Work in Sports
Legend of Sir Charles
Bad boy became elder statesman in 16-year career
PHILADELPHIA (CNNSI.com) -- As he rode off toward the visitors' locker room at the First Union Center, Charles Barkley quipped, "Just what America needs, one more unemployed black man."
The statement could have been deemed racially derogatory, but was considered just another case of Charles being Charles. But that's the irony of Charles Barkley. The world caught up to Sir Charles, who went from NBA bad boy and a regular in David Stern's detention hall to a league elder and Stern's ideal role model for Generation Next.
That transformation is as ironic as Barkley riding off in a golf cart, his future sports vehicle of choice, or starting his last game as a pro in Philadelphia, where his pro career began.
"It was supposed to happen like this," Barkley said. "It was supposed to end in Philadelphia. I really believe that in my heart."
While his heart may have chosen the right location, the exact nature of the finish was something better suited for one of his worst nightmares. Yet, typical of Barkley, there was no happy ending to his final year, just hard reality. Less than eight minutes into the first quarter, Barkley, fighting for position on a rebound, fell awkwardly to the floor, rupturing the quadriceps tendon in his left knee. He sat on the floor looking at his injured knee, but saying nothing (yet another irony). He left the floor, hobbling on his one good leg, to a standing ovation from Philadelphia fans, who chose to remember the heroic Barkley over the bitter one who split in 1993.
Back in 1984, when the Sixers chose Barkley with the fifth overall pick in the NBA Draft, he was far from the gallant Sir Charles whose every word filled reporters' notebooks and caused such a stir that the media felt the need to create the "All-Interview Team." In those days, he simply created a stir. He was the anti-Erving. He didn't fly through the air like Philly's incumbent hero, Julius Erving. He didn't speak in niceties like Erving. He didn't even have a graceful nickname like Dr. J.
When Barkley came to Philadelphia, he was known by the far less flattering moniker "The Round Mound of Rebound," earned at Auburn. His physical stature, 6-foot-4 and 7/8 of an inch (6-6 in media-guide speak) and 270-plus pounds (he finished his career at a relatively sleek 252 pounds -- again media-guide weight), drew comparisons to Washington Bullets' brickhouse center Wes Unseld.
Little did the pro scouts realize just how much more there was to the package.
The same can be said of the media.
"He wasn't as outspoken at Auburn, but that's only because he didn't get interviewed that much," said Sonny Smith, his college coach.
Both perceptions would soon change.
Barkley would continue to pull down rebounds, but he would also prove to be a better-than-advertised offensive performer who could just as easily nail the jumper from the top of the key as overpower opponents in the post.
He was never put in the same class as Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon, both taken before him in '84, yet neither can boast Barkley's prolific diversity. In fact, only Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can, as they are the only players in NBA history -- besides Barkley -- to amass 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. [Editor's Note: Karl Malone has since joined the group.]
What Jordan and Olajuwon have that Barkley does not, however, is a championship ring. He came so close, especially in 1993, when as MVP of the league he brought the Phoenix Suns to the precipice. But the greatness of Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls shattered that dream. Not even his two Olympic gold medals could fill the void. Yet, although disappointed, Barkley has declared over and over that it isn't the tragedy the media has made it out to be.
"I don't begrudge people two things: I don't begrudge championships, and I don't begrudge guys that make a lot of money," he said.
Barkley may not have left a championship legacy, but he did leave one behind the microphone. His quick mind and sharp tongue will be tough to replace, even with the bumper crop of trash-talkers in today's NBA. Today's youngsters can talk smack, but they're no Charles Barkley.
Possibly the most quotable athlete of the 20th century whose last name wasn't Ali, Barkley would give you his take on anything and everything. There was a catch: You'd better be prepared for the hard truth according to Charles.
But he also could leave you laughing, even if with a wince. At his trial for throwing a man through a window at an Orlando night club in 1997, Barkley expressed his one regret to the judge: "I regret we weren't on a higher floor."
"I've done some good things, some bad things, some stupid things, some funny things, but so has everybody else," Barkley said. "Mine have just been in the limelight."
So what does Sir Charles do now to stay in the limelight or to simply keep busy?
Television seems the natural next step. The night after his career-ending injury, Barkley, while receiving a standing ovation in Boston, jokingly laid claim to Ernie Johnson Jr.'s seat on the panel of TNT's Inside the NBA.
While E.J.'s seat seems safe (can the same be said of Peter Vecsey's?), there seems no doubt that Barkley will end up behind a microphone somewhere.
When asked what her son's future holds, his mother, Charcey Glenn, said, "Charles can probably do whatever he wants to do."
That may even include a run for governor in his home state of Alabama, his stated goal of a couple of years ago. (Wouldn't it be great to see Barkley in a televised debate?) If politics doesn't work out, he could complete a karmic cycle by returning to the NBA in a management position.
"I would love to be a GM if somebody offered that to me," said Barkley.
Be careful what you ask for, Charles.