[Charles Barkley needs no intro, except to say that this article appeared in Dick Vitale’s 1991-92 Basketball Yearbook. The typewriter belongs to Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford, who really knocks this story out of the, um, Spectrum, God rest its plaster dust.]
In retrospect, it was not a day to mess with Charles Barkley. Most of his teammates probably recognized the sullen quiet in their captain’s demeanor and walked around him, as one would a large, sleeping dog. Charles, after all, has his moods.
But Manute Bol, who once jammed a sharpened stick into the heart of a slumbering lion, apparently didn’t sense danger. As he walked toward the rear of the bus that would transport the Philadelphia 76ers to a March 11 practice at Atlanta’s Omni arena, Bol swiped at the top of Barkley’s shaved head. In the next moment, Bol’s 7-foot-7 frame was Glad-wrapped to the back wall of the bus, held there by a seething Barkley.
Players gingerly separated the two, and order was restored until practice was set to start. Bol, courting trouble, threw a canvas bag stuffed with basketballs at Barkley. That was it. Barkley knocked Bol to the floor and threw several flurries of fistic combinations before being restrained. Later, after reading that Bol had been slapped, Barkley corrected reporters. “I punched him in the face,” he said.
“Nute just picked the wrong day to be messing with Charlie,” one teammate said. “He’s lucky he didn’t get killed.”
The skirmish kicked off a number of wrong days to be messing with Charles Wade Barkley. The Sixers, floundering late in the season, had finished a three-stop waltz across Texas just six games over .500. With starting point guard Johnny Dawkins out because of a knee injury, Philadelphia was headed for another early playoff exit. Barkley knew his team was not capable of winning the championship he desperately wants, and the frustration became too volatile to contain. In the space of three weeks, Barkley:
- Berated coach Jim Lynam in front of the team, prompting a $5,000 fine from the Sixers;
- Spit into the crowd at the Meadowlands Arena, spraying an 8-year-old girl;
- Made his second trip of the season to the NBA office in New York, where he was fined $10,000 and suspended for one game;
- Went on national television to defend himself;
- And, shortly after his TV appearance, suffered a badly sprained left knee, bringing his Days of Rage to an end.
That would be a career’s worth of notoriety for most players. For Barkley, it was an eventful stretch, but nothing to inspire disbelief. He has been known to curse fans, belittle officials, taunt opponents, and chastise teammates—all while scoring two dozen points, grabbing a dozen rebounds, and determining the outcome of a game.
“I’m an honest person,” Barkley says. “I’m a hard-working person and an emotional person. I’ve gotten overly mad a couple of times, and it’s gotten me in trouble. But that just makes me like everybody else. The only problem is that I’m in the limelight, and everything I do is multiplied. But nothing distracts me from performing.”
Not even the rampage in March, during which he averaged 24.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 4.8 assists, and made 62 percent of his shots. That’s part of the paradox surrounding Barkley: He brings disorder to the court, but his production remains constant. Teammates might roll their eyes when referring to him as team captain, but during a game they rely on his strong back to carry them.
“Charles is the kind of player every coach wants,” says Matt Goukas of the Orlando Magic, who was the Sixers’ coach during most of Barkley’s formative years. “He’s a premier player, one of the best four or five in the league. He will speak up and have some antics, but you have to realize that’s part of what keeps him pumping.”
This is the accepted spin on Barkley’s inner motor: The emotion, which occasionally spills out in objectionable ways, fuels his remarkable feats on a basketball court. The controversy often seems too much for one man to generate, just as his scoring and rebounding seemed too prodigious for a 6-foot-4 ¾ forward operating among behemoths in the low post. With Barkley, the usual rules don’t apply.
“It’s so easy to sit at home and judge me and not even know me,” Barkley says. By his account, he has made two mistakes: The spitting incident last season and punching a fan in Indianapolis several years ago. Otherwise, the verbal barrage is his right. “When I curse out the fans, I feel bad for the people around who didn’t say anything,” Barkley says. “That’s who I feel bad for. I don’t feel bad for the guy who is there to harass me. I feel bad for the nice little family who came there to enjoy the game, and somebody had to come and call me every name in the book.
“But I had never said anything about a person I would take back. I’ve never said anything that wasn’t right, that wasn’t the truth, in my opinion. I’m sorry about that spitting incident, but it’s not going to make me sit around and say, ‘Man, you should have been lying and going along with the system the whole time.’ Because when I look in the mirror, if you take away that one incident, the only thing I’m guilty of is telling the truth.”
