Old School Friday: Charles Barkley

by Lang Whitaker

The first time I met Charles Barkley was in 2002. He’d retired from the NBA by the time I started covering the League, though I’d always been a fan, mostly due to his NBA Superstars segment set to “The Warrior.” (Shooting at the walls of heartache…bang, bang.)

Anyway, I met Chuck when I went down to TNT for an evening to write a behind-the-scenes story on “Inside the NBA.” Our intro went like this:
TNT PUBLICIST: Charles, this is Lang from SLAM magazine.
CHARLES: What the hell is wrong with your hair? It looks like a science experiment gone wrong. I want you to get a comb and do something about it before I see you again.

And then he walked away. We ended up spending the evening sitting together in the TNT green room, watching Survivor and WWF Smackdown (and, occasionally, the NBA on TNT). Chuck called me Slapnuts all night, and when he had to run off to do the live halftime show on TNT, he asked me to stay behind and monitor Smackdown to find out whether Vince McMahon presented flowers to his wife or Trish Stratus.

The one memory from that evening that still sticks out at me was how Charles had this old, battered Nokia cellphone, which he held like it was radioactive or something, almost as though he was afraid of the technology. But then the old thing would ring, and it would be some megasuperstar like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan (who both actually called Barkley while I was there).

Chuck can be free-wheeling and wild, which he is most of the time, but he’s got a soft side, too. About a year after my initial visit, I was in Atlanta for Christmas, and my wife’s grandmother was on death’s door. She was at home but barely clinging to life, and we were all having to take turns taking care of her — sitting with her, giving her medicine and helping get to the bathroom. It was pretty sobering, horrible stuff, to see someone just hardly hanging in there, ready to slip away.

Late one night, when she finally went to sleep, the whole family went upstairs and we sat around the kitchen table in silence, all shocked and depressed. The TV was tuned to TNT, and about five minutes after Chuck came on we were all in tears from laughing.

The next morning I wrote something about it on The Links, noting that no matter what you think about Chuck and his propensity to be controversial just for the sake of it, his ability to entertain lifted all of us out of the horrible place we were in and gave us something else to think about and laugh about.

A day or two later I dropped by TNT to visit a friend of mine. While I was there I ran into Charles, who had a wrinkled print-out of The Links that he pulled from his suit pocket. “You wrote this, right?” he asked. I told him that yes, I had. He sat down and then spent five minutes talking about the importance of family and grandparents, and he thanked me for writing what I’d written. And as I told him then, No, Charles, thank you.
This weekend — besides hosting a slew of epic college football games and some great NFL action (and the US Open) — also means the induction ceremonies at the basketball Hall of Fame. Besides the greatest player of all time, Dominique Wilkins, finally getting his own locker in the Hall, Sir Charles Barkley is being vetted for his spot.

During a conference call a few months ago to announce his enshrinement, the Chuckster spoke on a wide variety of topics in the way that only the Chuckster can. Our man DeMarco Williams listened in on the call and unearthed these notes today for Old School Friday…

Charles Barkley, an 11-time NBA All-Star and one of the League’s “50 Greatest Players” of all time, may need to have a victory speech prepared by November 2012 if rumors of his running for governor of Alabama prove true. Barkley, now a popular TNT analyst, must have his Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement speech ready much sooner, as in September 9, 2006. On that day, Barkley, along with fellow ex-NBA stars Joe Dumars and Dominique Wilkins, University of Connecticut Coach Geno Auriemma, Italian National Team Coach Sandro Gamba and one-time Big East Commissioner David Gavitt, will be immortalized. In this following excerpts from an interview with Barkley on the date his induction was announced, the 43-year-old gives no politically-correct answers; instead, the former Philadelphia 76er/Phoenix Sun/Houston Rocket offers honest (and sometimes really funny) reflections of his playing days.

On what Hall of Fame enshrinement means:
Well, I just think, obviously, it’s a great honor. There are just so many people I could thank. I’m going to try to do that in a phone call, just to give them acknowledgement. You don’t get to this point in your life without a lot of help. I’m just honored to go with two of my contemporaries (Joe Dumars and Dominique Wilkins), Coach Gamba and Geno Auriemma. But I’m glad to be going in with Dominique and Joe because they played in my time. I’m just grateful for all of my family and friends.

