<h3>As a Player And Now a Media Personality, Charles Barkley Continues To Dazzle Audiences In His Own Unique Way</h3>
I’ve spent the past few weeks reflecting on the splendor of some my favorite players from the 1992 Dream Team. In addition to Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, there was another player on the greatest hoops team of all time that would leave me stuttering and stammering at his rare skills, like the Champ in Eddie Murphy’s classic movie, Harlem Nights.
To younger audiences, Charles Barkley is the affable, insightful and inimitable television personality on the TNT’s hilarious and excellent Inside the NBA studio show, who also lends his unique brand of humor and knowledge to CBS during the NCAA Tournament. They might even know that he was a pretty decent basketball player in his day.
But for those of us who watched basketball and truly understood what we were seeing in the 1980’s and ’90s, he was an awe-inspiring, revolutionary talent that turned the establishment on its ear, the first player of his kind who routinely destroyed the prototypical big man who stood 6-foot-8 and taller.
Charles may have been undersized, yet he owned the low post. Listed at 6-foot-6, his actual height was closer to 6-foot-4. An explosive leaper and merciless rebounder who could dribble, pass and score, he pumped gallons of fear through the hearts of even the most accomplished big men.
But even more than being an excellent player and a physical anomaly, the ferocious determination he exhibited on the basketball court might’ve made the greatest impression, as evidenced by the Chuck D’s lyrics in Public Enemy’s classic song, Rebel Without a Pause –
“Simple and plain, give me the lane, I’ll throw it down your throat like Barkley!”
At the age of nine, little Charles began showing up on the playgrounds of Leeds, Alabama – a small, working class town not far from Birmingham. When he was only a baby, his father Frank left the family and moved to Los Angeles.
Charles lived in a housing project with his grandmother, Johnnie Mae Edwards, who worked long, arduous hours as a meatpacker. His mom, Charcey Mae Glenn toiled as a maid, in addition to hustling bootleg liquor to help make ends meet.
By the time he arrived at Leeds High School, there were no labels of future stardom attached to Johnnie Mae’s grandson. As a chubby, 5-foot-10, 220-pound sophomore, he got cut from the varsity. He made the team as a junior but, even then, his teammates were reluctant to pass him the ball.
Frustrated with his lack of touches, he decided that if he was going to score, he’d have to take matters into his own hands. He practiced leaping over the 5-foot fence in his backyard and would spend hours missing shots on purpose, training himself to chase after rebounds. Eventually, he developed a rare, symbiotic relationship with basketballs that bounced off the rim.
Although his skills eventually improved and he’d begun dominating the competition in high school, his buddies laughed when he insisted that he was destined for the NBA because he was largely ignored by college scouts due to his short stature and girth.
But things quickly changed after an impressive performance during a holiday tournament game during his final high school season. Barkley outplayed and out-hustled the highly recruited, 6-foot-9 Bobby Lee Hurt, scoring 24 points and snagging 20 rebounds.
He quickly became a revelation to the college coaches who’d previously barely noticed him, their eyeballs popping out of sockets at the site of the fat kid with abnormal leaping ability relentlessly running, rebounding and forcefully slamming the ball while trying to rip the rim off the backboard.
At Auburn University, whose big man on campus at the time was the otherworldly Bo Jackson – the greatest two-sport college athlete since the great Jim Brown at Syracuse – Barkley ushered in a basketball renaissance.
The Tigers were coming off their fourth straight losing season and had little fan support. In order to drum up some national interest, a concerted effort was made to market the large freshman.
“We promoted the fat thing, because it got publicity for us,” Auburn coach Sonny Smith said in Filip Bondy’s great book, Tip-Off.
The media began to flock to Barkley for his funny, self-deprecating quotes. The nicknames began pouring in – the Crisco Kid, Lard of the Rings, Pillsbury Doughboy and the one that he became most known for, The Round Mound of Rebound.
Some thought he was a sideshow freak because he was in the neighborhood of 300 pounds. But he proved to have tremendous, undeniable skills. As a freshman, he devoured Kentucky’s highly respected, big man Mel Turpin at a hostile Rupp Arena to the tune of 25 points and 17 rebounds.
When asked how he handled the bigger Turpin, Barkley responded with, “I can put my butt on Melvin’s legs, but Melvin can only put his legs on my butt.”
By his junior year, Barkley and teammate Chuck “The Rifleman” Person had transformed Auburn into an NCAA tournament-worthy squad. Charles captured the Southeastern Conference’s regular season and tournament MVP awards en route to leading Auburn to its first ever foray into March Madness.
