by Russ Bengtson
You all have heard Charles Barkley speak before, I’m sure. He’s outrageous, outspoken, and (sometimes) out of his mind. He says “first of all” way too much, and when he believes strongly about something he’ll repeat it over and over and over again.
But there’s another side to him as well—one who cares very much about the well-being of kids he sees growing up just like he did. Charles Barkely grew up poor in Leeds, Alabama, was one of the lucky ones who made it out and made millions in the process. He knows that not many will be able to follow the path that he did, but at the same time he wants to make sure that they’re able to follow A path. This is the last segment of the interview he did in West Philly.
Q: How important was it for you to come speak here, in West Philadelphia, as opposed to like a super store or a big Foot Locker…
CB: I think it’s important—obviously we got the problem with the violence going on here in Philadelphia—it’s deeply disturbing, I’ve been talking about it for a couple years now. We—we, as black people—we gotta stop killing each other. We gotta make our neighborhoods safer, and it was important to do this event here. I’ve been talking about it for two years now. I’ve had a couple meetings with the new mayor trying to figure out what ways I can help. I live in Philadelphia. It hurts me number one to see all these murders first and foremost, secondly as a black man it bothers me to see all these young black people getting killed every single day. We’ve got to do better. And I always say, WE got to do better. I feel so bad for these mothers. Like I say, I’m here, I live here five months a year. It’s unbelievable to me, the stuff I see every single day. I mean, I see it every single day and it makes you want to cry. I met with [Philadelphia mayor] Michael [Nutter] over the summer, I said what can I do to help? And obviously we’ve got to find a way to stop black-on-black crime. We’ve got to find a way. We got so many young black kids—that’s not a record you want to set every year. We’ve set a record like the last X amount of years. That’s unfortunate and it’s so sad. And like I say, I watch it every day when I’m here. And I wanted to be in a neighborhood like this. I love talking to the kids.
And I’m gonna tell ya—one of the reasons I have great admiration for Nike, when I went to them with the role model thing, it was a big deal. And they were like ‘why do you want to do this commercial?’ I said, ‘man, I’m noticing a trend that every black kid only think they can play sports or be an entertainer. They don’t think about being doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, firemen, policemen.’ Cause like when I was going to speak at predominantly black schools, I was doing this thing, ‘well, how many of you want to play professional sports,’ and they would all raise their hands. And I was saying like wow, they don’t think they can do anything but play sports. But then when I would go to predominantly white schools, I’d ask ‘how many of you want to play professional sports’ and only like 15 or 20 percent would raise their hands. And I’m like wow. Then I’d ask the other kids, and they’d say ‘I wanna be a doctor,’ or ‘I wanna be a lawyer,’ I wanna be an engineer, fireman, teacher. And I said I wanna start a debate about this role model thing. And I appreciate—because we took a lot of heat from the press for doing this commercial. Thankfully 80 or 90 percent of the letters we got were positive. But I knew what I was trying to do. I wanted to start a debate—like I say, I wish all of these kids could play in the NBA, but that’s unrealistic. I mean, no disrespect to you little fella, but no matter how hard you work you’re not gonna make it. [Laughter] I always tell people, look at your mom and dad. Are they both 5-2? Your ass better go to school and get your education. [Laughter] You know, and that’s how this whole thing with my affiliation with Nike—like I said, I wanted to start a dialogue when I came up with this commercial. And I’ve said to this day many times, that’s the greatest thing I’ve done in my life. And I have people come up to me even to this day and say ‘that’s cool’—parents. I got parents to me coming up to me to say that commercial was really important and significant.
Q: With high schools being the new breeding grounds for NBA players, do you think the ADs and coaches are doing enough…
CB: They’re not. They’re not doing enough to educate these kids. Because number one, the kids can’t play if they don’t get their education. That’s what they should do. You know, but they’re trying to keep their jobs. You know I said earlier I hate the AAU thing, cause they’re just scumbags selling players. And, you know, if you make it, obviously everything’s rosy. But most of the kids aren’t going to make it. So if you use ‘em up for four years of college and then kick ‘em out after four years and they don’t have their degree, what are they gonna do?
Q: Well, college has now been phased out almost.
CB: Well, college has been phased out, but the system is still in place. It’s just hidden behind AAU and things like that. They’re getting these kids, they’re making millions and billions of dollars for people—coaches, organizations, however you wanna look at it—and then when they can’t play anymore, or they don’t make it, they’re like ‘OK, gotta go to the next kid.’ So you put a kid out there who’s uneducated, what the hell he’s gonna do when he’s uneducated?
Q: So when you went from high school to college to pro, what kept you grounded? Because I spoke to Allen Iverson…
CB: Well, that’s not true for Allen or myself, because we were good enough. It’s different because—we have a jaded point of view because we made it. It never really came into play for us. But my thing is, what about the other 99 percent who didn’t make it? Those are the ones we gotta work on. I always tell people, I ain’t gotta worry about the ones who made it. They good! We gotta figure out, like, my biggest regret, all my homeboys, we didn’t do shit in school, we didn’t get our education—I made it, so I’m all right. The other hundred of ‘em didn’t make it. I’m more worried about them than I am myself—it’s easy for me to grow up and make millions of dollars, you ain’t gotta do nothin’. But we gotta find a way, what are we gonna do about all those other kids who we let play for four years of college and then when it’s over we say, ‘ok, see you later.’
