BARCELONA, JULY 28 -- His bottled water isn't cold enough. His pizza had vegetables on top, so he returned it. Two drumsticks of chicken arrive on a paper plate. He cuts one up, with an itty-bitty wobbling white plastic fork and knife, and takes a bite.
Without missing a beat, he says: "A white person cooked this."
Meet the big mouth of the big team. He's Charles Barkley, the crack in the Liberty Bell, the all-pro forward who, after four short days in Barcelona and two easy victories on the basketball court, has become an Olympic legend. He elbowed a stick-figure Angolan player. And shoved another. During the game against Croatia he was given a technical foul for shouting at some fans to be quiet. Earlier today he announced to the press that the International Olympic Committee was "jealous" of the basketball team.
"I wish that guy was little bigger," he says of the Angolan basketball player he elbowed Sunday. "They were being a bit aggressive -- probably because they were so skinny. Next time, maybe I should pick on a fat guy. You never know though, those skinny guys could wind up being like Manute Bol -- got a spear somewhere."
Mr. Mouth. Mr. Elbows. Everybody here is deciding whether they love him or hate him. While they're deciding, they're just complaining. The U.S. newspapers are calling him "The Ugly American." The International Olympic Committee got upset when it learned he was writing a "diary" column in USA Today, and after one perfectly outrageous installment that appeared today, it looks like he'll have to stop.
"I don't care," he says with a shrug. "I just thought it'd be nice if there was something in the paper that was true."
After the Angola game, his Dream Teammate Michael Jordan supposedly dragged him aside. Hey Charlie, knock if off. Hey Charlie, behave yourself. Don't get yourself thrown out of the Olympics. We need you.
"The elbow is a part of my game," says Barkley -- who has agreed to watch himself, a bit. "But if somebody hits you, you hit them back," he says. "Even if they look like they haven't eaten in a long time."
Every 10 seconds at the NBC lunchroom, somebody stops for an autograph. Grown men in sweaty khaki shorts. Young men in surfer jams. They say pathetic things like: "My mother would never forgive me if I didn't ask for your autograph" and "Charles, can you sign my hat?" and then, even a Spaniard: "Charles, can you sign me please?"
"Can I sign you please?" Barkley asks.
He's sweet and polite and patient -- the very same guy who dunks balls, then hangs onto the rim and swings around with a wild pirate expression on his face. The very same guy who, in a new Nike commercial that premiered here today, takes on the monster Godzilla at hoops -- and wins.
Right at this moment, in fact, the Ugly American is looking pretty adorable. He's got roving, dark, smart, naughty-boy eyes and he's batting his lashes around to enormous effect. He's got big baggy black shorts, calloused knees, a shiny shaved head, a constant smirk. Drinking mineral water, he looks like he's holding a baby bottle. He's 30.
"I've got the 50/50 rule," he says. "Half the people are going to like you. Half aren't. That's the country we live in. And I'd just like to concentrate on the 50 percent who do like me."
Carl Lewis is across the room. O.J. Simpson is eating with world decathlon champion Dan O'Brien, who blew the pole vault in the trials and is now commentating for NBC. Nobody is bothering any of them for autographs. This doesn't mean anything to Barkley -- he feels beleaguered, misunderstood.
Oh, he hates the American press, for starters. ("The whole Olympic games," he says, "and all they can write about is my elbow.") Oh, the International Olympic Committee has been chewing on him. ("They've got an ego problem," he says. "We're getting too much attention. It's a jealousy thing.") And oh, his fellow U.S. Olympians hate the basketball team too, for not staying four-to-a-room at the Olympic Village. ("They do. They do," says Barkley. "The athletes really resent it. I know they do.")
Is all this ruining his trip?
"No, no. But it's amazing," he says. "Everywhere you go, there's the American media, writing about my elbow. The whole Olympics going on, and I'm still talking about it."
Maybe people like reading about your elbow, Charles.
"No, the majority of the public wants to read bad things about me. It makes them feel better about their life," he says. "The media is jealous of all the money we make. Everybody always complains about the money that professional athletes make. But they never complain, though, about all the money Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone make."
His basketball salary is about $3.5 million.
His Nike deal? "One million," he says, "or two or three."
