No One Laughs at Charles Barkley Anymore, 1987

[No need to intro Charles Barkley. The Round Mound of Renown (no longer Rebound) remains all over the airwaves, shilling consumer products, goofing off with celebrities, and guaranteeing premonitions that rarely come true. This article takes a look at the young Sir Charles, then considered a freakish talent as a “tweener” who combined girth with athleticism. Here’s what one pundit had to say about Barkley back then. The pundit is James Hutsen, and I know nothing about him other than he writes clean copy. Hutsen’s brief article ran in the magazine Hoop Basketball Yearbook, 1987.]

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When Charles Barkley came into the NBA in 1984, he was besieged by a litany of comments about his weight and his behavior on the court. Before the rookie season was over, the attention focused on the ponderous Philadelphia 76er forward had shifted to the way he harnessed the explosive power of his 6-foot-6, 250-pound body so deftly to lay waste to his opponents. 

By the latter stages of the 1985-86 season, the fat jokes had dwindled to a whisper, and the excess girth he carried as a collegian at Auburn University was non-existent on his well-sculpted frame. Barkley’s animated escapades on the court and his constant verbal duels with referees were being called “enthusiasm” instead of “immaturity.”

Displaying the versatility that earned him the NBA’s Schick Pivotal Player award last season, Barkley averaged 20 points and 12.8 rebounds a game and virtually carried the Sixers on his broad shoulders in the absence of the injured Moses Malone to within a single point of the Eastern Conference Finals. Where there once was curiosity or maybe even laughter about Barkley around the league, there is now apprehension. 

Barkley is back and, as he promised after the Sixers were eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks last season, at his awesome best. The blockbuster trade that sent Malone to the Washington Bullets and brought Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson to Philadelphia on draft day left Barkley more room beneath the hoops to showcase his full range of talents. 

“I’ve got the talent, and if I develop it, I’m going to be very special,” said Barkley, 23, who hails from Leeds, Alabama. “I know anybody who’s coached me can say right now, ‘Charles Barkley has gotten better every year.’ That’s the key right there.”

Barkley is the kind of player who leaves fans, as well as his peers, with their mouths agape with his passionate, unbridled renditions on the basketball court. He is as nimble as an acrobat, just as awe-inspiring and has the strength to gain and hold a spot in the lane among men of gigantic proportions who tower above him.

In only his second season, Barkley scraped 1,026 rebounds off the glass and 354 of those came on the offensive end. His penchant for thunderous slam dunks made him one of the league’s most-accurate shooters last season with a field goal percentage of 57.2. Had Barkley not taken 75 three-point attempts (he made 17), said former Sixers player personnel director Jim McMahon, “He would have shot 60 percent.”

The most exciting part of his game, however, comes in the transition. Fans around the country have learned, as those at the Spectrum did immediately, it’s showtime when Barkley starts down the court, his huge legs gulping up distance with each stride, dribbling the ball like a point guard. 

“He honks his horn, and everybody gets out of the way,” said San Antonio Spurs general manager Bob Bass. “If somebody tries to take a charge with that Barkley, I believe it’s going to be their last game.”

Sixers coach Matt Goukas once observed that you can’t go wrong with Barkley in the running game because he’s capable of doing several things—and nearly all of them are good. Barkley will start the break with the rebound, and if he doesn’t take it all the way in for the thunder dunk, he will make a good outlet pass. Having done so, he will use his remarkable speed and get himself in position either to make the clinching assist or finish the break as only he can do it. 

“He’s devastating,” said Los Angeles Clippers coach Don Chaney. “He’s a monster out there. Guys like that who expend a lot of energy usually find themselves in the leadership category. What’s even more awesome to me is to see a big guy like that lead the floor.”

Barkley, at one time or the other last season, played every position on the court except point guard. If Goukas had obliged him, he would have been happy to give Maurice Cheeks a rest. “A lot of that came from all those years when I was smaller,” said Barkley, who was only 5-foot-10 until his junior year in high school and was unable to dunk until his senior year. “After I grew, I kept all those ballhandling skills.”

With his extraordinary scoring, rebounding, and passing ability, Barkley is constantly flirting with triple-doubles. The downside of his full-speed-ahead style is that he has come close several times to getting triple-doubles the hard way—points, rebounds, and turnovers. 

Barkley’s turnover ratio, something he has committed himself to improving, has steadily diminished since he became a pro, but not to a level he accepts. “I’ve got to have less turnovers,” said Barkley, “and I’ve definitely got to work on my jump shot more.”

A trusty jumper would help Barkley get a clearer path to the basket, but he seems to find his way there even with opposing players stacked in the lane like a human wall. 

The tendency toward turnovers is the only thing between Barkley and instant super-stardom. And as he gains a sense of what his new role is with the Sixers and in the NBA, the number of miscues keep shrinking. 

“His confidence, which has already been very high, has grown with the realization that he’s one of the best players in the league,” said Goukas. “That’s the mark of a great player, being able to make people around you better.”

That is a compliment often paid to the NBA’s quintessential team player Larry Bird. Goukas, using Barkley’s multifaceted game, is trying to beat the defending champion Boston Celtics at their own game. All of the Sixers’ offseason moves—the acquisition of Roy Hinson and the deal with the Bullets—were designed to make Philadelphia a better running and passing team, with the accent on Barkley. 

Barkley, who has an immense craving for a championship ring, came back in his third season primed for the task. “I’ll do anything to get better,” said Barkley. “In the summer, I run in fishing boots. I put bricks on my arms and jump up and down. I’ll do anything to build my legs.

“God gives you physical talent, but unless you develop it and work on it, it doesn’t do you any good. I feel like if I keep developing it, it’ll get better and better.”

It’s alarming to think of what Charles Barkley might be like next season. 

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