In terms of athletic accomplishment, Barkley is far behind both of his good buddies Jordan and Woods—who isn't?—yet of the three it is Barkley who feels a restlessness of spirit, a desire to accomplish something beyond the sports arena. And sure enough, he is gathering populist momentum, his pied-piper charisma rising as he gets further away from the game he starred in but never really dominated. He is—dare we walk this plank?—almost Ali-like in his ability to move all kinds of people.
Ali is Barkley's idol. They met only once, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when they shared a quiet moment in the locker room of Dream Team II. "As close as I am to Michael," says Barkley, "Ali should've been ESPN's athlete of the century. It's not even close. Nobody, not even Jackie Robinson, was like Ali."
Barkley leans forward, warming to the subject. "Sure, Michael has a platform to speak out like nobody else. But he has a certain image, as a guy who's not outspoken, a guy who can get along with everybody. It's a great image, but there's no doubt he's stuck in it. Me? I don't worry about image, whatever that word means. I don't worry about always saying the right thing. Tiger doesn't like to speak out either. Look what they're doing at Augusta. They're lengthening the course for one reason: to hurt Tiger. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters six damn times, and he was hitting it past everybody else, and they never made a change. What they're doing to Tiger is blatant racism. Tiger wouldn't say it, but I got no damn problem saying it for him. We need black athletes to speak out. Michael could do it and Tiger could do it, but you have to be willing to be ridiculed. I'm willing to be ridiculed."
Playing the who's-doing-more-for-the-world game is dangerous. Jordan and Woods both have foundations and give away huge amounts of money. They've brought joy, hope and pride to African-Americans. Barkley works on a smaller and more personal scale. The Charles Barkley Foundation isn't even listed in the Alabama phone book; it's a one-man shop in the Birmingham office of Glenn Guthrie, Barkley's longtime financial adviser. It doesn't do much fund-raising or get much attention, which is how Barkley wants it. When it gave the Cornerstone Schools of Alabama and Barkley's two alma maters, Leeds High School and Auburn, $1 million apiece, the money came out of his pocket. Barkley wants to do more. Unlike Jordan and Woods, he wants to be our there. Barkley's dilemma is that he's having far too good a life to turn to politics full time, but politics is the arena in which people listen to what you say.
What Potential Candidate Barkley says, of course, is sometimes discomfiting. He swears that his Neanderthal beliefs about women are deeply held, based on his feeling that the family structure is disintegrating. One of his political heroes is Clarence Thomas, with whom he spent a day in Washington several years ago. The man he'd most like to meet is Colin Powell. (For the record, right behind Powell are Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton. He's already met "Old Bush" and likes him; "New Bush" he's not crazy about.) In an oft-quoted anecdote Barkley was scolded by his mother in 1988 when he told her he was considering a vote for Old Bush. "He'll only work for the rich people," she told him. "Mom," he answered, "I am rich." Barkley said the comment was made lightly and that he eschews political labels, but he's nevertheless a rock-ribbed Republican—Alan Keyes with monster ups, and no fan of Jesse Jackson.
"Jesse had his chance, but he hasn't done enough with it," says Barkley. "Instead of running for president, which was stupid because he wasn't going to win, he should've been trying to make social change in the black community, work on education, on stopping black-on-black crime, on all these teenage pregnancies. But no, he was too busy getting other women pregnant. He's a good speaker, but you can't speak it if you don't live it.
"We need influential black leaders. That's what I want to be. I've been given a special gift, and it's not just to have 50 million dollars in the bank when I die. I want to do something else, make a difference. I have to speak out, even if some people get pissed off at it. I don't think everybody's going to like me, and I don't think I'm right all the time. But I'm going to say what I feel and what I think."
The plane has landed in Miami. Barkley stares out at gunboat gray skies. "For some damn reason I've never had a good time down here," he says. "Maybe that will change tonight."
From the time Barkley arrives, at about 2 p.m. for an 8 p.m. tip-off between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks, he is Concern Numero Uno for TNT's various production and public-relations people. Get Charles out of the hotel gym. Get Charles into the shower. Get Charles to the lobby. Get Charles into the limo. Get Charles to AmericanAirlines Arena. By the time Barkley enters the arena, at about 7:15, Smith and Johnson have been there for an hour, meeting with coaches and getting game notes together, little things like learning names of players. ("Who is that?" Barkley will ask later when Heat reserve center Vladimir Stepania enters the game.) Get Charles away from the reporters. Barkley chats up the small army that greets him, spending most of the time ripping the Knicks. Get Charles hooked up next to Ernie and Kenny Whew!
The game is mediocre; the TNT threesome is terrific. At one point Barkley brings the conversation back to curling. "I'm still trying to get my grandmother off her old behind and into the Olympics," he says. "Why not? She can dust." The worse the game, the better Barkley is. He can talk about almost anything, criticize almost anybody, "straddle that line without going over it," as Turner Sports president Mark Lazarus puts it.