After a decade under the leadership of noted NBA diplomat Julius Erving, the Philadelphia 76ers now march to the unpredictable drumbeat of one Charles Wade Barkley, who doesn't have a tactful bone in his wide body.
For example, in case you're hazy on Barkley's value, here's how he assesses himself: "See, Maurice Cheeks is the best point guard in the league, but Magic Johnson, who's also a point guard, is the best basketball player. That's what I consider myself, a basketball player—a guy who doesn't have to have a position. There's Magic, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, maybe, and me. I put myself into that category."
Although it may not be the height of diplomacy for Barkley to mention it, there's no doubt that, in his fourth season, he has earned a spot among the NBA's elite. He's that rare player who can operate almost anywhere on the court—carving out position under the basket, or breaking the press with a be-hind-the-back dribble, or guarding a small forward, or checking a center who's eight inches taller than his own 6'4¾" (he's inaccurately listed at 6'6" on the 76ers' roster).
And, to confirm his versatility, he's at or near the top of diverse NBA statistical categories. At the end of the week Barkley stood second in the league to John Salley of the Detroit Pistons in field goal percentage (.608 to .601), second to Jordan in scoring (32.5 to 29.1 points per game) and third, behind Charles Oakley (14.0) of the Chicago Bulls and Michael Cage (12.5) of the Los Angeles Clippers, in rebounding, with 11.6 a game; astoundingly for someone of his relative shortness. Barkley led the NBA in rebounding last season (14.6). So far this season he also has been among the league's least reluctant three-point shooters, having made 20 of 53 for a 37.7 percentage. "Man," says Barkley, "I love those threes."
Moreover, he gets all this done in entertaining fashion. Barkley haters boo when he raises his arms touchdown-style to signal his successful three-pointers; they jeer when he sneakily tries to replace a less springy teammate in the jump ball circle. Barkley lovers ooh and aah when he power-dunks over a 7-footer, as he did twice against the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing during a 40-point, 17-rebound explosion at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 17. And everyone laughs when, after twisting in for a layup and falling into a crowd of cheerleaders on the baseline, Barkley stays to chat for a few moments, as he did during a Dec. 23 game in New Jersey. Call it theater of the bizarre.
Barkley runs through emotions the way a frenzied shopper runs through a rack of bargain clothes, trying something on, casting it off, trying something else on. He's happy, now he's sad. He's puzzled, now he's mad. What will he be feeling two minutes from now? Opponents, officials, fans, even his own teammates watch Barkley the way they might watch a volcano—warily, very warily. So does the Sixer management, which, on more than one occasion, has winced at his style on and off the court.
For example, during a Dec. 20 game at Boston Garden that the 76ers lost 124-87, Barkley directed an expletive at a female fan who chided him about kicking a chair. "She should've known better than to say something when we're losing by 40 points," said Barkley afterward. He lives out on the edge, taking a jab step into the danger zone now and again. "Sometimes the slightest thing makes me go crazy," he says. "There are nights when I feel like hitting officials, hitting fans."
Sometimes he may even feel like hitting his own teammates. After a 131-115 road loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 29, a game in which he was ejected in the third period for arguing about an elbow he threw at A.C. Green, Barkley made this observation: "The team is just bad. Unless we play a perfect game, we can't win, and that's a bad situation to be in." That conjured up memories of the time last season when he characterized some of his fellow 76ers as "wimps and complainers." He said then, "I don't know if I want to [succeed Erving as] captain of this team, because none of these guys can take criticism."
Now Barkley is a Sixer cocaptain. The other is Cheeks, the respected but ultraquiet veteran. For a guy like Cheeks, sharing the captaincy with Barkley is like sharing a stage with Madonna—you're there, but nobody notices you.
"Charles is definitely our leader, but it's not the normal type of leadership, because Charles isn't your normal type of person," says Sixer coach Matt Guokas. "He's a little different. He's unique." Adds Philly general manager John Nash, "Sure, there have been some things I wish Charles wouldn't have done or said. But with Charles you get the whole package. On the whole, it's as good a package as you can get."