As a player, Charles Barkley was perhaps the greatest anomaly in basketball history. Listed at 6-6 but actually closer to 6-foot-4, he played power forward as well as anyone in the history of the NBA, often dominating players half a foot taller.
The numbers back him up. Along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, Barkley is one of only six players in NBA history to have compiled at least 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists.
But when the conversation turns to Barkley’s exploits, many people think first of the always entertaining, sometimes outrageous running commentary on basketball and life he provided throughout his celebrated 16-year NBA career.
Some never thought he’d ever get that far. Though Barkley brought vitality, attitude and a host of skills to professional basketball, he was viewed as an oddity coming out of college. Nicknamed the “Round Mound of Rebound”, many considered Barkley an undersized power forward with rebounding as his only discernible basketball skill.
Undeterred, Barkley quickly buried that reputation when he began playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. It was not rare to see the neophyte Barkley grab a rebound amongst a crowd, rumble downcourt with the ball and finish with a monster slam. In a half-court offense, he could fill it up from the paint or the perimeter. And on the defensive end, he would play the passing lane for a steal or block a center’s shot.
His awe-inspiring play demanded full respect and earned him a new nickname: Sir Charles.
“Barkley is like Magic [Johnson] and Larry [Bird] in that they don’t really play a position,” Bill Walton said in a SLAM magazine issue ranking NBA greats. “He plays everything; he plays basketball. There is nobody who does what Barkley does. He’s a dominant rebounder, a dominant defensive player, a three-point shooter, a dribbler, a playmaker.”
Who would have thought a chubby kid out of Auburn could accomplish so much?
In his three-year college career, Barkley averaged a not-so-spectacular 14.1 points per game. However, he also averaged 9.6 rebounds and thus was known for his heft and his hunger for caroms. He was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 1984 but didn’t make the U.S. Olympic basketball team that summer.
He entered the 1984 NBA Draft as a junior and was taken by the 76ers with the fifth overall pick. Barkley joined a veteran-laden team with stars such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Maurice Cheeks — players who took Philadelphia to the 1983 NBA championship. Unfazed, Barkley averaged 14.0 ppg and 8.6 rpg and earned a berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team.
Barkley spent eight seasons in Philadelphia, but the team’s best showing during his tenure was in his first year, when the Sixers went 58-24 in the regular season and advanced all the way to the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics in five games. After several disappointing early-round playoff defeats, the Sixers failed to make the postseason in 1991-92 and Barkley wanted out of the City of Brotherly Love.
Barkley’s time in Philly brought headlines and headaches. The incidents were many, such as the infamous incident during a game against the New Jersey Nets when Barkley, intending to spit on a heckler, accidentally hit a young girl instead. Foreshadowing his ability to turn negatives into positives, Barkley went on to develop a friendship with the girl and her family.
Though known as a tough guy, Barkley had a softer side, as evidenced by the time he offered room and board to Scott Brooks, a young rookie whom had just made the team.
Still, Barkley was never shy of telling the world how he saw it, and was seemingly always in the eye of a storm of controversy, perhaps none moreso than in his Nike commercial when he defiantly stated “I am not a role model.”
“I don’t create controversies. They’re there long before I open my mouth. I just bring them to your attention,” Barkley once stated. Nonetheless, Sixers ownership decided they’d had enough and accommodated Barkley’s desire for a trade, sending him to Phoenix for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang.
Like the mythical bird for which the city is named, Barkley found new life in Phoenix. In his magical first season with the Suns, he won the NBA MVP while leading Phoenix to the league’s best record of 62-20 and a berth in the 1993 NBA Finals, where the Suns lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in a memorable six-game series.
Although Barkley struggled with nagging injuries over the next two seasons, he maintained a high level of play. The Suns reached the conference semifinals in 1994 and 1995, but lost to the Houston Rockets, the eventual NBA champs. And after four seasons in the Valley of the Sun, Barkley’s time had set in Phoenix and he was traded to the Rockets.
Paying homage to that maxim, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Barkley was rejuvenated again when he joined the Rockets. But the chance to grab that elusive championship ring never materialized with the similarly aging superstars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. After announcing that his fourth season in Houston would be his last in the NBA, his time on the hardwood ended sooner than expected … and without a ring.
On Dec. 8, 1999, he suffered a ruptured quadriceps tendon in his left knee, which sidelined him until the final game of the season. Ironically, this injury occurred against his former team, the 76ers, in Philadelphia, the town where years earlier he had entered the collective basketball consciousness of NBA fans.
But back in 1984-85, that career-ending injury was far away. Barkley was the only Sixers player to appear in all 95 regular and postseason games in his rookie season, and averaged 14.9 points and 11.1 rebounds during the team’s postseason run.
In his second season, he dispelled the notion of a sophomore jinx with another impressive NBA campaign, finishing second in the league in rebounding with 12.8 per game and finishing second on the team in scoring at 20.0 ppg. For his efforts, he was named to the All-NBA Second Team.
Charles was definitely in charge in the 1986 playoffs. He averaged 25.0 points on .578 shooting from the field and 15.8 rebounds in the Sixers’ 12 playoff games. However, Philadelphia was eliminated by Milwaukee 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Despite being just 23 years old at the start of the 1986-87 season, Barkley began to take on a leadership role as Malone was dealt to Washington and then Erving retired at the end of the year. Barkley handled the responsibility well, earning his first NBA rebounding title with an average of 14.6 boards per game, despite missing 14 games during the year with spleen and ankle injuries. He was also tops in offensive rebounds (5.7 per game), third in field-goal percentage (.594), and 15th in scoring (23.0 ppg), earning his first NBA All-Star Game birth in the process and making All-NBA Second Team for the second straight season.
