His first shot as a professional was a dunk, and that was a tremendous relief to Charles Barkley, a 21-year-old rookie forward for the Philadelphia 76ers, a plump kid from Auburn who had never averaged more than 16 points a game in his life. When he was drafted with the fifth pick in 1984, some thought he was too small to rebound in the pros, but Barkley, who measured 6'4¾" in his stocking feet, wasn't worried about that. He was terrified, however, that he might not be able to score. "My attitude going in was, I wanted to average 10 rebounds a game for 10 years and make a million dollars in one season," he said last Friday.
His friend Michael Jordan, picked two spots ahead of him by the Chicago Bulls, assured him there was a place for him in the NBA. They first drew close to each other during the 1984 Olympic trials. Barkley, mingling among players from highly regarded programs such as Georgetown and North Carolina, was intimidated by the talent. Jordan, after watching Barkley attack the glass with abandon and pound the ball up the floor like a point guard on steroids, wondered why. "I figured if they were on television, they had to be better than me," Barkley said. "But about halfway through, I called up [Auburn coach] Sonny Smith and told him, 'Coach, I'm just as good as these guys. All except one.' "
Already Jordan was special. He and Barkley played cards, drank beers, shot hoops, shared dreams. Barkley was cut; Jordan went on to win a gold medal. It was a pattern that would repeat itself through the long careers of these two elite athletes: Charles coming up just short, Michael hauling off the big prize.
On Dec. 8, in a game between his Houston Rockets and the Sixers, Barkley's glittering 16-year career was ended by a torn left quadriceps tendon, abruptly terminating what was supposed to be a yearlong farewell tour. In a lengthy interview with SI in Boston last week, Barkley expressed only one regret—that he didn't start lifting weights sooner. "Michael was always on me about it," Barkley said. "It was one of the few times I didn't listen to him."
His reflections on his basketball life are inextricably entwined with recollections of His Airness. Who knows how Barkley's career would have differed had he not played opposite the greatest player of all time? Barkley doesn't care. "Michael Jordan was the single biggest influence in my career," Barkley said. "He has been my closest friend since the day I started. He has been there for me in ways you could never understand, as a basketball player, a personal friend, a financial adviser."
When Barkley wore a garish sweater to a game early in his career, Jordan called him and told him to wear a suit, to be professional. "Are you trying to look like a basketball player or do you want to appeal to corporate America?" Jordan scolded. One day, when Michael read how much Nike was paying Sir Charles, he set Barkley straight again. "Insist on stock options," Jordan told him. "You don't need the cash right now. You've got plenty." Barkley took the advice, and, he says, it was worth millions in extra income.
What cemented their friendship, though, was their willingness to stand by each other during hard times. When Jordan was dogged by the details of his extensive gambling in 1992 and '93, Barkley was his most vocal supporter, both publicly and privately. When Barkley landed in jail for a few hours after heaving a bar patron through a glass window in Orlando in 1997, Jordan was the first to make contact, offering help and begging Barkley to hire a bodyguard. (He did.) When Michael received the call in 1993 telling him that his father, James, was dead, Charles was standing beside him while the two were on a West Coast golf outing.
The public never knew the depth of their friendship. They were an odd pair: Barkley living by the seat of his pants and telling the truth as he saw it, even though he knew the repercussions would be ugly; Jordan measuring his words, mindful of political correctness, always seeking to avoid controversy. Barkley abhorred the idea of being a role model; Jordan carefully crafted his life to become one. Though Barkley knows he often pinned the bull's-eye on his own back, it bothers him that the shots he took as a result may affect his place in NBA history. "I've done some stupid things," Barkley concedes. "But how does that diminish my game?"
The numbers don't lie. The kid who fretted about scoring averaged 22.2 points along with 11.7 boards in 1,072 games. He won the rebounding title in 1986-87, outfoxing men eight inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. He was an 11-time All-Star and, in 1992-93, the league's MVP. Three years ago he was named one of the game's 50 best players of all time. He, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in NBA history to have 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. In Barkley's ongoing game of one-upmanship with Jordan, that last distinction gives Charles one of his few chances to say Take that, Michael.
In the eyes of the public, Jordan was impeccably stylish, like a shiny new Jaguar; Barkley was a powerful pickup truck with all sorts of nicks and dings on the door. In 1991, when Barkley was a Sixer, a heckler at New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena made a racial comment, and Barkley exploded. He spit at the man but hit a little girl instead. "It was a watershed moment for me," Barkley said. "I sat in my hotel room that night thinking, Everyone in the f———world is going to hate me tomorrow."