“He’d get the rebound, head down court, dribble between his legs, behind the back and dunk it on the other end,” Smith said in Tip-Off. “Barkley was a great athlete who could have been a super tight end in football. His first step quickness was really good and he had unbelievable hands.”
Charles led the conference in rebounding for three consecutive years and was able to accomplish feats on the offensive end that a rotund, undersized player had never before. He was later named the S.E.C. Player of the Decade.
“He’s my favorite player in college basketball,” the late, great Wayman Tisdale once told Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff while he was a student at the University of Oklahoma. “I call him the Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Before being taken with the 5th overall pick by the Philadelphia 76′ers in the 1984 draft, he was invited to participate in the Olympic basketball trials in Bloomington, Indiana. Seventy-two elite college players received the invitation, but with All-Americans Michael Jordan, Tisdale, Sam Perkins and Patrick Ewing viewed as virtual locks to secure a roster spot, the competition was ostensibly for only eight available slots on the team.
An entire book could be written about those Olympic tryouts, which were overseen by The General himself, Indiana University’s legendary and ornery coach Bob Knight.
Stars like St. John’s Chris Mullin, Duke’s Johnny Dawkins, Syracuse’s Pearl Washington, Virginia Tech’s Dell Curry, Georgia Tech’s Mark Price, Villanova’s Ed Pinckney and Memphis’ Keith Lee mixed with teenagers like Danny Manning and Steve Alford, the New York City playground legend Walter Berry who would later help Mullin lead St John’s to the Final Four and lesser known talents like McNeese State’s Joe Dumars, Louisiana Tech’s Karl Malone, Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Terry Porter and Gonzaga’s John Stockton.
During morning sessions, coaches worked with players by position. In the evening, squads were assembled for scrimmages.
“One time, I remember Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing and Joe Dumars on the same team and they absolutely blitzed the other team,” then Chicago Bulls General Manager Rod Thorn observed in Tip-Off. “Barkley was something else. He was possessed. You just didn’t see people other than Dr. J get a rebound at one end, go down court by himself and dunk the ball to finish the play.”
The overall consensus was that the two best players at the trials were Barkley and Jordan, in that specific order.
“The thing that shocked everybody was that a man weighing 284 pounds could get up and down the floor quicker than anybody,” Steve Alford said in Barkley’s autobiography, Outrageous. “When he got the ball, you thought that he wasn’t going anywhere, but he was explosively quick. It was the most amazing thing that happened at the trials. Nobody could believe that anyone that size could jump like that.”
“I was frankly amazed,” said Michael Jordan in Outrageous. “He was very creative, an unbelievable player. No one thought someone with that type of body could do the things he did. He was guarding me a lot. I wasn’t guarding him. Why? Because I couldn’t control him!”
Determined to make an impression on the coaches, Joe Dumars took an ill-advised charge on Barkley during one ferocious dunk attempt. As Barkley helped him off the floor, the future Piston legend was shaking while struggling to catch his breath and talk.
“That was the first time I’d ever been around someone that big who could be that explosive,” Dumars said in Outrageous. “I was just amazed, how cat-quick and agile he was. As for taking that charge, I was young and silly. That was the last time I took a charge on him. EVER! At the time, I thought it was admirable. Now that I look back on it, it was pure foolishness. Pure, pure foolishness.”
Leon Wood, an invitee who later became an NBA ref after his playing career ended, said, “Charles Barkley completely dominated the first week. He wanted to prove himself, let everybody know he belonged in the top five. When he made the first cut after the first week, he was told to drop a few pounds. Instead, he gained weight.”
When someone asked Knight if he’d ever dealt with an overweight player before, the acerbic coach bristled, “Not for long.”
When Knight was late for one scheduled evening meeting, Barkley let him know about it in front of the other players.
“Hey, where the hell have you been?”, Charles shouted at Knight.
“Let me tell you something, you fat S.O.B., there’s only one chief in this army and that’s me!,” screamed Knight. “Your fat a– won’t be around here much longer.”
Barkley eventually got cut from the team, to the shock of everyone who witnessed his performance at the trials. But he’d already accomplished his goal of elevating his draft stock and lining up endorsements.
“I thought he was going to make the team,” said Jordan. “If you look at his talents, he certainly should have been on the team.”
“I didn’t like Bobby Knight,” Barkley said in another autobiography, I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It. “My primary goal was to move up in the draft.”
