The Role Model
KICKS 1: Both on the court and off it, Charles Barkley was a true original.
From KICKS 1, we bring you a feature on the always captivating Charles Barkley. Michael Bradley, who claims to have given Charles his very first NBA interview (we believe you!), details the man, the myth, the true Baller/Entertainer. Why post this now, you ask? With KICKS 13 due out in a few weeks, we thought now was a good time to post some of our past KICKS goodness.—Ed.
by Michael Bradley
This is not bragging, just fact: I was the first person to interview Charles Barkley when he arrived during the steamy summer of ’84. He was the fifth overall pick-a precocious, porcine rookie from Auburn who had been described less as a basketball player than as a cartoon character, and as such was expected to be part man, part animated superhero. I was a cub reporter for a dinky-and now defunct-suburban daily that cared more about the local school lunch menus than the Philadelphia 76ers. The occasion of our meeting was the Sixers’ draft camp at St. Joseph’s University, a three-day exercise designed to show the team’s selections that their agents had better have good connections with GMs overseas. And while it wasn’t an epic confrontation, it was enlightening.
After watching a sloppy practice (what else would you expect from a group that included the “talents” of draftees like James Banks, Early Harrison and Richard Congo?) and inquiring of then-Sixers owner Harold Katz about Barkley’s contract negotiations, I ventured into a tiny locker room and found Barkley himself, seated on a stool, clearly happy to be done with his day’s work. He assented to an interview, but asked the first question himself:
“Do you know where I can find some women around here?”
Somewhat stunned, I responded that he should be more concerned with conserving his strength for the remaining two days or practice. But he was undaunted.
“No, man,” he said, adamantly. “My doctor tells me that women give me strength.”
His first day on the job, and the man from Leeds (AL) was looking for leads. In a way, it was just another normal locker room exchange. But now we know better. That was the true Barkley. What everybody else in the room was thinking, he was saying. There was no filter between his brain and his mouth, nothing that told him to be careful around some reporter he had never met in his life. Barkley was going to be Barkley, no matter what.
He’s still doing it, consequences be damned. If there is one beautiful thing about Barkley-no, Charles, it’s not your face-it’s that he is completely, unapologetically, often brutally, honest. He tells you what he thinks all the time. He’s funny. He’s irreverent. He’s crude. He’s politically incorrect. He’s sometimes wrong. He’s human.
Ask a question, get an answer. And not some canned response out of the Interview Handbook, either. He has called Allen Iverson the “playground rookie of the year.” He has said that “mentioning Kobe Bryant in the same breath as Michael Jordan is just stupid.” He has said that players used to need five or six good years to be christened a star. “Now, you have one good month, one good year, they call you a superstar.” A complete list of his greatest hits would fill a whole magazine. So, we’ll take this precious space to say that Charles Barkley acts the way we all wish we could: without regard for consequences. That means he’s going to speak his mind, no matter who it pisses off. He’s going to do incredibly stupid stuff, like spit on a little girl at a game. He’s going to drink too much. He’s going to get in fights. He’s going to laugh at people. And he won’t care. Now, ask yourself: wouldn’t you like to have the courage to live that way? We’re not advocating any of this behavior, some of which has bordered on the psychotic. What we’re saying, what I’m saying, is that Barkley has spent 14 years in the NBA as one of the few people honest enough to let the whole world know him fully.
And now, as he speaks of giving his aching body a permanent break form the rigors of life as an NBA marvel (a 6-4 power forward) and considers a year or two as a role player, it’s time to applaud the man’s conviction. Some people may say it’s easy to be honest when you’re making millions, but just take a look around the world of sports and tell us how many athletes you really know. When Emmitt Smith dons a tweed suit and does a Right Guard commercial, we smile. When Barkley does it, we straight up laugh. We know the guy is as far removed from the horsey crowd as one could be. And he doesn’t care if we laugh at him, because he’s probably giggling right along with us.
