Even after I caught up with Charles Barkley on the phone the other day, it's not entirely clear to me whether Weight Watchers knew everything it was getting into when it signed him recently as its spokesman for its new online campaign aimed strictly at men. For instance, Charles says he recognized that a male-targeted program was highly necessary because of an epiphany plucked straight from his own life, not the company's media materials: "Fat-ass men do not go to meetings with other fat-ass men to talk about being fat and losing weight. We just don't."
"We just call each other 'Fat Ass' all the time instead," Barkley says.
Then there was the brainstorming session that Sir Charles and the Weight Watchers folks had early on.
"I actually told them when we were sitting around talking about ideas, 'There's one thong commercial I do want to make,'" Barkley says.
He remembered seeing Kirstie Alley, another yo-yo dieter, come out on "The Oprah Show" in a bathing suit a few years ago after she'd lost a lot of weight. Now, weren't the pounds already melting off him, too?
"So I said, 'I'd like to come out in a bathing suit like Kirstie Alley did.'"
That should give you a fair idea of just how excited Barkley is to have lost 50 pounds overall, 35 of them since he started the Weight Watchers program a few months ago. So when asked whether he'd give some timely advice to readers worried about adding a few pounds over the holidays, Charles laughed and said sure.
And let's be honest, who could be better than he? When your careerlong nicknames include The Round Mound of Rebound and Sir Cumference, not just Sir Charles, you have a certain acquaintance with what Oscar Wilde meant when he wrote, "I can resist anything except temptation."
"Now I eat Brussels sprouts, asparagus, cauliflower, even butternut squash," Charles says. He pauses a half-beat, then adds: "I want to make it clear I'm not overly thrilled with Brussels sprouts. But I'm trying."
You'll notice there is no mention of holiday eggnog there. No rugelach, sugar cookies, Godiva chocolates, spiral-cut honeybaked ham (of course the whole thing, silly) or figgy pudding, whatever that is. But if figgy is a fruit, the new Charles might be persuaded to try that too.
"I've eaten more fruit and vegetables in the last few months than I have in the first 48 years of my life," Charles says. "What I found out is --"
"I love green beans," he says.
This is great, I told Charles on Wednesday. Just promise me you're not so far gone you're going to start carrying around pathetic little baggies filled with pathetic little carrot sticks everywhere you go.
"Already got 'em, baby!" Charles trilled back. "And beef jerky and turkey-durkey, too. For snacks."
This is sobering news for people like me who always have viewed Barkley as one of the great untamable bon vivants in American life, not just sports. I once wrote a story on him and his 76ers wingman, Rick Mahorn, when the two of them were picking up so many technical fouls that they decided to match and donate all the fine money to a homeless charity -- "until we realized," Mahorn said, "the homeless would have nicer houses than us."
But maybe the best way to look at Barkley's new temperance is it's not what might be lost but what's gained. He says he wants to take what he's learned about weight control and help places like his native Alabama, which has some of the worst obesity rates and health problems in the nation. And think of the good this could mean for other men he could reach, including even active jocks who are loath to talk about the fat thing, too.
Late last season, Yankees management was privately not charmed when its 300-plus pound pitching ace, CC Sabathia, faded down the stretch after gaining back the 30-some pounds he had lost before spring training by, he said, giving up Cap'n Crunch. Golf has long had seam-stretchers like John Daly and Craig Stadler. Former NFL defensive end Michael Strahan never had a gut that spilled over his stretch pants, but he used to joke that when he went on the field after Baltimore nose tackle Tony Siragusa was just there, he'd find chicken bones lying all over the place. Just the other day, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro told reporters that even Chris Paul needed to drop a few pounds after Paul joined the team in a blockbuster trade.
Barkley's message is if he can learn to watch his weight, anyone can.
Charles being Charles, he also cannot tell a lie. He is not entirely enjoying dieting as much as when he ate anything he wanted, even when he was still an NBA player. "Two Big Macs and a large fries right before a game, Kentucky Fried Chicken -- it didn't matter," he says.
But speaking in all seriousness now, Barkley adds that about six months ago he went to his doctor for a physical, and his doctor was so unsparing that he knew he had to change.
"I played in NBA at about 250 pounds, and when I took my physical I was at 350," Barkley says. "So I had gained 100 pounds since I quit, and my doc said to me, 'Let me break this to you: If you keep going this way, you're going to die [young]. You're going to have a stroke or you're going to develop diabetes or you're going to have a heart attack or hypertension. But A, B or C is going to happen.' And I realized A, B and C were all bad.
"I also realized I don't want to be an old person who was always sick or taking all kinds of pills."
So Charles cut down on some foods he loved -- "corn, rice, potatoes" -- and cut out others entirely.
He still has about 40 pounds to lose to get to his target weight of 270.
Even so, Weight Watchers' decision to make Charles a spokesman has been received as an inspired choice since it was announced Dec. 13. This post by Jeno117 on one of the company's online message boards was typical: "I'd totally love it if he became a spokesperson - 'Leave the donuts alone you knucklehead!!!'" And Charles has been making the rounds on the major talk shows this week. It was Jay Leno one night, Conan O'Brien's show the next.
Charles especially liked one of the alternative slogans that Leno suggested for his Weight Watchers ad campaign: "Jenny Craig Can Kiss My Black Ass!" (But huh so far no green light yet on that or the thong commercial from Weight Watchers world headquarters). Charles also showed off his sharp knowledge of current events on Leno by commenting on the just-announced death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il -- "I knew that dude was crazy because who still has a perm in 2011? I mean, C'mon!" -- and the circuslike Republican presidential primary race.
"As a Democrat who loves the president, I'm downright GIDDY. There ain't no way we can lose to them idiots!" Barkley crowed.
But wait a minute, Leno pressed him, when you were heavier, weren't you a Republican?
"I said I was rich like a Republican, Jay," Barkley corrected him.
Sir Charles has lost weight but not his quick mind. And the feedback remains terrific.
"Apparently I was really really fat and nobody told me," Charles says, laughing. "Now all of my friends are excited for me. Now my friends say things to me like, 'Man, I just noticed this when I saw you on TV the other day. You've got a neck.'"
It wasn't "Way to go, Thong Boy" or even "Happy Holidays." But it'll do.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.