The fascinating question is how Barkley acquired what Johnson calls "diplomatic immunity," carte blanche to speak his mind. "I think it's because his softer side is well known," says Johnson.
Barkley thinks it's because he's consistent. "You know I'm going to praise you if you do good, and I'm gonna criticize you if you do bad," he says. Whatever it is, his likability index is off the charts. The in-your-face attitude that wasn't always accepted when he was an overpaid jock is O.K. now that he's an overpaid talking head, a one-man vox populi.
Barkley has beaucoup postgame invitations and finally lands at a South Beach club called Crobar, where he falls off the wagon with a thud, drinking a concoction—blessedly unnamed since no one else in Western civilization has ever ordered it—of Merlot, ginger ale and ice. Even as an imbiber, Charles is an original.
Barkley Rarely makes a major decision without consulting some component of his war council of Jordan, Woods, Roy Green, Ahmad Rashad and Quinn Buckner. He solicited a few of their opinions about whether he should don shackles for the cover of this magazine. He also asked Maureen. No one thought it was a good idea. But here, big as life, is Barkley Bound. He is asked what the image means to him.
"There is a great differential between how you're treated when you're black and how you're treated when you're white," he says before climbing into his chains on a Miami rooftop. "Any time something bad happens to a black person because of racism, I feel it in my soul. I really do. You take the Abner Louima case. That let me know one thing: If some white guys wanted to stick a plunger up a black guy's butt, and I'm the black guy who happened to be around, I'd have a plunger up my butt.
"Look, I'd be crazy if I didn't realize it's different for me most of the time because I have money and a platform and fame," he says. "And once you get those things, you have to stand up, because poor black people—poor people of any color—can't stand up for themselves. I was having dinner with Ramsey Lewis one night, and he told me something I never forgot. 'When you get to the top,' he said, 'don't forget to send the elevator back down.' Well, I'm sending the elevator back down. That's my goal."
Barkley gets into the chains, his broad face breaking into a grin when the shackles are on. "I bet you're all thinking how funny it would be if you went to lunch and left me here," he says. "Course when I finally got loose, I'd hunt all your asses down."
The afternoon sun finally peeks out, and Barkley's oiled-up skin glistens with sweat. He grows quiet, looks down at his chains, and for a moment you forget how funny he is and remember how far he has come. Brought up poor and fatherless by a mother and a grandmother who worked as domestics, Barkley says he never would have made it out of Leeds if not for basketball, might have faced a fate like that of his younger brother, Darryl, a former drug addict who needs a heart transplant and needs it soon. No one else in Barkley's family is particularly athletic; his mother insists there was something magical in the blood transfusion he received as a baby because he was born severely anemic. Another glance and you remember that countless black men, loud and proud men, have been bound and silenced by racism and poverty. How lucky we are that such a fate did not befall this one.