Somewhere along the line the "Colorful" Charles Barkley has become the "unbearable" Charles Barkley. There used to be a sense of anticipation whenever his name was mentioned, a chuckle at news of his latest contretemps. Which Philadelphia 76er teammate did he openly ridicule this time? What was it he said about Sixer owner Harold Katz? How blue were his comments to fans who were riding him?
Now it's different. The newswire carrying the Barkley Chronicles is still clack-clack-clacking away, but there are fewer and fewer interested readers. They've reached the saturation point. Barkley's ravings have become predictable, his misadventures downright boring—such as the 2:30 a.m. altercation outside a Milwaukee bar on Dec. 22 that resulted in misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct charges against him. He has pronounced his displeasure with the play of some of his teammates ("lazy"), the actions of his owner ("too cheap") and the attitudes of the citizenry of his city ("racist town"), and that's just for starters. All this has been building over the last few seasons to the point that a painfully difficult question hangs over the 76ers like a giant storm cloud: At what point arc a star player's on-the-court contributions outweighed by his negative actions off it?
There comes a time when an unhappy player—and there are busloads of them in every professional sport—is obligated to hold his tongue, curtail his questionable off-the-court activities and act responsibly as a representative of the franchise that is paying him lucratively—in Barkley's case, more than $3 million per year. Barkley has stepped, nay, leaped far over the comportment line, having forgotten (or never realized) that even larger-than-life Ruthian characters are professionals and thus expected to act professionally.
Barkley places himself among a select group of NBA superstars that includes Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and the retired Magic Johnson, and on the basis of talent, that is precisely where he belongs. Superstars are ultimately judged, as Barkley knows, by their ability to take their team to a championship. Magic and Bird arc marked down in indelible ink as the consummate winners of their generation, and when Jordan got the championship monkey oil his back last June, Barkley found himself as the only club member without a ring. It seemed to change him, to put sincere bitterness and disillusionment in place of the smile and the nudge in the ribs that used to be there. More discouraging, the Sixers aren't any closer to winning it all than they were when he joined them in 1984. The way Barkley views it, that means he's no closer to moving into the superstars' inner sanctum. That might be a selfish view of the world, but it's a realistic one. Though Barkley has said that he will not consider his career a failure if the 76ers never win a championship, there is no doubt that like all NBA players of his caliber, he wants to avoid that most depressing of career obituaries: He was a player with great physical talents, but he couldn't win the big one.
That is not an excuse for Barkley's tiresome behavior—the Utah Jazz has not made the NBA Finals, yet its stars, Karl Malone and John Stockton, do not routinely turn frustration into performance art, as Barkley does—but it is a reason. There are peripheral issues, too. The 76ers are truly a mixed bag of personalities and styles that only a mother could love, and Barkley's instincts will never be mistaken for maternal. He genuinely does not get along with Katz (no singular achievement, that) and has no special relationship with any of the Sixers' hierarchy, as, say, Magic does with Los Angeles Laker owner Jerry Buss and general manager Jerry West, or as Jordan does with Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Barkley is, like Hawaii, volcanic and very much an island.
But if Barkley wants to be held in the same high esteem as the other superstars, then he must take a lesson from them. Magic and Bird set high standards for their teammates and did a lot of butt-kicking along the way, but it was almost always behind the scenes, during practice sessions and away from prying eyes. Jordan, too, has played a central role in the Bulls" tempestuous moments, but he has done his best to keep the team's dissonance behind closed doors. He never lets his dissatisfaction with strategy or his teammates' play or the acrimony he feels toward general manager Jerry Krause overwhelm the team, as Barkley has done with his 76ers.
The long-range forecast in Philly calls for gloomy skies. Ironically, Barkley's individual brilliance generally keeps the Sixers from sinking low enough to qualify for a lottery pick in the NBA draft and perhaps getting another player whom Barkley would respect, and Katz frittered away the two lottery picks he had with bad deals. Barkley's teammates, understandably, are tired of being pincushions for his verbal darts. And Barkley's long-term contract keeps him from becoming a free agent at least until after the 1994-95 season. Trading Barkley to a contender, which Philly has discussed with a few teams in recent weeks, is the only way out. It would give Barkley a chance to win it all, give the other Sixers a chance to grow without his smothering presence and give fans a chance to once again appreciate a true original.
And if the 76ers can't make the deal? Tough. Lower the decibel level, Charles, get your act together off the court, and play ball with your teammates. There's a way to be candid, funny and engaging without being a jerk. But you already know that, because that's how you used to be.