On the influence of older players in his career:
Well, as I was saying, the one thing I think that’s missing in the NBA today is veteran guys; now the oldest guy on your team is 25, 26. I was very fortunate. I’ve always said that the two most prominent people [to my career] in the NBA were [76er teammates] Moses Malone and Dr. J. (Julius Erving). On my list of people to call are Bobby Jones, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney, Clint Richardson, Clemon Johnson, Billy Cunningham. I really want to give a shout out to all of those guys because they treated me like a son or a younger brother. That was fantastic and I could never appreciate them enough for that.

On being his own person off the court:
Well, I think one of the reasons was I became my own man. In Philadelphia, it’s tough to deal with the press. I figured out [after a while] that I couldn’t please everybody. No matter what I said I’d get criticized. It’s funny, when I first became one of the leaders of the 76ers, I copied a speech from [Philadelphia Phillies] Darren Daulton and Lenny Dykstra. I saw them on television and they said, “We just got to get better players if we’re going to compete with the better teams in the national league. We just got to get better. We’re out here busting our hump.” I saw a reporter say, “Those guys are great leaders.” So, the next day at practice, I repeated their press conference. Wake up the next day [and the paper reads], “Barkley bad-mouths teammates.” So, I said, “Oooh, that’s how it’s going to be?” That’s actually a true story. So I made up my mind that night: I’m damned if I do, I’m damned if I don’t. I’m just going to try to be honest. Half the people are going to like it. Half of them are going to dislike it. After that, any time you’re in the limelight, people are going to disagree with you sometimes. But I never took it personal when people say they don’t like me. I don’t take it personal. I don’t think I’m right all the time, but I’m going to give my opinion — just like every other person in the world.

On being his own person on the court:
When you’re on a team with Moses, Dr. J and Maurice Cheeks, who could only see out of one eye, you got to work for your rebounds. Maurice could only see out of one eye. Wherever Doc was, that was the eye he was going to be looking out of. Trust me, when you’re on a team with Andrew Toney, Dr. J and Moses Malone, you’re not going to get any plays called for a fat rookie. Rebounding had always been my priority in high school. It was my priority in college. When I got to the NBA, I had no choice but to rebound. Like I said earlier, I love rebounding more than anything in the world. The only thing I worried about statistical was my rebounding. I was fortunate enough to lead the league in rebounding one year. But really, my goal was to be in the Top 10 every year. For 15 straight years, my average was in the Top 10. That’s probably the stat I’m most proud of. But I just wanted to find a way to help my team win. When I became a scorer I wanted to score, but the thing I’m taking the most pride in is rebounding.

On being considered one of the best players of his time:
Watching myself play at different times, I think it was very apparent to anybody that I played with great emotion and passion. I felt like I had the best job in the world. When I was on the court, I wanted to win probably more than anything in the world. I was very fortunate enough to play eight years in Philly, four years in Phoenix and four years in Houston. The last couple of years, to be honest with you, I couldn’t play. The Rockets still owe me $3 million. They robbed me outta that! I think I was actually a great guy to play with. With the exception of [’92-93 Sixers teammates] Armon Gilliam and Charles Shackleford, I think the majority of teammates I played with enjoyed playing with me.

On the best player of those great Philadelphia 76er teams of the early 80s:
Andrew Toney was just the best. Period. He was unstoppable offensively. Unfortunately, injuries cut his career short. I tell you, when I was first going into training camp, the only thing that I was concerned about was I didn’t know whether to call Dr. J “Dr. J” or “Mr. Erving” or “Julius.” I was really nervous the night before training camp. [Dr. J] made it easy for me. He walked up to me and said, “Hey, young fella. I’m Doc.” When you go to the Sixers and they got Moses, Maurice, Andrew Toney, Doc and Bobby Jones, everybody knows those guys. I remember after the first couple days of practice, I called my friends. They wanted to know how everybody was. I was like, “They got a guy here named Andrew Toney that is unbelievable!” This guy was so physically strong. He was unbelievable.