"You think I want to be governor?" he says. "But I have to think about running. I want to be able to tell people that there's no difference between white folks and black folks. We've got the same hopes and dreams. We're in this together, and we can't let the bulls—- get to us." Even if Alabamians would eventually be scared off by a man who has Spike Lee on speed-dial, oh what a campaign it would be, with Barkley touching all the hot-button issues in all the hot-button ways. Last week three topics were really bugging him: Enron, Lewinsky's TV special and "that crazy bitch in Houston who killed her kids." As regards the first, Barkley is more upset at the congressional investigation than he is with the white-collar misdeeds. "Almost all those politicians took money from Enron, and there they are holding hearings," he says. "That's like O.J. Simpson getting in the Rae Carruth jury pool."
On most Wednesday and Thursday evenings Barkley is what you might call "Sprewell late" to the TNT studio—later than the pooh-bahs might like but comfortably in time for tip-off. But when he walks in on this unusually cold February night, it's as if the electricity is suddenly turned on in the building; his smorgasbord of insults signals the official beginning of the evening. "I finally decided on the right diet for you, T.K.," Barkley says to producer Tim Kiely. "The Illusion Diet. You got no chance of ever getting thin, so what you gotta do is start hanging around with fat people, give the illusion that you're skinnier." Barkley discovers that his broadcasting buddy, Ernie Johnson, the underrated glue of the show, is not feeling well. He feigns concern. "Get me ajar of Vaseline, Ernie," says Barkley, "and I'll stick my finger up your butt to find out what's wrong." Barkley's cell phone rings. He checks caller ID. "It's my son," he says, just before saying hello to Tiger Woods.
The TNT studio show is so absurdly good that the reasons for its success shouldn't be dissected. It can be compared, one supposes, with Fox's NFL pregame show, but the easy affability of Barkley, Johnson and Kenny Smith seems less forced than the testosterone-laced assault sent out on autumn Sunday afternoons. As in most good things that appear to come easily, there is much work involved in pulling off this show, but by and large that work is not done by Barkley. Johnson is usually in his office by nine on the morning of a show and stays at least an hour after the broadcast to roam the Internet for stats and tips, and Smith spends much preshow time in the control room watching action around the league. Barkley, after he arrives, invariably checks out The West Wing or scours one of the 21 monitors for something other than hoops, but his TV instincts are unerring. When he catches a glimpse of the horrible gray-and-white-checked sport coat worn by Houston Rockets commentator Calvin Murphy, Barkley leaps to his feet. "What the f—is Calvin wearing tonight?" he says. "Lord save the man." He dashes out of the room to make sure his producers put up a shot of Murphy during the show.
Except for special gags—twin manicurists visiting Barkley on his 39th birthday, Mike Fratello delivering soup to Johnson, a taped challenge to Barkley from the members of the U.S. women's curling team because Charles had referred to their sport as "dusting"—nothing in the Halftime Report is scripted. The show works partly because Smith and Barkley squirrel away good lines and spring them as live surprises. Smith is himself a former NBA player who often sticks it to Barkley about the "glare from my championship rings" (Barkley is among those elite former players who never won a championship), yet Smith doesn't seem to mind that 99% of the attention, from both insiders and outsiders, is directed at Barkley. "A team can have only one MVP," he says, "and Charles is ours."
For all the free-form talk about everything in the world, the show ultimately works because the men come across as three guys who love watching hoops together. Smith, a former point guard, provides the limited X's and O's component. Barkley's reactions are immediate and visceral and carry the weight of a 16-year career during which he averaged 22.1 points and 11.7 rebounds and was voted one of the top 50 players of all time. As he gets ready to go on, he catches a glimpse of Carter passing the ball to Keon Clark instead of taking a potentially game-winning shot. "Do you believe this motherf——— pussy!" he hollers. He stands up and charges out of the control room. "Hey, Kenny. Kenny! You see this s—?"
The show over, Barkley spots a production assistant, a young woman who has a new boyfriend. "What's up for you tonight, honey?" Barkley says. "You making a booty call?" She blushes and punches him on the arm. The best thing about Barkley is not that he makes X-rated comments to a colleague like Johnson, it's that he takes the time to make a PA feel like an R-rated part of the team.
Around noon the next day Barkley is in a cab heading for a small airport in Atlanta, where he will board a private jet for Miami. Twice a season TNT sends its prize threesome to broadcast a game live. Johnson, Smith and various production people are already on the ground in Miami, having taken a 10 a.m. commercial flight. Barkley pays about $500,000 a year to a charter service and usually flies by private jet.
He reaches for his cell and speed-dials a man only hours removed from arthroscopic knee surgery. There are few people in the world Barkley respects more than Michael Jordan. They are great friends, and a smile often comes to Jordan's face when he talks about Barkley. At the same time it's indisputable that Barkley was much more enthusiastic about the prospect of coming back to join Jordan on the Wizards than Jordan was about having him. Jordan always qualified his comments about Barkley's potential return with "as long as he gets in shape." Barkley, for his part, says, "You can't believe the joy and pride I felt when Michael asked me to come back with him. It meant everything to me."
But now His Airness is a 39-year-old man facing an uncertain future. "Whassup, boy?" Barkley says after Jordan—it's a safe bet that he checked caller ID—picks up. "How you feeling?" It's obvious that Jordan doesn't feel great ("He in pain," Barkley will confide later), and he turns the conversation to Barkley. "Hell, yeah, I'm good," Barkley says. "I'm working out, not drinking, getting my fat ass in shape. I'm too good-looking to be fat." There's a moment of silence on Barkley's end. "Hell, yeah, I'll bet you. We'll go five hundred. Yeah, I'll do it. No, not on TV. I'll do it after I work out today. I'll check in with yo' ass later. All right, boy, be safe."
Jordan has bet Barkley that he still weighs more than 290 pounds. Barkley believes that he's as low as 285, 14 pounds below the figure at his TNT weigh-in six weeks earlier. At home and on the road he has been working out like a madman, sometimes four to five hours a day, spread over two sessions. He looks good, keeps fried food out of his diet, eats lots of fruit and, with a soon-to-be-noted exception, stays away from alcohol. He tells everyone it's because he doesn't want to be fat, but the truth is, until Jordan's recent surgery, Barkley hadn't completely abandoned his plans to come back. Barkley swears that even at 285, he could've averaged between 15 and 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds a game. "All those plans got smacked in the head when Michael went under the knife," says Barkley, who turned 39 three days after Jordan. "If Michael can't make it back, no one can."