The Impact of Charles Barkley

by Jeramie McPeek
VP, Digital

By Jeff Munn,
Posted: March 18, 2004

There’s an old rule among historians that you have to wait a period of time before being able to judge the impact of a person or event on his surroundings. There’s also an accepted practice of looking directly at where a person or event took place to judge its true impact.

Since the subject we will be discussing today is Charles Barkley, it’s appropriate that we do what Charles himself did so many times during his days as a Phoenix Sun, and throw conventional wisdom away.

As Charles is inducted into the Phoenix Suns' Ring of Honor this weekend, two things are clear – we don’t have to wait very long to judge his impact and we shouldn’t look in the obvious places.

To go back to that historian’s rule, it is appropriate to wait 25 years before judging the impact of President on the United States. When it comes to Barkley, you could have judged his impact on the Suns, and Phoenix, for that matter, 25 MINUTES after he left. His impact was felt, and noticed, literally before he took the court in October, 1992.

Suns Training Camp in Flagstaff would be the first place to examine what Charles meant to the Suns. Prior to 1992, camp was a highly-watched event, and the scrimmage the club staged in the Rolle Activity Center would draw a crowd that would somehow squeeze into what amounted to a gymnasium. However, Barkley arrives, and the scrimmage has to move to the Walkup Skydome, where crowds of over 10,000 fans would watch, just to see Charles.

What other athlete in the history of this city could single-handedly deliver a massive television audience for a weekly show about his team? What other sports figure could justify a newspaper carrying a daily recap of what he would do in a given day, and most of the writing wasn’t about basketball?

Charles Barkley’s impact wasn’t limited to rebounds, points and games won. Look in the locker room after a game. Don’t focus on the newspaper, TV and radio reporters who regularly cover the team, look at the contingent of FM radio stations, all of whom had no real interest in basketball, but were determined to get press credentials, so they could have that precious sound-bite of Charles Barkley commenting on world politics, speed limits in Sun City, and Arizona laws on closing time at bars.

Charles’ on-court time as a Sun is pretty obvious, and we’ll leave it to others to go over all the details, but if you really want to know what Charles did to the sporting landscape of Phoenix, Arizona, put down the basketball.

It’s February of 1994. The NFL Phoenix Cardinals have just finished a 7-9 season and have decided to dismiss Head Coach Joe Bugel. Rumors swirl about who will be the new coach when a wild card (pardon the pun) emerges. Buddy Ryan, who was last seen punching a fellow assistant coach in Houston, is hired as not only head coach, but also general manager – an unprecedented move by the Cardinals. What could have motivated them to make such a bold move? It’s as simple as a quote from a team official the day of Ryan’s hiring, when he told an eager reporter, “Now we have our Barkley.”

Fast forward to the summer of 1996. The NHL Winnipeg Jets have relocated to Phoenix, renamed themselves the Coyotes, but are still in the midst of finding a player that fans can attach themselves to. They make a bold trade with the Chicago Blackhawks to acquire center Jeremy Roenick. The outspoken Roenick is a bonafide superstar in the NHL, and his ability to give the good quote and make the outrageous statement prompts a local columnist to say those words again – “They have their Barkley.”

It even stretched to teams that didn’t even exist when Barkley was here. Another columnist suggested that when the Arizona Diamondbacks signed pitcher Randy Johnson, that he would have the same impact as Sir Charles. As great as Johnson is, it wasn’t fair to judge him against Barkley. Yet, such was the impact of Barkley that observers would rush to attach anything significant in Phoenix sports to him.

Every sports organization in Phoenix had to rethink their marketing strategy just because of one athlete. Sadly, those organizations learned what the NBA, and the Suns, had known for quite a while. There’s only one Charles Barkley, and there simply isn’t a decent equivalent to be found.

He wasn’t just a great player, he was, and is, a man who says a lot of things that might be considered outrageous at first, but upon reflection, seem to make the greatest amount of sense, and no matter what, he was going to say something. Suns Vice President of Basketball Communications Julie Fie knew this, and even before Barkley’s first game in purple and orange, assigned a member of her game-night staff to record everything he said after games, transcribe it, and attach it to the normal post-game player quotes.

The greatest evidence of Barkley’s effect on others was away from the NBA. During the Gold Medal Game of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Barkley was whistled for a technical foul in the first half of a contest against Yugoslavia. A young referee from Mexico, obviously working the biggest game of his life, had taken just one step to the scorer’s table when he realized that he had just given a “T” to the one and only Chuckster. Knowing this would make his an instant celebrity back home, the referee actually broke into a strut as he headed to the table.

To this day, if Barkley’s going to speak, people are going to get within earshot. His appearances on TNT’s NBA studio show have elevated that program above all its competitors, in and out of basketball. His weekly appearances on a local radio sports show have vaulted that show, and the station it airs on, to the top of the all-sports radio ratings.

Got a new restaurant, and you want some publicity? Get Charles to dine there? Have a cause you believe in, and want the public to share your concern? Get Charles on board. Got a star basketball player who needs some tips on playing the inside game? ASU Coach Rob Evans knew exactly who to call.

If you judge Barkley’s impact on the Suns and Phoenix solely on his basketball ability, fair enough. That alone merits the honor he will receive. If you really want to know what he has meant to this city and this team, don’t compare him to Buddy Ryan, Jeremy Roenick or Randy Johnson. Wait a week. The annual Fight Night fundraiser for research and treatment of Parkinson’s Disease is March 27th. The headline attendee each year is Muhammad Ali, an athlete who used his abilities and celebrity to raise awareness and social consciousness on issues that needed such attention… just like the man we will honor this weekend.

Boxing has never found another Ali, never will, and has admitted as much. When it comes to Charles Barkley, the greatest tribute we could pay him is to do the same.


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