Somehow, in the last decade or so, we've become obsessed with dividing the world of sports into winners and losers. Our sole means of measuring has often been to look at a person's hands and count the number of rings on their fingers. By this standard, Charles Barkley's place in NBA annals is locked up. Because of a career-ending knee injury Wednesday, he's now either a loser or, at best, not quite a winner.
Just last month, Scottie Pippen--a winner by the good luck of long association with Michael Jordan--lashed out at Barkley, accusing him of being selfish, fat and an altogether unsuitable teammate for a proven winner such as himself. Barkley was struck silent. In recent years, he has been brainwashed by his buddies--Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan--into buying the bromide that The Ring answers every question. And that the absence of one is damningly eloquent, too.
Long ago, when he was still thinking clearly on this subject, I asked Barkley about The Ring Thing. "I'd be a fool to walk up to Dan Marino and say, 'Hey, you haven't won a Super Bowl. You're a loser,' " said Barkley. "You should never let a sporting event dictate your self-worth."
Hopefully, Chuck will keep that in mind for the next 50 years or so in retirement. Some of us think that there are multiple definitions for "winner." And he's one of them.
More than any athlete in recent times, and perhaps as much as any athlete since Babe Ruth, Barkley was a human party. His wife calls their home "Hotel Barkley." "I love to play basketball. I love to have fun. And I love to say what's on my mind," he once told me. And every day, he made sure he hit the trifecta.
From his shaved head to his hell-raising grin or profound scowl, he dominated the horizon like a one-man weather system. Will the sun shine? Or is a Barkley storm brewing? That he might say anything was a given. That he might do anything was also a distinct, but unsettling, possibility.
Who else ever picked on the biggest guys--fighting both Bill Laimbeer and Shaquille O'Neal. Yet Charles also spit on a little girl (while aiming at an adult) and made fun of a skinny Angolan at the Olympics after decking the guy with an elbow. "He probably hasn't eaten in weeks," quipped Barkley, taking his long-established political incorrectness to an international stage.
Barkley packed a gun in his glove compartment for years, punched drunken hecklers in bars and ripped refs regardless of huge fines. Many years ago, he vowed that he would "never, never, ever" stop his feud with official Mike Mathis. True to form, just last week, Barkley was fined $20,000 for saying, "We lost the game because of one reason--Mike Mathis."
What made Barkley most fascinating, perhaps, was the enormous gap between his ferocious image on one hand and everything else about him on the other--his twinkling humor, his spontaneous generosity, his honesty and wisdom on important issues. Everybody else's story intrigued him, even though his story was the best.
Despite his intolerance of racist hecklers, he was the most patient of superstars with ordinary fans. Just to cross a street might cost him 50 autographs. But he didn't complain. Barkley insisted on living an almost normal live--taking no celebrity detours. He enjoyed people so much, and felt so at home in a mob, that he seemed to live in a constant moving bubble of laughter.
As a player, Barkley's defining characteristic was hunger. He wanted the pressure, the fame, the wealth, the public stage and, most important, the ball itself, more than anybody else.
"There no greater pain to me than being poor. I've been poor," said Barkley, raised by his mother and grandmother, both maids, in Leeds, Ala. "Seeing something that you want and can't have, to me that's serious pain."
To get what he wanted, he endured pain and inflicted it like no other basketball player his size has. Only two other men ever had 20,000 points, 12,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists--Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. They were 7 feet 2 and 7-1. Barkley was 6-4 1/2. Will there ever be another rebounder so short who was so great? "Never be another. Ever. Ever," he said.
"I beat on people. I intimidate people. I'll endure more pain than they will. . . . I realize that when I'm in my late forties and fifties, I won't be able to walk," said Barkley, who liked to prepare himself for battle by butting heads--sans helmets--with teammate Rick Mahorn before games. Toughness was the virtue he respected most in foes. The first time Barkley played against Alonzo Mourning, he said: "All Alonzo did was beat on me, kick me and curse me to my face every time I tried to say something nice to him. He's got the worst attitude I ever saw in a rookie. . . . Alonzo's going to be great. I love his game."
The core of Barkley game was his 252-pound physique. In college, exposed to unlimited food for the first time, he gained 100 pounds and became known as the Crisco Kid, Food World, Boy Gorge and the Round Mound of Rebound. But as a pro, he found discipline and became the chiseled Square Bear of Mid-Air. Once, an NBA masseur told me, "Charles's thighs are as big as Stanley Roberts's [a 7-foot, 285-pound center]. But Stanley's are like mush. Charles's legs are like rocks."
As a trash talker, Barkley claimed to be the king. Of sainted Larry Legend, he said, "As long as Bird is around I'll only be the second-worst defensive player in basketball." Once, in a huddle, he told teammates to let him isolate on mouthy Chuck Person. "Let me torture him," leered Barkley. However, like Lee Trevino in golf, Barkley would admit in private that if he didn't yak constantly under pressure, he feared "I wouldn't have anything to think about except the pressure."
Barkley endured his final injury as might be expected--stoically. He showed no pain sitting on the floor, thinking, he said, "It's over." Appropriately, his mother and grandmother were in the crowd in tough, tangy Philly where they still love him. After crying "a lot" in the locker room, Barkley met the media. You think the last word would go to anybody else? "Well, guys," he began, "I guess sex is definitely out of the question tonight."
Once, I thought Barkley would be one of the players who would miss the game and the attention so much that retirement might be hard. Now, I doubt it. I began by believing he was a needy show-off. I ended by thinking he was an insightful man, living in a tense but peaceful coexistence with his own wild streak, who simply loved life so much that he couldn't bear to live it under wraps.
Back when I still had my doubts about his makeup, I asked if he really thought it was wise for him to have a gun permit since more people get killed with their own guns, in accidents or suicides, than by all other guns combined.
"I won't kill myself," he promised. "I'm one of my favorite people."
That how lots of us feel about Barkley, ring or not. Everybody wants to be like Mike. Which is okay. But some of us would secretly prefer to have the luck to be like Chuck.