I can't think of a professional athlete in the past 25 years who loved what he did more than Charles Barkley. I'm talking about all of it: the games, the fame, the riches, the camaraderie, the teammates, the opponents, the fights, the wins, the struggles, the controversy, the bumps and bruises, the five-hour red-eye flights, the room service at 3 a.m., the postgame sparring with reporters, the expectations, the carousing and rabble-rousing, the confrontations, the adoration. Nobody had a better time than Barkley, nobody, right through Wednesday night, when a serious knee injury brought one of the more fascinating basketball careers to a spectacular end.
He was undersized to play the way he did, but an oversized character off the court. He had no bodyguard, until the NBA forced him to get one toward the end. There was no entourage. His views were hard-edged and tough, sometimes unpopular, but always out there no matter what the marketing executives or league officials or conservative sponsors might have thought. We cringed in Barcelona when he joked that the Angolan basketball players carried spears; I smiled when he gave money to--and spent time with--the homeless people who slept along Las Ramblas in the middle of the night. Philadelphia sports columnist Bill Conlin says Barkley has a streak of generosity as wide as Philly's Schuylkill Expressway.
As a ballplayer, Barkley defied any and all rational explanation. Nobody--not Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan or Oscar Robertson--ever did what Barkley did. He was listed at 6 feet 6. That's a lie. He was 6-4 1/2. That's at least eight inches shorter than Wilt. But only Wilt had more points, rebounds and assists. If somebody told an NBA scout today, this minute, that a guy not quite 6-5 would score 25 points a game--most of them from down on the low block--and average a dozen rebounds a year for 16 seasons, he'd be fired.
During his early prime years with the 76ers, Barkley had to go against the likes of Boston's Kevin McHale (6-11), Detroit's Bill Laimbeer (6-11) and Rick Mahorn (6-10), the Knicks' Charles Oakley (6-9), Chicago's Horace Grant (6-10), Utah's Karl Malone (6-9) and New Jersey's Buck Williams (6-8). For 13 years, Barkley would square off against these guys and use mass, quickness and guile to get his team 25 points and 13 rebounds. Even in these last three seasons, with his scoring diminished, Barkley averaged 13.5, 11.7, and 12.3 rebounds, the stat most reflective of determination. His 11.7 career average is more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Patrick Ewing and Malone.
Everybody tries to imitate Jordan. Nobody tries to imitate Barkley. Too much punishment involved. He's a basketball original. Larry Johnson, about 6-6, looked like "the Next Barkley" for a few moments. But his body wasn't up to it; the pounding led to an injured back and forced him to change his game. Barkley increased his shooting range, but he lived in the mayhem under the glass for 16 seasons. It's fitting that the last play of his career was trying to block the shot of 6-9 Tyrone Hill. Even this season, nearing 37, he still sometimes could dominate the glass as if he were 27.
Of course, he still is retiring without a championship ring. He got palpably close just once: when he led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals in 1993 and lost to Jordan's Bulls in six games. Of course, this stripping-down of a man's career to the single issue of whether he won a championship is plain stupid. Would you contest Ted Williams's greatness? He never won a World Series. Would you argue Gale Sayers's greatness? He never played in a single NFL playoff game.
Here's the only thing wrong with Charles Barkley's NBA career: He was born at the wrong time. Coming into the world three days after Jordan in February 1963 wasn't great timing for a pro basketball player. Barkley's got the same affliction as Patrick Ewing and Oakley, Malone and John Stockton, Brad Daugherty and Mark Price, Chris Mullin, Buck Williams and Reggie Miller. They all had the great misfortune of coming along at the same time as the greatest player ever. If that's Barkley's only sporting sin, he's absolved.
But the best thing about Barkley is there are so many layers, so many things to debate and fight over: the "role model" commercial, the late-night brawls, the verbal assaults. He was a reporter's dream, an endless stream of compelling copy. Did you see Barkley's commercial, where he says he's not a role model? Did you hear what Barkley just said about interracial relationships? Did you hear Charles tell the devoutly religious A.C. Green, "Hey, A.C., if God's so good, why didn't he give you a jump shot?" There was the night of the NBA All-Star Game, at the start of the Gulf War, when Barkley donned a hat for the cameras that said, basically, "Screw Iraq." There was the night in Chicago, with his Suns facing elimination in the NBA Finals, when the Second City boarded up all the fancy storefronts to brace for the championship excess. Barkley's rallying cry for that one game was "Save the City," which he wrote on a blackboard in the visiting locker room. "I like Chicago," he told his teammates. "Let's make sure it doesn't burn." The Suns won Game 5 that night to force the series back to Phoenix.
I was fortunate to cover Barkley--a lot. I met him when he was a fat phenom at Auburn and nobody outside of Alabama knew who he was, and watched him grow into a citizen of the world. There's no better dinner companion anywhere. One night in a Phoenix restaurant, some sailors had too much to drink and one of them decided he was going to fight Barkley. Two or three others were poised to jump in. Barkley looked at me and said, "You ever been in a bar fight?" I told him no. He said, "Well, there's a first time for everything. Now, take off your glasses."
Then, Barkley probably decided the last thing he needed was to get into a brawl where his tag-team partner was a sportswriter. So he did the prudent thing. He charmed the guy and his drunken buddies. Signed autographs for them, posed for pictures with them, disarmed them completely. It didn't always go that smoothly, as we know. But it seemed to always be that exciting, that on the edge. Some of us find him irresistible, others find him objectionable, hardly anybody has ever ignored him or doubted the impression he has made on the culture of sports in America. It must be pretty good to be Charles Barkley.