As the NBA’s number-one locker room agitator and a Hall of Fame member of the all-interview team (not to mention a soon-to-be member of the real one), Barkley has spent his career delivering a seemingly endless string of one-liners. During the ’92 Olympics, when the Dream Team made its celebrated debut, Barkley was hardly a goodwill ambassador for the country. While the rest of his teammates took it easy during early-round tuneups against basketball cripples like Angola, Barkley was throwing elbows. When asked why, Barkley said, “Somebody hits me, I’m going to hit him back. Even if it does look like he hasn’t eaten in a while.”
Barkley’s acid tongue has known no boundaries, consequences be damned. He delivers so many outrageous quotes that the Associated press should take up a collection at the beginning of each season to help Barkley pay some of his fines. He was hit with a $10,000 penalty for calling referee Jack Nies “gutless” during the past season. Not that it bothered Barkley that much. “I got my money’s worth,” he said about the fine. “I definitely got my money’s worth.”
Barkley has always been value-conscious. The guy played hurt throughout his career, taking time off only when it was completely necessary. He may not have always had the best relationship with all of his fans-he was fined another 10 G’s last season for taunting a Jazz supporter-but very few people who saw Barkley play could ever complain of being cheated. Last year, for instance, Barkley battled through back, foot, arm, groin and hernia problems but missed only 14 games. He may have been a far different player than the guy who captivated the NBA in the ’80s with his curious blend of power and quickness, but he was still out there, giving it his all. And for those of you who think he’s a thing of the past, he had five 20-plus rebound games last season. So there.
Barkley was never close to being the league’s highest paid player, despite 22,000-plus points. 11,000-plus rebounds and 11 All-Star game appearances, but he never complained about the money. Every time he has stepped onto an NBA court, Barkley has simply delivered whatever was in his tank.
Sometimes, those deliveries extended well beyond the game’s end. A devoted night owl, Barkley has always sought to mingle with the people. He won’t hesitate to banter with the locals, always willing to match his considerable wit with all comers. He’ll sign autographs. And he’ll generally act like few other famous athletes. Barkley doesn’t mind the attention-unless, of course, someone gets out of line. Then, he’ll throw you through a plate-glass window or crack you upside the head. Barkley has something of an unwritten compact with us. Come closer, but show respect. “I’m always a target, but I’ll never back down,” he told reporters after he hurled Jorge Lugo through said window last October in Orlando. “The public does not have the right to do things to you. It’s plain and simple.”
Some people thought the Lugo incident was a catalyst for Barkley’s startling February announcement that he wouldn’t be drinking as much as he used to. Alcohol was always part of his world, whether after a game, with meals or as a late-night social lubricant. But 35 year olds can’t bounce back from a few (or six) beers like their younger counterparts can, particularly if their bodies must be ready to perform at high levels the next day. It’s one thing to fight off a hangover in an office; it’s quite another to do it against Kevin Garnett. But Barkley wasn’t going to check into the Betty Ford clinic or subject himself to a highly-scrutinized rehab. He wanted to cut back on the booze, so he cut back. Simple stuff, really. Lots of people make the same decisions, with far less fanfare. As usual, however, Barkley was more than willing to talk about his course of action.
“I don’t say I’m an alcoholic or that I have a drinking problem,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News on the day of his 35th birthday. “I just felt I was drinking too much. I like to drink. I’m not going to stop drinking. But I can’t drink and play.”
Pretty soon, Barkley’s body won’t let him play, period, even if he does stay clear of the sauce. He may become a broadcaster. He could become a politician and has spoken at times of making a bid for Alabama’s governor job. Imagine that. Whatever he does, he’ll do it the Barkley way. And the NBA will be poorer for his absence. While the basketball world spends countless energy considering life without Michael Jordan, think about life without Barkley. His departure may not have the same economic impact as MJ’s, but it will certainly make professional basketball a little poorer. On the court, Barkley was an original. Off it, he was even rarer. Barkley always said he didn’t want to be a role model. Pity. A lot of professional athletes would do well to emulate him.