This season Barkley's scoring average is up by more than six points a game (he had a 23.0 average in '86-87). "I'm uncomfortable getting all those points a night, tell you the truth," says Barkley, who may be exaggerating the truth a bit. "Rebounding is what got me here."
He's relentless around the basket. "I'm like Christmas, because you know I'm coming," he's fond of saying. Because of his relatively small stature, he must be analytical as well as tenacious. "The main thing for me is to be the first one off the floor," he says. "Nobody in the league can jump as quick as I can, and that's important. I watch the flight of the ball carefully, whether I'm on offense or defense. I never take my eyes off it. Never. And I can usually tell where it's going.
"Boxing out, for me, is overrated. I had a coach at Auburn named Roger Banks who used to tell me one thing, 'Go for the ball." There are guys who are great at boxing out who get only two rebounds a game."
Says Bird, "Charles jumps from side to side, not just straight up. And he gets both hands on almost every ball, so he doesn't lose many."
Whether Barkley is ever accorded the same respect off the court that folks like Bird give him on it remains to be seen. He's a complex character, part unpredictable man-child to be sure, but also part hard-eyed realist. He seems to know exactly what he wants and exactly who he wants to be. He's not interested in living up to a celebrity image. "I absolutely refuse to get caught up in this lifestyle," he said, punching the air with a chicken wing. "It's a roller coaster, and I don't want to take the ride. Fans will turn on me in a minute. The best thing I can do for myself is win a lot of games and make a lot of money. [He'll make about $13 million over the next seven years.) I don't want to be treated like a role model. I don't want to be treated like a god. I play hard on the court, and that's all anybody can ask."
Before this season started, Barkley made a proposal that he hoped would appeal to at least 10 Philadelphia-area businessmen: If the Sixers didn't win more than the 45 games they won in 1986-87, Barkley would donate $200,000 of his own money to charity. If the Sixers won more than 45, the businessmen would donate $200,000.
When Barkley got only one taker, he withdrew the offer. "All they wanted out of it was free publicity," he says of some of the businessmen. "They wanted me to make appearances and crap like that to publicize it. They weren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts." Few athletes would make such a proposal in the first place; fewer still would have been so outspoken about it when it didn't work.
"Many times Charles just says things to put pressure on himself, to force himself to respond to challenges," says Nash. "If you don't understand Charles's competitive nature, you don't understand Charles."
Bird understands. "I'm the type of person who doesn't always say the right things myself," he says. "But I never apologize for what I've said, even though I may regret them. The best thing you can do is be your own person. And Charles is definitely his own person."