Original Old School: 100 Proof

Straight from SLAM 106 (April 2007), here’s a dope Q+A with Charles Barkley. Why run it now; what’s the occasion? Happy born day, Chuck!–Ed.

by Khalid Salaam

Few people in this country’s recent history have made as much impact and caused as much ruckus as Charles Barkley. When he came out of Auburn University in 1984, Barkley was known primarily as a shy, overweight kid with a knack for rebounding. That in itself was remarkable, because at 6-4, he manned the power forward position and was always at a height disadvantage. Still, his ability was obvious and he started 60 games as a rookie on a veteran, talent-laden Philadelphia 76ers team. As names like Erving, Malone and Toney retired or were traded, Barkley’s mug—and mug shots—would become the face of the franchise. In addition to his amazing boardwork (11.7 rebounds per game over his career, including an amazing 14.6 per game in ’86-87), Sir Charles also became a great scorer (22.1 ppg over his career) and Hall of Famer who transcended sports and became one of the world’s most recognizable celebrities. Unlike most of his predecessors or other professional athletes of his time, Barkley had an energy that could not be confined to his play on the court.

America in the late ’80s and early ’90s was defined by several supernova-level events. The growth of hip-hop from a musical renaissance to a political movement was in full bloom, as was a backlash to the destruction of several social programs initiated during the Civil Rights era. Furthermore, the crack epidemic, AIDS and the growing poverty of the inner cities were leading the news each night. Conversely, it was also the age of glamour, and the “greed is good” mentality was creating an underclass which was tearing at the nation’s fabric. While the majority of sports stars turned a blind eye, Barkley routinely spoke about urban blight, media influences and discrimination with candor and seriousness.

Philadelphia generally escaped the label of racist town that Boston couldn’t, but as those of us who grew up in Philly know, there was a stone-cold racist undertone. The unions, the police department and City Hall were breeding grounds for non-insider contempt, as was the local media, which seemed to make unrealistic demands of its black sports stars. Ironically, this was all going on during the reign of the city’s first black mayor, W. Wilson Goode (who was in office when the police famously bombed the headquarters of the West Philly black nationalist group, MOVE). Goode was seen by many as a conformist hesitant to stand up for the area’s disenfranchised citizens, someone who grabbed his ankles when the establishment made him.

Barkley came into prominence during all of this, and his Alabama-meets-East-Coast swagger resonated. While many people disagreed with his statements, he still garnered respect because he had the balls to speak his mind. Local columnists and talk-radio personalities loved to lambast Barkley because he spoke with authority about race relations and class division. In the city, he became a voice for the counterculture and black communities, and he criticized those who singled him out. (And even though he married a woman who wasn’t African-American, nobody ever called him a sell-out because his deeds and actions never exhibited a sense of self-hatred.) His voice quickly spread nationwide and his “I Am Not A Role Model” campaign for Nike became a talking point for political debates, left-wing ideology and right-wing bullying.

Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about all the personality stuff were it not for Sir  Charles’ remarkable on-court career. He’s one of only four players—along with Kareem, Wilt and the Mailman—to garner 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. He made 11 All-Star Games, was named first-team All-NBA five times, won two Olympic gold medals and was elected to the Hall of Fame last summer. Combining aggression, strength and intelligence, he was able to dominate the paint and was known to mix it up with guys who tried to intimidate him. While the Sixers teams he led were competitive, they were usually outmatched in the playoffs by bigger and more versatile teams. The Sixers won the Atlantic Division in the ’89-90 season but were unable to maintain their success. Sensing things were only going to get worse in Philly, Barkley asked to be traded and was sent to Phoenix during the summer of ’92, where he won the MVP award and led the Suns to the Finals in his very first season. He stayed in the Valley of the Sun for four seasons before going to Houston, where he played for the aging Rockets until his career ended in 2000.

Interestingly enough, CB is arguably more famous now than ever. As an analyst on TNT’s Inside the NBA, his candor is often the highlight of the show. He’s also popular on the talk show circuit and at political functions, where he’s long hinted that a run for office in Alabama is a possibility. You could spend an entire article just discussing Charles Barkley’s most infamous quotes, but this is SLAM, so you know we got a little deeper than that.

SLAM: When you first got to Philadelphia, what were your initial thoughts about the city?
CB: It was night and day coming to Philly. It was a culture shock, and that changed my personality 110 percent. You’re either going to get eaten or eat them. It’s a very difficult place to play. It was very difficult for me to realize that no matter what I said, I couldn’t make everybody happy. So that’s when I started saying that I’m just gonna do things my way. Either they’re going to accept it or not. Half are gonna like it and half are not. Anybody in the limelight has to accept that and that’s just the way it is.

