It is 6:30 a.m. when the potential Alabama gubernatorial candidate arrives at an Atlanta hotel, registering under the name of a prehistoric cartoon character, an alias that has replaced his old favorite, Homer Simpson. It has been a long day and night. He has played 18 holes of golf, uncoiling (far too often) his burly torso into a frightening full-body yip that one of his playing partners, former NFL wide receiver Roy Green, likens to "a dog taking a piss." He has lifted weights and ridden the stationary bike for two hours, part of an ongoing effort to keep his weight below 300 pounds. He has flown from darkness to dawn on a red-eye from his home in Arizona, a flight that included an unscheduled stop in Dallas for a medical emergency. He has tossed out a few dozen opinions and elicited a few dozen smiles, including one from the flight attendant to whom he said, "Women should be home taking care of babies." Now he's shouting a hearty "Hello, girl!" to the woman behind the hotel desk. "Before I knew him," she confides, "I thought he was just a big shot with a big mouth. But he's the nicest man in the world."
Charles Wade Barkley drags his bags toward the elevator that will take him to his top-floor suite. He will sleep just a few hours, as usual, and by 11 a.m. will be pedaling a bike in the hotel workout room, drawing stares from a septuagenarian treadmiller.
"I want you to think about this before you go to bed," he tells his bleary-eyed traveling companion, picking up the thread of a conversation that began on the plane. "Sports are a detriment to blacks, not a positive. You have a society now where every black kid in the country thinks the only way he can be successful is through athletics. People look at athletes and entertainers as the sum total of black America. That is a terrible, terrible thing, because that ain't even one tenth of what we are." He steps into the elevator and pushes the button for his floor. "And by the way," he adds, "that is the sorriest-ass suitcase any white man has ever traveled around with."
The question to ponder about Charles Barkley is this: Can a man this funny really have anything serious on his mind? Or maybe it's this: Are we willing to listen if he does? In his role as the supersized boiling teapot of TNT's Halftime Report, maybe the best studio sports show ever, he has called Monica Lewinsky a "skank" (twice for good measure), hinted that Barbara Walters is ugly, summed up former Washington Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton and Al Gore as "two losers who live right up the street from each other," said Vince Carter ought to "shut up and take two Advils" when the Toronto Raptors star complained of a headache after a tumble, repeatedly trashed the lineup of games on his own network, not to mention the movies that followed, and opined that the Dallas Mavericks' Wang Zhizhi should not be permitted to play in the NBA until China returned that captured U.S. spy plane. Off the air he is even better.
It was about six years ago that Barkley, contemplating the end of a basketball career that will surely land him in the Hall of Fame, first spoke of running for governor of Alabama as a Republican. It seemed like a joke, but that was before an eye-gouger was elected to shepherd the great state of Minnesota and before Barkley, now in the second year of a two-year, $2 million deal with TNT, grabbed a public forum, one that should expand next season. To re-sign Barkley, TNT will almost certainly have to offer a role that goes beyond the studio. Hip-hop veejay? Alternative-sports-show maven? Talking (Milk Dud) head, the parenthetical being his own description of his vast bald pate? Bring it on. Charles wants it. Charles can do it. Then, too, Barkley will start talking into a tape recorder for a book (written by The Washington Post's Michael Wilbon) tentatively titled I Might Be Wrong, but I Doubt It. It's Charles's world these days—we're all just living in it. He has somehow pulled off the neat trick of becoming more popular in mufti than he was in shorts and sneakers, and he was pretty damn popular back then.
But let's take a hard look at this governor thing. Citizen Barkley, a native of the small town of Leeds, Ala., would be a controversial African-American stumping for votes in a very Southern state. Somewhere along the campaign trail he would say something that would offend half the voters, and he sure as hell wouldn't apologize, and the campaign would combust in a blaze of front-page headlines. Anyway, he would have to abandon a life that is, at the moment, splendidly predictable. He works two days a week, and that's just about perfect. He has turned down countless offers to star in sitcoms or host talk shows, because that would get in the way of golf, which he plays four or five days a week year-round.
Still, Barkley insists he's "dead serious" about a run. He says he's had many conversations with Alabama Republican leaders and has not commissioned a poll only because any campaign is at least five years away. There is much skepticism in party circles about his commitment, but there is also excitement. "I've dreamed of Charles Barkley in the Republican Party here, at fund-raisers, going one-on-one with people," says Marty Connors, chairman of the state GOP. Adds Jabo Waggonner, a Republican state representative from Vestavia Hills, "What we're trying to do as Republicans is sell our ideals to the African-American community, and it would be huge to have Charles as an advocate."
Barkley is still under contract to Nike and recently filmed a commercial for Coors. He estimates his net worth at $35 million, a figure that goes up or down depending on his luck in Las Vegas. He bet more than $500,000 on the Patriots in the Super Bowl ( New England coach Bill Belichick is a close friend) at the Mandalay Bay Sports Book and walked away $1.2 million ahead. He's not always that fortunate, though, and he admits that "gambling is my vice, and I'll have to address it sometime in the future. But not now."
The ups and downs of his domestic life are more difficult to assess. His eyes darken when the question of interviewing his wife of 13 years, Maureen, is raised. "I keep my private life private," he says. Maureen politely declines an interview during a tour of the tastefully appointed Barkley mansion in Scottsdale. "Charles does enough talking for both of us," she says. But after at least one highly publicized separation, Charles and Maureen are definitely living together and doting on their 13-year-old daughter, Christiana. From the living room window one can see a backyard pool, a putting green and a guest house, "so no one like you will ever have to stay inside my real house," Charles says.
Could Barkley ever imagine leaving all this to cut ribbons, sign bills and preside over 8 a.m. staff meetings?