by Russ Bengtson

WEST PHILADELPHIA—“I am not a role model.” Charles Barkley spoke those words in a 1993 Nike commercial. He meant them—in fact, it was Barkley himself who came to Nike with the concept. Here’s the thing, though. Charles Barkley absolutely is a role model. Has been since Day One. And since he retired from the NBA in 2000, he’s been proving it again and again.

Take Friday, for example. Barkley made an appearance at Sneakervilla, a Philadelphia shop, to promote his series of Air Force 1s (based on his high school, college, Olympic and NBA colorways, and inspired in part by his line of signature shoes), and most of all to speak to high-school age kids. Kids who want to be just like him.

The sneaker store he went to wasn’t on the Main Line or in Center City. It was in West Philadelphia, a gritty area defined by boarded-up rowhouses, fast-food spots and an elevated trainline, along with an elevated murder rate (Philadelphia has a murder rate more in line with poor working-class cities like Detroit, Newark and Oakland than with other big cities like New York or Los Angeles). These were the people Charles Barkley really wanted to speak to—the kids of West Philadelphia, not us.

By the time we arrived (our charter bus driver couldn’t find Philadelphia—I wish I was kidding), the session was already going. Up on an elevated platform, Barkley was sitting with event MC Bobbito Garcia, answering questions about his playing days. Eventually the questioning was turned over to the kids, and I furiously typed some of his responses—or at least fragments of them—into my Sidekick. Afterwards there was an additional Q&A session for us media types which I taped, and as soon as I transcribe it, I’ll get that up here too. But for now I figure I’d give you what I’ve got.

The quotes you’re going to read below are about basketball. Many of them are funny and blunt, exactly what you’d expect from the Round Mound of Profound. But before he finished, he spoke to the kids about other things as well—first and foremost the importance of getting an education, and the improbability of becoming a professional athlete. He wasn’t and isn’t trying to shatter anyone’s dreams, just trying to make sure that kids recognize them for what they are. Yes, Charles Barkley has a serious side. And you know what? I think those kids listened. He spoke to us media types about some of those same things, and hopefully I’ll get that side of Charles Barkley up here in the next day or two. He’s talked a lot in the past about running for office, and on Friday I realized for the first time that he probably should do just that. His is a voice that should be heard on more than just TNT.

Anyway, here’s some of what he said on Friday about basketball past and present. Don’t mind the impertinence, here’s Charles Barkley:

“To score a lot of points all you gotta do is shoot too much. I’d rather get 20 rebounds.”

About the race against Dick Bavetta: “When you get old and fat you just challenge old people.”

About his pregame ritual: “After I had lunch that day, you pretty much couldn’t talk to me until after the game. The game happens so fast, it’s hard to think all the time. From 3 o’clock to 6 o’clock I was playing the game in my mind. If you’re a star player, you have a huge responsibility. To make your teammates better.”

“I just loved playing against those leakers [guys who go the other way as soon as a shot is launched]. They leak out, you get big offensive rebounds.”

“The two greatest influences in my life were my mother and grandmother. I never wanted to embarass my mother or grandmother.”

When he knew he’d make the NBA: “I knew after my freshman year in college. If you look at NBA stats, there’s five guys averaging 10 rebounds a game. My junior year in high school I averaged 20 rebounds. And as a freshman [in college] I thought, ‘I can get 10 rebounds against anybody.’”

“I got nervous before every game. Obviously it got worse in the playoffs. You ain’t afraid, it’s just stressful. You go from [playing in front of] a few hundred in high school to a few thousand in college to a lot of thousand in the NBA.”

“I think I was the best player [of my career] here in Philadelphia. When I say I didn’t like playing here, man, losing sucks … I didn’t think the Sixers were trying to win. The Sixers organization in that time, it was terrible.” [Barkley seemed particularly upset by the team’s decision to trade the 1986 number-one pick (which became All-Star center Brad Daugherty) for Roy Hinson (who became nothin’).]

“Kobe’s an interesting dude. I think he’s the best player in the NBA, but he’s got issues. He makes Dr. Phil take one of those breaks. Sometimes you say ‘what’s up with that dude?’”

“Kevin McHale’s the best player I ever played against, period.”

On the Cleveland Cavaliers: “They stink. I don’t think they’re gonna make the playoffs.”

On who he’d take between Dwyane, LeBron and Melo: “Dwyane, by far. I would take Dwyane over both of those guys right now.” [Me and Chuck will have to agree to disagree on that one. I take LeBron eight times out of seven and never look back.]

“Dennis Rodman was a great rebounder. He was just a one-dimensional guy.”

On the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons: “They were gonna maul your ass. They were counting on you being a coward.”

“Anybody who thinks Magic’s Lakers or Bird’s Celtics wouldn’t kill any team in today’s NBA, they’re just stupid.” [Barkley also had a high opinion of Mike’s Bulls squads, but not quite as high an opinion as he had of the Lakers or Celtics. Gonna have to disagree with him there, too.]

“I don’t see anybody out there I would compare with myself.”

Guys he would pay to watch: Shaq, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan.

“I never worried about little guys. Because you could just beat them up physically. And they’ll wear down.”

“The Suns got a team full of leakers—you kill ’em on the offensive boards. And you don’t run with ’em every time. The Spurs run selectively. And that’s how you beat ’em.”