Oh, how Barkley tells it. About the NBA, politics, college athletics, three-point shooting. Name a subject.
“There are so many processed, sterilized drones in this league,” says Kevin McHale of the Boston Celtics. “We all trust the party line. Charles ruffles some feathers, and that’s good. I fall into the ranks of the drones myself. He says a lot of things we’d all like to say, but don’t dare. We are 290 drones—and Charles.”
Don’t expect Barkley to disagree. Or to question the wisdom of speaking the truth. “I don’t think my truth has hurt people,” he says. “Maybe people don’t want to hear the truth. When a person ask me a question, I’m supposed to answer the question. I’m not supposed to sit around and think, ‘Let me say something, but not really say anything.’ The most-important thing is what you think about yourself. I know who I am. I know what I am.”
Barkley is a showman. The bigger the game, the better he plays. The larger the audience, the better the show. The basketball court is his stage. And for every fan who thinks Barkley is a jerk, there is another who thinks he’s great.
Barkley occasionally signs autographs after games, sometimes standing in the seating aisles as streams of youngsters approach with paper and pen. Last season, after he scored 41 points at Denver, Barkley agreed to take part in the postgame midcourt interview, a chore routinely left to lesser players. Barkley participated cheerfully, drawing laughs from the crowd. Afterward, he permitted a long, spontaneous autograph session.
In an era where star athletes dole out their signatures for money, barely nodding or smiling at the purchaser, Barkley is a throwback. He grins and chats, seeking conversations with the littlest ones in the rear who are too shy to call out his name. “I do enough positive things,” Barkley says. “Some things I do, I wouldn’t do again if I had the chance. But those things don’t make me a bad person. I’m not a bad person.”
What he is, borrowing a phrase from Lynam, is someone who loves the theatrics of the game. Those moments in the spotlight inspire Barkley, blinding him at times, but never detracting from his ability to play basketball.
When Barkley attended Auburn University and during his early years as a professional, he was fat. The Round Mound of Rebound. He liked to eat and had little discipline when it came to food. He weighed close to 300 pounds on several occasions. Now he maintains his weight at between 250 and 255 during the season. He has a hard frame, sturdy and resilient. At 28, he is in the prime of his career and in the best shape of his life.
Barkley missed 14 games last season because of two freakish injuries. While rebounding, he suffered a badly sprained left ankle after coming down on teammate Hersey Hawkins’ foot. “I don’t care what they say,” Barkley said later, “it’s a stress fracture.” In March, he was roll-blocked by a falling Rick Mahorn and suffered the sprained knee. “It’s torn,” he would say, “but they’re afraid to say that.”
Neither injury was result of chronic wear from seven NBA seasons. He just got hurt. Barkley, though, knows that eventually his body must pay a price for the way he plays. Similarly, his image may incur the cost of not watching his mouth.
“That’s Barkley,” said Seattle coach K.C. Jones, after an evening of verbal interplay between the Sixers’ star and the Sonics’ bench. “He’ll yank your chain, but it’s a friendly nudge.”
Over the past five seasons, Barkley has averaged 26 points and 12.1 rebounds. Others have come close to matching his five-year production, but none equal both ends of it. Hakeem Olajuwon, who stands 6-foot-10, has more rebounds, but not as many points. Karl Malone, 6-foot-9, and Patrick Ewing, 7-foot-0, have slightly more points, but not as many rebounds. “I want the ball more than the other guy,” Barkley says, explaining how he outproduces bigger men.
It is much more than that. His understanding of the game and ability to make bullet-quick decisions enable Barkley to outmaneuver and outwill opponents. He is much faster than his build suggests; on end-to-end dashes, which he often finishes with a crashing dunk, Barkley can outrun guards. With his back to the basket, Barkley’s spin moves leave bigger men grasping at air. He prides himself on his outside shooting and delights in making three-point field goals, attempts that should be off-limits to him.
“The thing about Charles is that he’s there every night,” says Mike Gminski, a former teammate of Barkley. “I’ve been around a lot of players, but I’ve never seen anyone who wants to win as badly as Charles. When you’re on another team and you see him, you just want him to shut up and play. You figure the emotion can’t be real. But it is. A lot of guys talk about wanting to win, but he goes out to do it.”
