Chasin’ The Dream

These days you see him on TNT, spewing hilarious commentary alongside Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson. But in the late 80s-early 90s, Charles Wade Barkley was a rebounding machine who was after nothing but a Championship—a goal he never accomplished. In SLAM 1 (May ’94), Kevin Powell profiled Sir Charles, and with the NBA tied up in this lockout, now feels like a great time to look back. Enjoy.—Ed.

by Kevin Powell

I been attracting attention ever since I been able to walk and talk. —Cassius Clay

I’m not even gonna front: Phoenix, Arizona is not the kind of American city where I expected to find a professional basketball team. The sky, which resembles a patch of puffy blue cotton, is shockingly bright; the meticulously paved streets are covered with picturesque palm trees; and the citizens, clad in their summer best (even in the fall and winter months), are just a little too polite to be diehard b-ball fanatics.

But obsessed these folks are: Phoenix Suns paraphernalia-caps, jerseys, banners, bumper stickers engulf downtown Phoenix like a hurricane sweeping across an ill-prepared coastal town. So taken are these fans with their beloved Suns that America West Arena, the postmodern home court, is sold out for at least the next two seasons.

Sitting, no, lounging, in the middle of this storm is one Charles Barkley, Generation X’s answer to the melding of ‘70s mack daddies Archie Bunker and Reggie Jackson. Overly opinionated, generally animated, sometimes gruff, sometimes childish, and a self-proclaimed “nineties nigger” with a working class ethos, Charles Barkly is not even close to being a native son (hell, it seems a good 95% of the Suns’ fanbase is white and paid in full). Nonetheless, Barkley has conquered this city four times over: he’s toughened up the Suns’ pretty-boy image; he led them to the NBA championship series last season; he is the league’s reigning MVP, and, in the absence of Michael, Larry, and Magic, he has become the unofficial mouthpiece for old school hoopsters right from his perch in Phoenix. Sir Charles is so large here that a local weekly which habitually dogs the Suns paid him the ultimate white trash compliment-they hailed Barkley as the second coming of Elvis!

But even Elvis had his number one songs. Until he wins the championship, Sir Charles knows that he’ll be a king without a crown. So despite his bad back, despite the media crush, despite the grief that comes with being the Man, Sir Charles carries on his magical crusade.

There is something quite different about Charles Barkley’s mystique as compared to, say, Michal Jordan. Where his Airness was the consummate professional – polite, disciplined, and a made-to-order role model – Sir Charles is the alter ego: he bad-mouths opponents, teammates, referees, coaches and all other losers; he regularly punctuates his performances with a mocking, twisted grin and a double fist to the heavens; and, as if to keep his streak of off-court troubles going for another year, he has been accused on two separate occasions this season of punching men in a Scottsdale poolhall-nightclub. Barkley denies the charges in both cases-charges were subsequently dropped, but you can imagine him as the overbearing kid in grammar school who’d dare you to knock a rock off his shoulder, and if you took him up on it, would uppercut you right into the next term.

In spite of Barkley’s knack for high drama, the b-boy (“b” as in black, bad, bully) from Leeds, Alabama, is terribly appealing even when he’s at his most obnoxious. And given America’s current lovefest with the anti-hero – Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern immediately come to mind – it only makes sense that Sir Charles if fast becoming the anti-hero (or, better yet, “the hero with an attitude problem,” as some are quick to quip). A celebrity marked “This Side Up”, Barkley has a bit role in Look Who’s Talking Now in addition to his numerous commercial spots in the U.S. and aboard. As basketball, American-style, continues to make its mad dash toward world domination, Sir Charles mirrors that cultural exportation with his own flavor: “If you don’t wanna win, get the fuck outta my way.”

And winning is certainly the name of the game for Charles Barkley. Even with the unexpected exit of Michael Jordan, Sir Charles now finds he must do battle with his bad back as well as with the aspiring SuperSonics, the Rockets and the Knicks if the Suns are to repeat as Western Conference champs and finally give Barkley that elusive championship ring.

That aside, Barkley prepares for a game in the usual manner. His fame keeps him from participating in pregame shoot-arounds with his teammates, and he graces the court only when it is time for calisthenics. Even then Sir Charles looks badly out of shape as he forces his body from one stretch to another. You wonder if Barkley is up for tonight’s game versus the Spurs, particularly with board crashers David Robinson and newly acquired Dennis Rodman in the opposition. But Sir Charles being Sir Charles knows he doesn’t have to practice because the game is his practice. In the first period Barkley hits two three-pointers, snatches rebounds with ease, and leads all scorers with 16 points.

The evening mushrooms into a vintage Barkley performance: 30-some-odd points and a dozen boards. This is my first time watching Charles Barkley in person a few things are clear: he is not spectacular like Michael Jordan or a skillful general like Magic Johnson or the tough, cerebral type like Larry Bird. What makes Charles Barkley great is his propensity to always be around the ball. Or, as Suns coach Paul Westphal put if after the game, “when there’s a challenge, you can count on that guy.”

Although the Suns won the contest handily, the evening has just begun. Inside the Suns’ locker room, a sea of reporters – TV, radio, and print, some local, some national – await Sir Charles’ arrival. Notwithstanding the Suns’ wealth of talent – Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, A.C. Green, et. al. – the media is jockeying Barkley – hard. When Sir Charles pushes his way to his locker, the Moses/Red Sea thing is definitely in effect.

An aside: there must be something particularly ego-gratifying about being the man in a game played by men who are perpetually big on themselves (read megalomaniacs). From his days as a high school bench warmer to his psychologically bruising three-year stint at Auburn University to the 1984 Olympic Trials (recognized as the best player there, Sir Charles was nevertheless cut by Bobby Knight) to his early years with the Philadelphia 76ers, Barkley has beat back the odds, his height and weight problems, and those who felt he had a big mouth again and again. Yeah, I guess you could bring in that stuff about the American Dream but I’d like to think Sir Charles proves what can happen if you’ve got a lot of heart, determination, and better-than-average self-marketing skills.

Another aside: professional basketball is about entertainment. As I watched the Suns-Spurs game, I couldn’t help but groove to the song selection whenever the Suns had the ball. The latest pop tunes blasted out of the P.A. system and at times I felt like I was at a concert or a theatrical performance rather than a ballgame. In his autobiography, Outrageous, Sir Charles is straight to the point “I’ve always felt that sports is nothing more than entertainment. It’s supposed to be something that can take your mind off your job, your money problems, family problems – anything that’s putting pressure on you and making life difficult.”