One easy way to rile up a roomful of middle-aged white guys is to suggest that Charles Barkley is a nice fellow. I witnessed this phenomenon on several occasions while speaking to some Rotary or booster club about the NBA stars I covered. Many fans never knew what to make of Barkley, whose 16-year career ended last week when he tore his left quadriceps tendon (page 64). He complained, told his bosses off, feuded with teammates and fans, pouted, acted boorish. But he also had a gift that's rare among superstar athletes—rare among people, in fact. He made you feel good when you were in his presence.
At a get-together before the 1992 Olympics, I introduced my family to most of the Dream Teamers, who were unfailingly polite but predictably distant. But Barkley sat down at our table, put my sons in a gentle choke hold, picked a shrimp or something off my plate and popped it into his mouth, and told my wife, Donna, that she seemed far too nice "to be stuck with a moron like Jack." At that moment he became Donna's favorite player—the only player she cared anything about.
A couple weeks later I was playing golf in Monte Carlo with Barkley, Clyde Drexler and another sports-writer when David Robinson joined us. Robinson had recently become a born-again Christian and was upset by our profanity. He politely asked Barkley to cease and desist. Barkley waited until Robinson stood over a drive. "David's right," he announced. "We're acting like a bunch off———a———."
Barkley's finest moments came later that summer in Barcelona, where on most evenings he would ramble onto Las Ramblas and Pied Piper his way from bar to bar, a throng of all ages in his wake. His teammates, remember, were ensconced in a first-class hotel under 24-hour security, their separatist celebrity a much-chronicled sore point during the Games. Charles's nocturnal excursions spread more goodwill in Barcelona than anything the Dream Teamers did on the court.
He also elbowed an Angolan player for no good reason in the U.S.'s opening game. That, too, was Charles. As he became frustrated by his inability to win a title, he criticized younger players for doing the same things he had done earlier in his career. But consistency is mandatory in a souffl�, not a human being. Nothing I'll ever do in this business will be as entertaining as covering Charles Barkley.