Posted: Wed February 20, 2013 11:48AM; Updated: Wed February 20, 2013 3:52PM
Jack McCallum

Charles Barkley reflects on Michael Jordan, Dream Team and more

Charles Barkley talks Jordan, Dream Team and more (cont.)

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Charles Barkley turned 50 on Feb. 20
Hall of Famer Charles Barkley is considered one of the greatest players to never have won an NBA title.
John W. McDonough/SI

A strange thing happened this week. The noise surrounding something that happened to someone else drowned out the noise of something that happened to Charles Barkley.

Charles has a noisy life. He speaks, loudly and emphatically, and America takes it all in and responds in kind, loudly and emphatically. But the occasion of Charles turning 50 (which happened Wednesday) was in fact almost lost in the national -- nay, international -- attention devoted to the 50th birthday of his good buddy, Michael Jeffrey Jordan on Sunday.

Frankly, I was surprised at the attention given to Jordan's birthday, though I guess nothing about Jordan should surprise me anymore. And it's understandable why it got so much more attention than the Barkley milestone: There has never been a hero with the stature of Jordan -- we can argue Muhammad Ali, I guess, but he came along before the age of global communication -- and the memories of Jordan on the court are certainly more vivid than those of Charles, whose career overlapped almost exactly with Michael's, excepting the two seasons Jordan spent as a Washington Wizard.

[50 reasons we'll never forget Michael Jordan]

Don't ever drink beer with Larry Bird. You'll be carried home. I was.
Charles Barkley

In the years since their retirement, though, Barkley has attained a cultural currency that almost no one, not even Jordan, can match through his weekly appearances on TNT's NBA coverage, and frequent TV and radio interviews.

I've talked to and written about Charles many times. To celebrate his 50th, I excavated my interview with him that I did for Dream Team. Some of this was covered in that book, but a lot of it wasn't.

Our conversation took place at a Phoenix restaurant, where our dinner was interrupted only, oh, 50 times or so by people who wanted to talk to Charles. It goes without saying that he is among the most approachable celebrities who ever lived.

SI: When you got back from Barcelona and the Dream Team, you and Jordan had an epic battle in the 1993 Finals. What do you remember about that?

Charles Barkley: At that time I had superior confidence. I knew no one could stop me. I could do whatever I wanted to. So going into the Finals, I'm telling myself, "I am the best f---ing player in the world."

In Game 1, we couldn't make a shot and we lost. I went home that night and my daughter said to me, "Daddy, are you all gonna win this thing?" And I said, "Guaranteed." We couldn't make anything [the Suns shot 44.4 percent, 40-of-90, from the floor] and we were in it.

So Game 2 ... I had like 42 and Michael had 48 [actually, Jordan had 42, too] and when I got home that night my daughter was crying. And I said, "Baby, that guy's better than me. I'm not sure we can win this thing." I wasn't conceding -- I was just being honest.

That son of a b---- Michael? He always made a play when he had to.

[Photo Gallery: Rare Photos of Charles Barkley]

But after the Finals [Jordan's Bulls did beat Barkley's Suns in a six-gamer that is among the best NBA Finals ever], there was no doubt in my mind that I was the second-best player in the world.

SI: Those were great Phoenix teams you were on, some of the best never to have won a title. Why do you think it worked out so well for you there?

Barkley: My only regret was that I didn't get to Phoenix a couple years earlier because I would've had more in the tank. I dragged a lot of dead weight up and down the court for eight years in Philadelphia. The game is always easier when you play with better players. I was a much better individual player in Philly than I was in Phoenix, but when I got Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson, I had more team success. I tell you what, the game is only hard when you have to drag sorry motherf------ up and down the court every night.

SI: You and Michael were always pretty close. It seemed like you were the guy he needed, the guy who said stuff in public that he could never say. But you got on each other pretty hard.

Barkley: We still do. It always starts out at good ribbing. You can always tell when you're getting under his skin. I mean, Michael ... he can be such an a------ at times. But when you start cracking on him, he always had the one line: "Hey, you never won anything."

Charles Barkley talks with Michael Jordan
"If Michael Jordan was a damn plumber he couldn't get a date," Barkley (right) said of his former rival. "Any guy got $500 million looks good."
John W. McDonough/SI

SI: What could you get on Michael about?

Barkley: That's easy. He is so damn black. And he's not the best-looking guy in the world. Why do all these women think he's good-looking? If Michael Jordan was a damn plumber, he couldn't get a date. Any guy got $500 million looks good.

