, which the Lakers lost. Barkley said Kobe selfishly tried to make a point that his teammates couldn’t win without his scoring. Kobe sent Barkley a stream of angry texts following the game, “calling me every name,” said Barkley.
Coming from a single mom, in the projects, to what I’ve accomplished all these years later? I’m damn proud of what I’ve accomplished. You want to say I never won a championship, well that’s fair, but I did pretty damn good.”
— Charles Barkley
And candor cost Barkley his friendship with Michael Jordan. Years ago, Barkley said Jordan was unsuccessful as owner of the Hornets because he surrounded himself with “yes men” and Jordan still holds a grudge. They haven’t spoken since.
“The one thing about being famous is you pay for all the meals and the drinks, so a lot of the people around you won’t disagree with you, because they don’t want to screw up the relationship,” Barkley explained. “The people around him were never going to tell him no. I can’t keep my credibility if I criticize other guys and ignore him.”
Will Barkley pick up the phone? He shakes his head.
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Does he think Jordan will reach out?
“No. We’re both stubborn. Look, I love the dude like a brother and wish him nothing but the best. I got no animosity toward him.”
“I miss his friendship.”
Barkley will accept this as the cost of doing business, a business that’s been tremendous for him, and says he’ll keep counting the years until retirement — Barkley says he’s done once his contract is up in two years — and his blessings.
“I’m so lucky,” he said. “I laugh when some of us take ourselves so seriously just because we can throw a football or dunk a ball. I tell those guys, ‘You got people who work their asses off for $30,000 a year. You make millions playing basketball, stay at the Ritz Carlton and Four Seasons. You work six, seven months a year.’ C’mon.
“Look, I’m closer to death than being alive. I was in the NBA 16 years, on TV for 21. I want to enjoy whatever time I got left. I’ve had a great run. That’s why I hate guys on TV saying guys like me haven’t won a championship. Coming from a single mom, in the projects, to what I’ve accomplished all these years later? I’m damn proud of what I’ve accomplished. You want to say I never won a championship, well that’s fair, but I did pretty damn good.”
Barkley did have a semi-serious career option before he chose TV. He’d often drop hints about running for governor in his home state of Alabama. Kiely, the producer of “Inside,” believes Barkley “would’ve won in a landslide. And it would’ve been the shortest term in history because he would’ve come to TV. He loves it.”
So it’s understandable why Barkley often yells, “Let’s have some fun tonight!” to the crew on-set just before the show goes live. It’s not a wish. It’s more of a command.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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