SLAM: When you were drafted, the Sixers were still an elite team. Did you think you would be able to contribute right away?
CB: My goal was to get 10 rebounds a game. I knew I was a good rebounder—that’s what got me into the NBA. I had no idea I was gonna be able to score like that. The most points I ever averaged in college was like 13, so when I saw that I could do more, my confidence went up. [Chuck actually averaged 15.1 ppg during his senior year.—Ed.]

SLAM: Who or what was most influential in you becoming a better offensive player?
CB: I think Moses Malone helped more than anybody as far as getting me in shape. Also John Drew and Adrian Dantley. They were very accomplished players and I modeled my offensive game after those guys.

SLAM: Those later Philly teams with you, Mike Gminski and Hersey Hawkins were good but not great. Why do you think that team could never really get over the hump?
CB: One year we won the Atlantic Division with me and [Rick] Mahorn, Gminski, Hersey Hawkins, Derek Smith. That year was the most satisfying, but we didn’t have much depth. Even though our starters could play with the other team’s starters, when they went to their benches we couldn’t really match that.

SLAM: The media tried to vilify you in Philly. Why do you think you were such a target?
CB: The fans were great but the media was awful. As the star I got all the blame if we didn’t win. First thing is, we didn’t draft well. We traded our pick for guys who never played. Of course there’s a racial aspect to it. When white guys talk about sports they’re experts, when black guys talk about sports they’re loudmouth jerks. When I said something it bothered them. Most people look at jocks as big strong guys, but most people don’t think we got brains.

SLAM: How happy were you when you were traded to Phoenix?
CB: I almost threw a party. All I wanted was some help. All you really want is a chance to win. I feel bad for guys like KG, because guys just want a chance. I got three chances in Phoenix and that was all I could ask for.

SLAM: In the Finals against the Bulls, do you feel the Suns could have done any more to beat Chicago or were they just too good?
CB: They were too good. The Bulls beat everybody, they won six championships. They were really good defensively. It’s really amazing how it works. MJ was the best player ever. Pippen was a good player and things just fell into place for them.

SLAM: When you found out that Phoenix was shopping you in ’96, you said, “The days of cotton picking are over.” What is the story behind that quote?
CB: With Phoenix, I heard rumors that they were shopping me and I asked them if it was true and they said no, but later I found out they were. All I ask these teams is to be honest and I’ll give 110 percent, but if they don’t respect me, then I don’t respect them. After that there was no way I was gonna give them 110 percent, that just wasn’t gonna fuckin’ happen so I told them they might as well trade me.

SLAM: How did you get interested in politics?
CB: There wasn’t anything specific. I just got frustrated with the discrepancy between the rich and poor in America. People make it out to be black and white, and of course that plays a factor, but it’s really more that America is divided between the rich and poor. I see the gap getting wider every year.

SLAM: Years ago you referred to yourself as a “’90s n—a.” What was the story behind that and what is your general opinion on the usage of that word?
CB: They try to act like we don’t know how the word is used. Black people are smart enough to know what context to use it in. The word had always been around and when me and the brothers use it, it is not in the way that Michael Richards used it. That’s first and foremost. And the reason why I said that back in that day? When I made the comment, they were telling me to just shut up and play. See, they were used to things being how they were from the Dr. J era, when they just told [the players] not to have an opinion. And I was like, No, those fuckin’ days are over. I’m not saying I’m right all the time, but I’m gonna give my opinion and they are gonna have to deal with it. Don’t tell me my answers don’t matter and when I answer a question in an interview that I can’t be myself.

SLAM: How do you define yourself in political terms?
CB: I’ve never been a Republican. I never hung out with those guys. All of that came out in an interview with my grandmother. Some reporters asked us about politics and the guys asked us if we were Republican or Democrat. And my grandmother said that Republicans are for rich people. Then I was like, We are rich. And ever since then everyone assumed I was a Republican.

SLAM: So you’re an Independent?
CB: Both parties suck, to be honest, but the best way to describe me is to say I’m an Independent. I don’t think it’s the best place to get things accomplished, but we have to do something because both parties have let us down. We need something different.

SLAM: What do you see as the biggest problem in America?
CB: Biggest problem is the public school system. It’s a travesty, and until we address it things are just gonna get worse. We keep putting out kids who aren’t gonna be motivated and who aren’t gonna be successful. And they can’t compete in the real world or with people who live in good neighborhoods or those who go to private schools. And until we address that discrepancy between rich and poor, nothing will ever change.

SLAM: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or John McCain?
CB: Aw man, I’d run through a wall for Barack. I hope he runs. I don’t know if he can win, but we need a black leader like that on the forefront. America is probably not ready for a black president, but we as black people need it. We’re killing each other at an ungodly rate, we’re not getting our education and we need a leader. Barack can be that guy.