Barkley’s fourth year, his first as co-captain of the Sixers, proved to be one of his most productive seasons. He finished fourth in the NBA in scoring (28.3 ppg), sixth in rebounding (11.9 rpg), third in field-goal percentage (.587) and was named to the All-NBA First Team for the first time in his career. It was a bittersweet season, however as he also missed the playoffs for the first time.
Barkley was a true superstar by the end of the 1988-89 season. He was named to the All-NBA First Team for the second consecutive season and made his third straight All-Star Game appearance. Starting at one forward spot for the East squad, Barkley scored 17 points in the midseason classic. During the regular season he averaged 25.8 points and 12.5 rebounds, good for eighth and second, respectively, in the NBA. But the New York Knicks swept Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite the team’s sagging prospects of winning a NBA title, Barkley’s individual brilliance continued. In 1990, sporting averages of 25.2 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, Barkley finished second in MVP voting behind Magic Johnson, was named The Sporting News and Basketball Weekly Player of the Year, and was named to the All-NBA First Team for the third straight season.
The following year, Barkley garnered MVP honors at the 1991 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte as he led the East to a 116-114 win over the West. He scored 17 points and hauled in 22 rebounds, the most rebounds in an All-Star Game since Wilt Chamberlain’s 22 in 1967. Barkley was also named to the All-NBA First Team for a fourth straight year. But again, the 76ers lost 4-1 to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with Barkley contributing 24.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in eight postseason contests.
His eighth season in Philly was his last, and it didn’t include a trip to the postseason. But Barkley finished his 76ers career ranked fourth in team history in total points (14,184), third in scoring average (23.3 ppg), third in rebounds (7,079), eighth in assists (2,276) and second in field-goal percentage (.576). He led the club in rebounding and field-goal percentage for seven consecutive seasons and paced Philadelphia in scoring for six straight years.
The summer of 1992 was a memorable one for Barkley. On June 17, almost immediately after being legally cleared of criminal charges resulting from an earlier barroom brawl, Barkley was traded to Phoenix, renewing his hope for an NBA title. Later that summer, he was the leading scorer with 18.0 ppg for the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
In Barkley’s first season with the Suns, the team had the NBA’s best record and he became only the third player to win league MVP honors in the season after being traded. For the year, Barkley averaged 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds to rank fifth and sixth, respectively. The nine-year veteran then carried Phoenix all the way to the NBA Finals. Chicago defeated Phoenix 4-2, but Barkley was brilliant, averaging 26.6 points and 13.6 rebounds in 42.8 minutes per game in the postseason, including a mesmerizing 44 points and 24 rebounds in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Seattle SuperSonics.
Things were looking up for Barkley and the Suns, but unfortunately, injuries would hamper him for the remainder of his career. Because of an aching back, Barkley vowed that the 1993-94 season would be his last. Still he managed 21.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and was selected to play in his eighth consecutive NBA All-Star Game (which he opted out of because of a torn quadriceps tendon in his right leg).
After appearing in only 65 games and losing to the Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals, and perhaps feeling that he still had things to accomplish in his pro career, Barkley announced that he would fight through his chronic back pain and play the following season.
Barkley showed that he was still one of the NBA’s best in 1994-95. He began the season on the injured list but returned to lead the Suns to a Pacific Division title with a 59-23 record. In demolishing the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, Barkley averaged 33.7 points and 13.7 rebounds in a three-game sweep.
In the conference semifinals, the Suns jumped to a 3-1 lead over the defending NBA champion Rockets but lost in seven games. It was the second time in as many years that the Suns bowed to the Rockets after going up 3-1. Barkley averaged 22.3 points and 13.3 rebounds in the series, but a leg injury hampered his performance in Game 7.
Barkley would play one more season in Phoenix, averaging 23.2 ppg and 11.6 rpg on a team that went 41-41 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. With the Suns looking to make a fresh start, the team traded him to Houston in the offseason.
Barkley was the Rockets’ second-leading scorer that first season behind Olajuwon, with a 19.2 ppg and a resurgent 13.5 rpg, the second best of his career. Injuries limited him to just 53 games, but the team had a 57-25 record and made it to the Western Conference Finals before falling to the Utah Jazz in six games.
The trio of Olajuwon, Drexler and Barkley would play together one more season in 1997-98 — but with diminished returns. Barkley’s production slipped to 15.2 ppg and 11.7 rpg and the team played to a mediocre 41-41 record. This rare constellation of superstars had a short two-year life span as, after losing in five games to Utah in the first-round, Drexler walked away into retirement.
Barkley looked to have one last chance at a title the next season as the Rockets acquired Scottie Pippen, owner of six championship rings with the Chicago Bulls, before the start of the 1998-99 season. It was not to be however, as Barkley played 42 games in the lockout-shortened season and the Rockets went out in the first round of the playoffs to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Barkley returned for his announced farewell season, but it ended prematurely with the injury to his left knee. For the next two years, speculation continued that Barkley would return to the court, but Sir Charles remained on the sidelines for good. In 2006, Barkley was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
Since the end of his playing career, Barkley has become perhaps the biggest off-court star in basketball, headlining TNT’s award-winning “Inside the NBA” coverage and providing a constant source of entertainment for basketball fans around the world.