We’ve gotta find a way to make sure these schools are held accountable. They’re only graduating 30 percent of these players. They’re graduating 30 percent of these players, so that means they’re putting seven out of 10 kids on the street. And that ain’t cool. Cause they’re making millions and billions of dollars on these kids. It’s acceptable. Cause that’s how it is. And it has a huge effect on predominantly black kids. Because a majority of the players are black. So we’re really screwing them even more.
SLAM: Did you play with a lot of kids like that at Auburn?
CB: Everybody. They were just keepin’ us eligible. Like I said, it’s very fortunate that I made it, same thing with AI, but we wasn’t graduating. We wasn’t gonna graduate. They were keepin’ us eligible to play sports. I’m very fortunate, I thank God every day that I made it, but when I talk to these kids, man, what if I hadn’t of made it? I’d have been uneducated, walking the streets of America. That’s what I stress to these kids.
Q: Charles, when you brought the I’m not a role model campaign to Nike, was it a tough sell or was it smooth?
CB: I think it was smooth. They was like, ‘you know this gonna cause some waves?’ I was like I’m not worried about causing waves, I’m worried about starting dialogue. Nike has always been supportive of me. I’ve been thinking about this new commercial. And I’m talking to Nike, I wanna make a commercial, I’m disturbed about the state of black America now with all this black-on-black crime. I’m deeply disturbed. Now I know if I make this commercial with words from Dr. King about—he would be disturbed [over the situation]. This is actually the greatest time for black people ever to live. And instead of us getting our education and taking advantage of the economic situation, we’re killing each other at such an unbelievable rate. Now I know if I make that commercial, they’re gonna put me in the same boat with Bill Cosby. And I can handle the heat. Bill Cosby to me is fantastic, what he’s sayin’. And we’ve got to, number one, get our education, we’ve got to stop killin’ each other, we got to stop havin’ kids we can not afford. First of all, I’ve said this before, if a white guy said what Bill Cosby’s said, they’d name streets after him. Bill Cosby gets criticized, and it’s unfair and unfortunate. But I know if I make this commercial, certain people are gonna come after me. But first of all I know I’m right, and I know Bill Cosby’s right. We as black people, we’ve got to get our education—we can’t be killin’ each other, that’s just crazy, and we’ve got to stop havin’ kids we cannot afford. I mean, I got no problem saying that—if somebody don’t like that, that’s unfortunate, but I know I’m right.
Q: Do you feel a solidarity within the NBA community to come together and help with these issues, because there’s a lot of black people that have a lot of money that could do something really impactful?
CB: I think that these guys—no. First of all, they don’t wanna do anything with the old guys. We’re haters [laughter], we’re the haters. It’s like, and I tell people, I’m not mad at that. Because all you guys have been told some stuff by y’all mother or father that y’all think ‘he don’t understand me’ or ‘he hatin on me.’ So they look at us like that. Some of ‘em will listen. But some of ‘em are like, ‘he’s just an old guy hatin’ on me. I got my own thing goin’.’ So, it’s no different than being a father or a mother when you try and tell your kid somethin’. So it’s a very interesting dynamic to answer your question. A lot of young kids are fantastic. Like I told the story today when I bought the seven cars, Doc shook the shit out of me and said ‘take those cars back.’ Some of these young guys today, I’m scared to talk to ‘em. [laughter] Because they got their posse with ‘em, and they want their seven cars. So I mean, I always tell ‘em, man, you need one car. Sell those other cars, that money’s gonna be worth a lot in 10, 15, 20 years. You only need one car. And you don’t have to impress everybody, everybody already knows who the hell you are. But some of those young guys don’t wanna hear that stuff.
Q: What about players from your generation, have you found some solidarity there?
CB: Man, I think the older guys—first of all, the money these young guys got today, they can do so many good things. They can do SO many good things. First of all, I’m not hatin’ on them for making a lot of money. My five million now is 17 million. And that’s a big gap. But like I say, I don’t interfere with they life. If they come to me and ask me for advice, I give ‘em my opinion. But I would really love to—one of the things I’m doing right now, my job is to help poor kids go to college. I’m givin’ a million dollars to my high school, a million dollars to my college, a million dollars to another inner-city school. My job is to help these young kids go to college. Now, I don’t see many of these young guys giving away three million dollars. You know, is that wrong? It ain’t wrong. But I would love to see guys get together, ‘hey we’re gonna give’—they don’t even have to give a million, let these kids know that we care about ‘em. I would love to work with Donovan, AI, about this violence going on here in the black communities. You know, I had talked to Michael Nutter about hey man, we’ve got to do SOMETHING. I mean, first of all, the police are not the answer. Is it somewhat of an answer, of course it is. But we as black people have to start policing ourselves to a better way.