He smiles, then starts to utter something defensive. People have given him grief -- you can tell. He wants to be proud, but he doesn't want to gloat. "Listen, that's just what they pay me. If they pay me that much -- then there are lots of people making lots more off me. I don't just make money for myself. I make money for lots of people. The only thing that bothers me is that blacks can't afford to go to the games anymore, like they used to, and technically I'm just making money for white people. But that's something I'm hoping to change -- we all want to change. And we will."
This is his "first day off" since arriving in Barcelona Friday night from Monte Carlo, where the team was practicing, playing golf, losing money in the casinos, and where -- according to jokes and rumor -- Barkley spent a great deal of time in the pool. At a Dream Team press conference on Saturday morning here, somebody asked him whether he was trying out for the swim team.
Barkley responded immediately: "In Monte Carlo I was spending a lot of time in the pool area, but I was mostly sightseeing."
The other team members -- Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, David Robinson and Scottie Pippen, Chris Mullin and John Stockton, Larry Bird and Christian Laettner, Patrick Ewing and Clyde Drexler and Karl Malone -- were far more circumspect in their responses to questions. They pretty much stuck to the basics -- it was an honor to play at the Olympics, to play on a team with the other basketball greats, to represent America.
Barkley was asked about the team from Angola, which was to be the U.S. team's opponent the next day.
"I don't know anything about Angola," Barkley boomed to the crowd of jet-lagged journalists, "except that Angola's in trouble."
Now, there's a feeling that perhaps Barkley articulates -- quite eloquently and honestly -- the very competitive nature of his team. They like to win, after all, and maybe he is just willing to admit it.
"But nobody else," he says, "wants the bad stereotype I've got."
Does he speak for them?
"No, I'm my own person," he says. "That's important to me. The other players can't really say that I speak for them. I can't speak the truth for Michael Jordan, I can only speak the truth for Charles Barkley."
His column in USA Today was titled "We're Not the Only Pros Here," and after dispensing with that tiresome controversy, he dealt with the complaints about the basketball team not staying in the Olympic Village:
"Security is a problem for us," he wrote, "but I'm not going to sit in my room like those other guys. They're telling us, don't leave the hotel room without security. I have my own security: my own two hands."
At the Opening Ceremonies -- as anyone could see on TV -- the basketball team were mobbed by its own U.S. Olympic team colleagues. And it's true that at the Ambassador Hotel, where the U.S. basketball team is staying, you need a special credential just to get inside the lobby. When the team leaves for games, it needs a police escort to get through the streets. The games are sold out -- and members of the press, normally free to cover any Olympic event, are required to have tickets. In three hours with Barkley today, he was stopped or photographed or asked to sign pieces of paper -- and even a hat -- by dozens and dozens of people.
He wasn't ugly to any of them.
Charles Barkley walks down the Ramblas every night, just to see the city, to get out of his hotel. But it's a hassle. Later today, he was going to try playing some golf -- even though it was in the nineties. "It's never too hot to play," he says.
"That course in Monte Carlo was no good," he says. "You had to walk and carry your own bag. Up and down. Up and down. All over these damn mountains."
Rumors persist that he's estranged from his wife, Maureen, who lives in Philadelphia with their 3-year-old daughter, Christiana. Barkley won't talk about it, saying all that "is private."
He's here alone, in fact, while the other players have wives and kids and girlfriends along to watch them play. When it was heard that actor Jack Nicholson was coming to Barcelona for the finals -- to watch Magic Johnson -- Barkley was asked: "Is anybody special coming for you, Charles?"
"I called President Bush the other day and asked, but he was too busy," Barkley jokes immediately. "He's in a dogfight for his title."
After the Olympics are over Aug. 9, he's planning a two-week trip to Hawaii with Jordan, Pippen, Robinson and Mullin -- to rest up. In the fall he'll be moving to Arizona; he was traded by the Philadelphia 76ers to the Phoenix Suns last month. He has said he's happy about that, "because I want a shot at playing in an NBA championship, and I'd never get there with the 76ers."
In four years, where will he be? On the Olympic team again?
"I'm sure I won't be on the Olympic team," he says. "I might not be even playing basketball in four years."
"I'm going to be chairman," he says, "of the Barkley Empire."
Watch his elbows.