He may have walked into the league as the Round Mound of Rebound, but he walked away as Sir Charles. Mentored by greats like Mo Cheeks, Doctor J, Moses Malone and Andrew Toney early on during his career in Philadelphia, he became one of the greatest talents the game has ever seen.
“When Charles leans on you, it’s like being crushed by a trash compactor,” Celtics center Robert Parish told Fortune Magazine’s John Rolfe.
“He’s the most powerful player at forward I’ve ever seen,” Pat Riley told Fortune in 1991 when he was coaching the Lakers. “When he gets going, people just fly off him like he’s knocking down bowling pins.”
Sir Charles’ NBA accolades are too numerous to mention, but consider that for ten consecutive seasons, from 1986 to 1995, he was an All-NBA First or Second team performer going up against power forwards that were nearly half a foot taller.
Offensively, he held his own against anyone and was virtually impossible to contain one-on-one. He could face the basket, dribble and score from the perimeter, and work anybody over with an assortment of spin moves with his back to the basket.
If you remove his less than stellar three-point shooting percentage, he converted an incredible percentage of shots over his entire career, nearly 60%. If that doesn’t move you, consider that only one player in the history of the game, the vastly underappreciated Artis Gilmore, shot a higher two-point field goal percentage.
In addition to his prolific scoring numbers, Sir Charles was one of the game’s greatest rebounders along with the likes of Wes Unseld, Dennis Rodman, Robert Parrish, Hakeem Olajuwon and Moses Malone.
He’s never mentioned among the greatest players ever because he played during the same era as the great Jordan and Magic and his teams never won a championship. But he came awfully close and was always among the league’s most valuable players. His rebuttal as to why he was never seen as being as valuable as Magic and Jordan was classic Barkley.
“Magic Johnson got to raise the level of James Worthy’s game, Michael Jordan got to raise the level of Scottie Pippen’s game. But I got to raise the level of Shelton Jones’ game,” he cracked.
He was never afraid to speak his mind, whether addressing Bob Knight or the media. And there are many who are still irked over his “I am not a role model” Nike campaign, among other statements and personal missteps.
Whether folks love him or hate him, he remains the gift that keeps on giving through his fantastic television work and expert analysis. He is that rare, one of a kind person, a guy who could claim that he was misquoted in his own autobiography and still have people just shake their heads and smile.
And he’ll always be entertainingly relevant because he remains unafraid to sincerely say things that most others would shy away from in front of the camera. Here are a few of my favorite Barkley quotes that he’s uttered over the years –
When discussing the investigation into the Enron Corporation’s bankruptcy scandal, he said, “Almost all those politicians took money from Enron, and there they are holding hearings. That’s like O.J. Simpson getting in the Rae Carruth jury pool.”
When the ’92 Dream Team was about to play Panama in the Tournament of the Americas to qualify for the Barcelona Olympics, he was asked what the team’s goals were. He replied, “To get the Canal back.”
His motivational words of wisdom to Stanley Roberts, whose potential was never fulfilled due to being overweight, were, “Hey Stanley, you could be a great player if you learned just two words: I’m full!”
After receiving community service and a fine for throwing a guy through a ground floor window during a bar fight, the judge asked Barkley if he had any regrets. “Yeah, I regret we weren’t on a higher floor,” he said.
When discussing the league’s escalating salary structure, with marginally talented players banking millions, he said, “Man, they suck! Bunch of high school kids with $70 million contracts. Damn! I hate my mother for having me too soon.”
And expounding upon his philosophy of success lying in a person believing in themselves, he said, “You got to believe in yourself. Hell, I believe I’m the best-looking guy in the world and I might be right.”
The great sportswriter, Roy S. Johnson, wrote this in his introduction to Outrageous – “Fans of Barkley’s style do not marvel at his inspired court vision, as they do when watching Magic Johnson or Larry Bird. Nor are they left breathless by his flights of incandescent brilliance, gifts to us from Michael Jordan. In Barkley, rather, people see the struggle. They see the undaunted, unrelenting effort to overcome obstacles – too short, too fat, too emotional…you get the idea – that are not unlike the barriers that they confront in their own lives. And they are inspired by his emphatic, unabashed response. They see the hurdles that have marked the paths of their own lives, and they cheer his unbowed bravado.”
At this time of year, when basketball catches its breather and takes a backseat, momentarily, to baseball and football, there are lots of people who actually miss having Barkley in our living rooms on a consistent basis.
And when each new season eventually tips off, I’m sure there are many others, like myself, who are enthralled to not only have basketball back, but also the hysterical and brilliant Charles Barkley as well.