SI: You and Larry Bird could go at it, too. What did you get on him about?

Barkley: That's easy, too. He ain't the best-looking guy in the world either. We used to call the Celtics the ugliest team in NBA history. [Kevin] McHale, [Robert] Parish and Bird? Damn.

[12 things you might not know about Charles Barkley]

SI: Talk a little bit about how you got into commentating? Or whatever it is you do every Thursday night.

Barkley: See, I was going to NBC. They had basketball when I retired. But I did a favor for a friend in Philly, Steve Moscow, who ran SONY Pictures in L.A. He said, "Do me a favor and just talk to Mark Lazarus at TNT." So we went to dinner.

Mark asked me, "What do you think of our show?" And I said, "You all suck. You don't have any fun. The players make a lot of money and the announcers make a lot of money, so how can you make the fans enjoy the game? That should be your goal. All these announcers take themselves too seriously. We're not curing cancer, we're not po-licemen."

And Mark says, "You think you can do that? Make the show fun?"

And I say, "I know I can." So I signed. And I tell you what ... one of the worst days of my life was telling [NBC's top sports executive] Dick Ebersol that I was going to TNT. He was the person who had first talked to me about getting into broadcasting

SI: Would you have been the same person on NBC?

Barkley: Honestly, that's what I wasn't sure of. I just didn't know. But I knew I could have fun on TNT, so that's why I signed there.

SI: Do you regret anything you ever said on TNT?

Barkley: No. I've said some dumb things. But you know what? I think people know the difference between being mean-spirited and trying to make a joke and being honestly wrong. I think people are smarter than the sports writers and other jerks who criticized me.

SI: Is that why you've reached the point where you can say almost anything? Very few people get there.

Barkley: I trust the people more than I trust the media. When I call somebody a midget, clearly I'm not trying to insult f---ing midgets. I'm just using basketball terminology.

I'll say it on the record: I was better than Karl [Malone]. He was great. I was better.
Charles Barkley

SI: I hear you. Just so you know, though, not everyone can do that.

Barkley: My hope and dream is that people have a good time watching basketball. And something else: I think people respect the fact that I don't have a hidden agenda. I will criticize Kobe Bryant as much as I'll criticize some unknown guy. One of the reasons I hate the media is this double standard. [I keep reminding Charles that I'm the media, too.] They think, "He's a nice guy, so he's going to get away with doing the same thing a bad guy did." I don't believe you get a pass.

SI: It is somewhat amazing that as a broadcaster you've eclipsed your fame as a player.

Barkley: It's the power of TV. It's scary sometimes. People think if they see someone on TV, it's God's voice. No, no, it might be an a------ who said it.

SI: Turning to basketball ... how did you get done what you got done at your size?

Barkley: Nobody can be a Hall of Fame player without talent, but, with me, I'm going more on will and desire. When they said I was too short to play forward, that s--- motivated me. People said I was too short, too fat, too whatever. And look at my stats. I averaged nine rebounds in college for three years and the most points I averaged was 12.

[That sounded way too low, and I looked it up later. Turns out he wasn't far wrong. In Barkley's three years at Auburn, he averaged 14.8 points and 9.6 rebounds. But he shot 68 percent from the field, which is extraordinary, even with a lot of dunks, and he also had 1.7 blocked shots per game.]

One of the things about my game, though, was that I could do all my stuff on my own. I think I'm in the top 20 of players of all time. You take Karl [Malone] -- he needed John Stockton. That's not a knock on Karl. I didn't need a point guard. I could get mine any time I wanted to.

I'll say it on the record: I was better than Karl. He was great. I was better. The only thing he could do better than me was score and that came down to John Stockton.

But Karl was my best friend on the Dream Team. He used to call me all the time and ask me to go hunting.

"What are we going after?" I'd ask.

"Mountain lion and bear," Karl would tell me.

"Damn, can't we hunt something that can't f---ing kill us?" Hell, no, I would never consider going.

[Obviously, we talked about the Dream Team experience a lot, and it's in the book. But I leave you with this final Barkleyism.]

SI: Tell me one thing you learned from being on the Dream Team.

Barkley: That's easy. Don't ever drink beer with Larry Bird. You'll be carried home. I was.

Jack McCallum is the author of Dream Team and the Sports Illustrated Book of the Apocalypse.

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