There is little question Barkley is destined for the Hall of Fame. He has more than 12,000 points and 6,000 rebounds. Barring major injury, he should surpass 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds. Among players in NBA history shorter than 6-foot-9, only Elgin Baylor achieved those totals. Only Artis Gilmore, who retired after the 1987-88 season, has a higher career shooting percentage (.599) than Barkley (.580).
“I try to play very aggressively on the court,” Barkley says. “God gave me a body, and I use my body. I think personal statistics are nice. It’s the kind of thing you will look back on and enjoy. But the only thing that really matters is winning. I just want to be in that big picture one time.”
For all Barkley’s accomplishments, the Sixers have not excelled in postseason play during his career. Philadelphia reached the Eastern Conference championship series in his rookie season of 1984-85, but Barkley was only a secondary contributor, the Sixers’ fifth-leading scorer in the playoffs.
Since, the Sixers have missed the playoffs once and have been eliminated twice in the first round and three times in the second. Losing has kept Barkley from joining Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Larry Bird in the exclusive pantheon reserved for the ultra-stars of the game. Barkley has scratched at the base, as have Karl Malone, Dominique Wilkins, and others, but he knows it will take at least one prime-time appearance to reach the top.
When last season ended, the Sixers having been dismissed in the second round by the Chicago Bulls, Barkley grumbled that he might demand a trade, that he was tired of waiting for the organization to surround him with a cast capable of winning a championship. He met with team owner Harold Katz for three hours and emerged contented. “We agreed that we didn’t have enough players here to win, and he promised me that he would get me some help,” Barkley says. “That’s all I asked. That’s all I want. I want to win.”
In the offseason, the Sixers acquired athletic Charles Shackelford, who could be an answer at center, and Mitchell Wiggins, who is expected to contribute off the bench. Dawkins has returned from his year-long knee rehabilitation. The Sixers are better, but Barkley is running out of time. “I am getting old, and I realize that,” he says. “My body just tells me that I’m not that young anymore.”
There has been talk, primarily fostered by Barkley, that the Sixers could most benefit by trading their star. But Barkley, speaking candidly, doesn’t see the logic. “They’ve got a better chance of winning with me,” he says. “They can get maybe three or four guys for me, but that’s just hopes and possibilities. At least you know what you’re getting from me.”
While assuring Barkley the team would improve, Katz had one request. “I would like him to be a more supportive leader,” Katz says. “I believe strongly in scolding and patting, but I think it can’t be just one or the other. It has to be a combination of both.”
Being a leader, a team captain, a role model—these are burdens that Barkley doesn’t shoulder willingly. He believes in himself and leading by the example of his play. If his words and gestures don’t carry a positive message, he can’t be expected to bend for the sake of appearance.
“A leader is a guy who goes out and works,” Barkley says. “We’re not in the business of spoon-feeding guys. There are times I get on my teammates, and times I pat them on the back. My job is to go out and play. That’s the only thing that a leader is. I get emotional in the heat of the battle. I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Sometimes others apologize for him. When Barkley spit at a Heckler in the Meadowlands Arena but missed his target and instead hit a small girl, teammate Armon Gilliam approached her after the game. “Not all of us players are like that,” Gilliam told the girl. No kidding.
Barkley made Gilliam’s transition last season from Charlotte to Philadelphia difficult. He criticized the power forward in the locker room for not rebounding and chided him on the court for lacking grace.
“Decorum could be debated, but as far as stability, I think I give the other players stability,” Barkley says. “I may not give the fans and the media stability, but I’m very stable myself. Decorum, yeah, that’s debatable. I do some stupid things on the court. I get into it with the fans every now and then, but I know my teammates have stability when I’m around. They need me, and I need them. It’s a package deal.”
Barkley performs public service for the NBA. He was a spokesman for the league’s “Stay in School” program. In Philadelphia, he makes frequent appearances for charity, particularly the Special Olympics. On television, Barkley’s image sells deodorant and sneakers. He’s a public figure of growing stature, better known to most Americans than their U.S. senator. But a role model? Barkley demurs.
“I don’t think professional athletes should be role models,” he says. “I think parents should be role models. I have the ability to run and dunk a basketball, but there are a million guys in jail who can run and dunk a basketball.
“If I’m a role model, fine. But if I do something wrong, parents should be intelligent enough to tell the kids, ‘Charles is wrong. Charles did something very, very stupid.’ Because the day I get to the point where I don’t do something wrong, I’m going to be dead.”