Charles Barkley’s Bitter End, 1986

[In the mid-1980s, newspaper columnist John Schulian adapted his keen eye for detail to the lights, camera, and action of Hollywood. He arrived on Hollywood Boulevard as a 40-year-old kid who couldn’t miss—and Schulian didn’t. His name soon appeared in the credits of an episode of the TV series LA Law. Then he joined the writing team of Miami Vice, co-created Xena: Warrior Princess, and added his narrative polish to 11 TV series over two decades. 

Schulian has won every conceivable writing award and, now in his 70s, continues to dazzle. A few years back, he published his first crime novel. Schulian, who grew up in Salt Lake, also recently wrote this homage to former high school baseball coach Dave Disorbio. It’s something to savor, even if you’d never previously heard the name Disorbio.

But before LA Law and Miami Vice, Schulian was a sportswriter first class. He caught on with Baltimore Evening Sun in the 1970s, landed a prominent byline with the Washington Post, then moved on to the Chicago Daily News, followed by Chicago Sun-Times (with plenty of stuff in Sports Illustrated and other magazines in between). Schulian’s prose is phenomenal, to say the least, take this excerpt from a 1980s column on Chicago-bred playground and college basketball stars Skip Dillard and Bernard Randolph:

“Even in the loving glow of noonday sunshine, with March pretending it’s May and the thermometer skipping toward 60, K Town has trouble wiping the sorrow from its face. On the West Side streets that gave birth to the neighborhood’s name, on Kedvale and Keeler and the half-dozen others, there are too many boarded-up windows, too many burned-out houses, too many cars with flat tires or no tires at all. Stray dogs wander listlessly, ragged men kill time with bottles in brown bags, and the only sign of hope is a bouncing basketball.”

Or his take on the young NBA superstar Michael Jordan. “No one ever played basketball better than he does, and he may even have surpassed Ali in terms of worldwide impact. But Jordan uses his clout to peddle sneakers and star in unwatchable movies with Bugs Bunny, leaving the very distinct impression that he has the social consciousness of a baked potato.”

When the Chicago Sun-Times was purchased by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Schulian went insult for insult with the new tabloid-loving regime. He bolted the newsroom chaos for a brief stint with the Philadelphia Daily News. “I was 40 and didn’t want to turn 41 in Philadelphia,” he later explained his fateful bolt to Hollywood.

Before leaving Philadelphia, Schulian covered the 1986 NBA Eastern Conference Final between the 76ers and Bucks. This grueling, eye-for-an-eye series went to seven games, and, after the final buzzer, Schulian wrote this phenomenal portrait of the young Charles Barkley on deadline and on a typewriter. Nobody could do it better. Schulian’s column ran in the Philadelphia Daily News on May 12, 1986. Enjoy!]

Barkley planted on team bench after Game 7, while Milwaukee finest heckle him in defeat.

Only Charles Barkley remained now. Maybe he noticed the rest of the 76ers trudging off the floor toward a vacation they would just as soon have postponed. Maybe he didn’t. With Barkley, you can’t always tell. But there he was, planted in his seat on the team bench, with no more time to go and no more games to play, and he looked like he would stay in Milwaukee Arena forever. 

He was frozen with the hurt of the 113-112 defeat that sent the Sixers tumbling out of the NBA playoffs yesterday, and his condition made him a perfect target for all the people he had spent the past two weeks insulting. Kiss him where the sun doesn’t shine, eh? The loud, proud burghers of Milwaukee streamed out of the stands to gather behind Barkley and blister his ears until Maurice Cheeks came back to lead him to quiet, if not necessarily peace.

Barkley went along without a fuss, but you couldn’t help feeling he had still lived up to his own curious code of machismo. Damned if he was going to run and hide just because the Bucks had made him a loser. Anyone who wanted him could take a shot at him. Barkley’s law. 

And yet, it was the man himself who broke it when the 76ers were looking for someone to lead them out of a thorny first half. While Sedale Threatt and Clemon Johnson did everything but levitate to keep Philadelphia close, Barkley lapsed into a sleepwalking routine that made you wonder if an imposter hadn’t crawled inside his massive body.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” assistant coach Jack McMahon said. “I’ve never seen Charles have a half where he wasn’t involved. He just wasn’t there.”

