When Charles Barkley, 6 feet 6, 284 pounds, becomes an Olympic basketball hero sometime late in July, he might just cut the first exercise album with lyrics that encourage a snack after every jumping jack.
Players here this week for the U.S. Olympic men's basketball trials that Barkley has so affected, have decided that Weird Al Yankovic's song, "Eat It" (a takeoff on Michael Jackson's "Beat It") pretty well captures Barkley's dining philosophy:
"Have some more chicken, have some more pie/It doesn't matter if it's boiled or fried . . . Have some more yogurt, have some more Spam/It doesn't matter if it's fresh or canned/Just eat it. Just eat it."
As Barkley, a junior from Auburn, said earlier this week in addressing the popular topic of his weight: "I really don't eat that much. I just, more or less, tend to eat all the time. If I could go into a room and peel some of this stuff off of me, I'd come out looking like Hercules."
This week, just as he did most of the college basketball season, Charles Barkley has played like Hercules, even if his body bears no remote resemblance.
Barkley is the story at these trials. It will be a major surprise if he is not one of the 18 players who survive Monday morning's cut, and he is a good bet to make the final 12-player team. Many people here, playing against Barkley or just seeing him in person for the first time, can't stop talking about him. He dunks, passes, rebounds, runs the break and knocks the hell out of people. Unintentionally, of course.
Joe Dumars, a 190-pound guard from McNeese State, had the courage/stupidity to try to draw a charging foul during a scrimmage last week. Dumars bounced off Barkley's ample chest backward, all the way into the bleachers.
"I said, 'Joe, I can't believe you tried to do that,' " Barkley said. "He rubbed himself and said, 'I can't believe it either.' "
Forward Kenny Fields of UCLA, who has been knocked down by Barkley a time or two this week, said, "When you're running back down court, Charles always says, 'I'm sorry.' "
Tim McCormick, the Michigan center, said, "Barkley has been dominant. Three or four times a day, you see the backboard shaking. You look back and you see Barkley walking away."
John Williams, a 6-10 forward from Tulane, pointed to a spot that was still sore from an elbow by Barkley the previous day. "He's the toughest I've ever played against," Williams said. "You see the guy driving toward you and you just say, 'Oh, no, anybody but him.' Then you feel the crunch."
Because Barkley is so big, so agile, so intimidating and so gifted, and able to play forward and the pivot, he is ideal in many ways for international basketball, in which a well-placed elbow can be as important as a good jump shot.
This is no one-week fluke. In the past college season, Barkley averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds per game and shot 64 percent from the field. He was the Southeastern Conference player of the year. He started the season at 258 pounds, and after an undetermined number of pizzas finished at 272 pounds or so.
Barkley, a little concerned how Olympic Coach Bob Knight might feel about his weight, called him about 10 days before the trial.
"He called and asked how much I wanted him to weigh when he came in," Knight said. "I didn't tell him . . . because I wanted him at about 215 pounds."
Knight, asked if he ever had a fat player, said, "Not for long."
Barkley's weight and early reputation for poor work habits worried Auburn Coach Sonny Smith.
"I was afraid his reputation would hurt his chances for making the team," Smith said, "Which is why I was reluctant to join in the talk about his weight and his eating. His attitude has improved."
At least in this week's evening scrimmages, Barkley seemed to play hard consistently.
"He was never a bad kid--just a kid who wouldn't work," Smith said. "This year is the first time we reached any kind of understanding. Earlier, Charles and I had some very hard times.
"I wanted to coach the hard-line, disciplined way: shirt tucked in, short hair, mouth shut. But after a while, I realized it was stifling him. He played harder when he didn't have to worry about his shirt, when he was giving high fives and blowing kisses to the fans."
Barkley had to make some concessions, too, like not taking outside jumpers, playing defense the way Smith wanted and concentrating for more than five minutes at a stretch.
Smith knows Barkley's size makes for great attention--"I think Charles boosts his weight if it improves the interview," he said, laughing. But Smith also knows that although Barkley's percentage of body fat is a remarkably low 13 percent--about the same as Auburn's world-class sprinter, Harvey Glance--the knees can stand only so much weight.
Smith is also in a strange situation. He hopes Barkley will make the team and play well, but realizes making the team might mean Barkley will pass up his final year of eligibility to play pro basketball.
Barkley hasn't said whether he will return to college. He would rather talk about how he grew from 5-10 and 225 pounds to 6-5 in one summer before his senior year in high school, and how no school other than Snead Junior College was calling before he outplayed Bobby Lee Hurt, now a star at Alabama, in a Christmas tournament.
"One of my assistants called me and said, 'Sonny, you're not going to believe this, but there's a fat guy here who can play like the wind,' " Smith said. "And I said, 'You're right. I don't believe it.' "
But Barkley has become a cult hero. Fans hate when he's taken out of the game.
In Assembly Hall Saturday night, two of Barkley's game-high 19 points came when he took down a defensive rebound, dribbled down court, behind the back and into 6-8 Mark Alarie, who slid off the court and nearly into the band.
Barkley, realizing he just might have committed an offensive foul, looked at the official. When the referee made no call. Barkley lifted his 280-plus pounds off the ground and rolled an 18-foot jumper off his hands, which aren't big enough to palm the ball, but as Smith says, are "soft enough to catch a bullet."
Alarie, trying to get back into the play, hacked Barkley across the arms. But he never felt a thing. The jumper was good. Barkley made the free throw for a three-point play.