Charles Barkley was ready for lunch. Breakfast was hours behind him, and as he walked out of the gym where the Philadelphia 76ers practice, dinner still lay somewhere over the horizon. Everything seemed to suggest lunch. Barkley was ready.
Though he owns a sleek new Porsche, on this raw, wintry day Barkley climbed into his four-wheel-drive Bronco and silently slipped it into gear. Everything was going smoothly until Barkley rolled up to a gate that someone had swung shut, a gate that was meant to make him turn around and go back the way he came. A gate that now stood squarely between Charles Barkley and his midday feeding. Barkley did not hesitate, he did not falter.
His front bumper hit the gate as he was still gathering speed, but the barrier did not give. Barkley continued to bull the Bronco forward, but the gate was soon entangled with his fender, and the harder he pushed, the closer to something like a postmodernist hood ornament the gate became. So Barkley simply backed up a few feet and whomped it again. And with that, the gate flew open and Barkley was off—bouncing over curbs, barging through parking lots and red lights in defiance of most of the laws of the traffic code and a couple of laws of physics. For the Sixers' irresistible new force, there is no such thing as an immovable object. Especially when lunch is waiting.
In his second NBA season, Barkley has been shaking the earth as he rumbles toward his destiny as the league's next great player. "He's the power forward in the league now," says Milwaukee's Terry Cummings. "And please tell Charles I said so."
Barkley runs the floor much as he drives the streets, flashing to the basket with Porsche-like speed and the brutish-ness of a Bronco, always banging against closed doors. In a game at Boston Garden in January, he had 26 points and 21 rebounds—the first of two times he has had more than 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game this season—and on one memorable end-to-end charge, he dribbled behind his back twice, once left, once right, without ever breaking stride.
That Barkley is almost certainly among the league leaders in three-point play opportunities (the NBA doesn't keep such statistics) is a tribute not only to his strength but also to his ability to sneak in on cat's feet and snatch rebounds away from players with better position.
At last count he was fourth in the league in rebounds (and closing fast on teammate Moses Malone), fifth in field goal percentage and leading Western civilization in the rim-roasting dunks that have become his trademark. "He's the most powerful player at that position I've ever seen," says Los Angeles Laker coach Pat Riley. "When he gets up a head of steam, people just go flying off him like he was knocking down bowling pins. You need chains and a billy club to stop him."
The only ones who have stopped him so far are the coaches in the Eastern Conference, who left him off the All-Star team, a wound from which Barkley was still smarting as he finally settled into lunch. "I should have made it, no ifs, ands or buts," he said over his second virgin strawberry daiquiri. "And I think a lot of people around me thought I deserved to make it." Could he have been referring here to his legendary teammate Julius Erving, who probably got Bark-ley's All-Star spot by virtue of his elder-statesman status? Barkley didn't say, but it is clear that he chafes at the kind of sentimentality that keeps older players in the lineup past their prime, and keeps the new wave from rolling in. "But it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks now," Barkley reasoned. "I know that I'm working hard. And I'm having a great year."
It didn't start out all that well, actually, and at one point early in the season Barkley was struggling. After a painful loss to New Jersey in early November, he warned ominously of detonations to come. "Sooner or later," he said, "I'm going to explode on somebody." There was a time, of course, when Barkley was eating so much that you never knew whether he actually would explode. But at 265 pounds, he is now in the lean and mean phase of his career.
Although it's not easy, given his dimensions, Barkley prefers to keep a low profile in Philadelphia. "Once I leave the floor, that's it," he says. "I don't do nothing other than play basketball or stay home. It's hard to get peace when you're out in public, so I would rather just sit around and watch TV. It's a pain sometimes. You basically lose all your freedom and your privacy." When he isn't spending his free time watching movies in darkened theaters, Barkley sits in the dim glow of the TV set in his nearly bare-walled apartment, gnawing on his new remote-control device as he furiously changes channels. He had another one before, but he chewed it up. No one knows why, although it now seems possible that he was just teething.