After two quarters, the only proof that Barkley hadn’t fallen off the edges of the earth was four free throws. When it came to shots from the field, he was a big zero—literally.

“You mean none at all?” the disbelieving Cheeks asked.

“None at all,” came the reply.

Cheeks laughed nervously. “Then that’s my fault,” he said at last. “It’s my job to get Charles the ball.”

The response was typical of the way the Sixers circled the wagons around the two-legged treasure who wears No. 34. Without Barkley to make up for the absence of Moses Malone and Andrew Toney, without him to romp and stomp until his imprint was all over this team, they never would have forced the Bucks to go to the full seven games in the series. So, coach Matt Guokas interrupted his misty valedictory to pay tribute to the exotic Milwaukee defense that kept the ball away from Barkley. And Julius Erving, a statesman if there ever was one, insisted, “One player’s not going to win the whole thing.” And nobody ever really discussed the psychic quicksand in which Barkley spent the first half.

But if you wanted proof that he wasn’t the same Charles Barkley who wasted the Bucks in Game 1 with 31 points and 20 rebounds, you only needed to see his rabbit ears at work. “Hey, dummy!” shouted a big mouth behind the press table. Barkley must have thought he fit the description, for he walked to the sideline and grumbled, “I’m gonna bleep you up.”

Obviously, this wasn’t the Charles Barkley who took a vow of silence as the playoffs drew to a close. Neither, however, was it the one who lit up Game 4—and Milwaukee—with 37 points, 14 rebounds, and nine assists. It couldn’t have been. When Guokas decided to give him a second-quarter breather, this Barkley ignored the team’s timeout huddle and sat at the far end of the bench. He was so wrapped up in his own little world, in fact, that he never seemed to notice the banner two Buck partisans unfurled behind him: “Charles Barkley—If only his brain was as big as his mouth.”

Forget the 21 rebounds he ripped down in Game 6. He was turning into the Incredible Sulk. When it looked like he might be snapping out of it, he bowled over skin-and-bones Randy Breuer on one ill-advised drive, then got himself trapped too far under the basket on another. And his sulk took on even more bulk.

“He was just walking around,” said the Bucks’ Terry Cummings. “I think he was very, very tired.”

Cummings had helped to see to that by matching his muscle and gristle against Barkley’s from the instant this endurance test began. Sometimes their battles under the basket were merely brutal, sometimes they were absolutely prehistoric. But by any description, they should have been enough to satisfy Barkley. Alas, they weren’t, for he had to add ponderous Paul Mokeski and the entire city of Milwaukee to his list of running feuds.

So, yes, “tired” seems a fair adjective to pin on Barkley. “I think he felt everything was on his shoulders,” Cheeks said. “He’s a young guy, and he thought he was the only one who could lead us to a victory.”

What’s more, he almost did it. Once he got that first field goal out of the way—a dunk was his weapon, Breuer was his victim, and there was 8:54 left in the third quarter—Barkley could boogie at full tilt. Not only did he score 14 of his 18 points in the second half, but he spiced them with an off-balance bank shot in the lane that made you wonder if gravity is just one more convention he ignores. 

True, he had his embarrassing moments, too, giving the Bucks a pair of easy baskets with bad passes and watching Alton Lister swat his jump shot back in his face. But Barkley didn’t stop to apologize. He just kept charging the hill, over the hill, ‘round the hill, through the hill. 

The problem with his heroics was that they made people think about what might have been. “If his first half had been anything like his second half, we would have won,” McMahon said. It wasn’t, of course, which meant the 76ers were tantalized with the possibility of victory until Erving took the last shot of the Sixers’ season with three second left. The ball was supposed to go to Barkley underneath, but the Bucks had him so bottled up that the best he could hope to snag was a rebound. And when he went after it, Cummings sent him sprawling to the floor, face-first. 

What could Barkley do for an encore? His lonely suffering on the bench was cut short, and his locker room mutterings fell largely unnoticed on the reporters he said he wasn’t talking to. “I’m only gonna play eight years, that’s all,” he said, sounding as if no man could suffer longer for his art. Finally, he came upon a temporary solution for his woes. He poured himself a beer.

Then he spilled it. 

“I’m not even gonna say nothing,” Barkley said, trying his best to smile. 

Some things speak for themselves. 

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