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Barkley played with passion, loved attention
Sir Charles led NBA in dunks, interviews
By Bob Carter
Special to ESPN.com
"My idol a lot of times is Charles Barkley. I wish I could say what he says," says Wayne Gretzky on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
The approval meter always had two ends and no center, just the way Charles Barkley liked it. You either enjoyed Barkley's rough and tumble basketball style and his shoot-from-the-hip mouth, or you hated it. The wide-bodied forward left no room for middle ground.
"With Charles, you've just got to accept the whole package," said his Philadelphia 76ers coach, Jimmy Lynam. "He's an emotional player, and that emotion is what makes him great."
Barkley, whose all-star career ended in 2000, rarely saw moderation as part of his game, or his life. He blew kisses to opposing fans while at Auburn and grinned when they'd poke fun at his eating habits by delivering pizzas to the court.
"I really don't eat that much," said the 6-foot-4½ Round Mound of Rebound, whose playing weight fluctuated between 250 and 280 pounds in college. "I just, more or less, tend to eat all the time."
In the NBA, Sir Charles frolicked with team mascots during timeouts, berated referees and chatted up cheerleaders. He talked almost non-stop. "That makes the game easier for me," he said, "because I'm always relaxed."
Barkley's impulsive manner created waves, though the media and many fans liked his frankness and humor. In 1991, he suggested that the 76ers would retain Dave Hoppen because the club didn't want an all-black team, igniting a racial firestorm in Philadelphia. That same year, in his aptly named autobiography, "Outrageous," he cited the shortcomings of some league players, including teammates.
He once joked after a tough game that he felt like going home and beating his wife, and pickets from women's groups soon appeared outside the Spectrum.
"I don't think of myself as giving interviews," said the 1993 NBA Most Valuable Player. "I just have conversations. That gets me in trouble."
He said frequently that he had no regrets for anything he said or did, except for a 1991 night in New Jersey when he spit at a heckling fan and missed, hitting a little girl. He apologized.
He spent eight seasons with Philadelphia, four with Phoenix and four with Houston, averaging 22.1 points and 11.7 rebounds before retiring in 2000 as one of four NBA players who had 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. The others were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Karl Malone.
Barkley played on the U.S. Olympic "Dream" teams that won gold medals in 1992 and 1996 and was selected as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
Charles Wade Barkley was born on Feb. 20, 1963 in Leeds, Ala., a small town near Birmingham. His father Frank left home shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his mother, Charcie Glenn, and his grandmother.
A pudgy 5-10, Barkley was cut from the varsity basketball team at Leeds High School as a sophomore. He grew four inches in the next year and became a standout player. As a senior, he outplayed Bobby Lee Hurt, a 6-9 center heralded as the state's top recruit, in a holiday tournament game, scoring 24 points and grabbing 20 rebounds.
At Auburn, Barkley averaged 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds over three seasons and was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 1984, leading the Tigers to their first NCAA Tournament berth.
Coach Sonny Smith questioned Barkley's training habits and tried to keep his star's size under control, but had no answer for his zesty interviews. "I think Charles boosts his weight," Smith said, "if it improves the interview."
Forgoing his senior season to become a pro, Barkley was chosen No. 5 in the draft by the 76ers in a famed first round in 1984 that included Michael Jordan, Akeem Olajuwon and John Stockton.
Barkley played at a more consistent 250 pounds as a pro and made an instant impact. Starting 60 of 82 games, he averaged 14 points and 8.6 rebounds, and made the league's all-rookie team. The Sixers lost to Boston in the Eastern Conference finals, starting one of Barkley's most disappointing legacies: He never won an NBA championship.
In his second season, he averaged 12.8 rebounds, second-best in the league, and his third year brought a rebound title with a 14.6 average -- it would be his career high -- and his first All-Star Game. By the 1987-88 season, he was a first-team all-league choice, scoring a career-high 28.3 points per game, and on his way to superstardom.
Barkley turned into a unique, extra physical talent. He was too quick for taller players, too strong for quicker, thinner ones, too skilled as a passer to be constantly double-teamed, too good of a shooter to be left alone for the mid-range jumper, too tough and strong-willed to be stopped on his powerful drives to the basket.
And he usually was at his best down the stretch, telling teammates, "Keep it close into the fourth quarter, and the last five minutes are mine."
In one three-year span (1988-90), he dunked 513 times, more than anyone in the league. No wonder coaches put up with defensive lapses, technicals and flagrant fouls. One of his dunks knocked a 2,200-pound basket support six inches off line.
"When Charles leans on you," said Boston 7-footer Robert Parish, "it's like being crushed by a trash compactor."
Barkley couldn't palm a ball to dunk but had great hands. "Soft enough to catch a bullet," said Smith, his college coach.
Despite his weight, he had a 39-inch vertical leap and terrific quickness. Said former coach Jack Ramsay: "I've never seen any big man quicker in reacting to the ball."
He averaged 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds in 76 games, sank a career-high 67 three-pointers and led the NBA with six triple-doubles.
Barkley became the third player to win the league MVP award right after being traded. "He gets rebounds that no one ever has gotten here," said Suns executive Cotton Fitzsimmons, the team's former coach. "Someone his size, how does he do it?"
Barkley's self-analysis: "It's all desire."
The desire to play started to erode the next season when chronic back pain limited Barkley to 65 games and he considered retirement. Though his scoring and rebounding numbers remained high for his last three seasons in Phoenix, he battled elbow, back and knee injuries.
In 1995-96, his final campaign with the Suns, he became the tenth player in league history to amass 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds. Following the season he was traded to Houston. His appearances fell further with the Rockets and his scoring average dipped under 20 points. But his rebounding skills remained to the end (10.5 in 1999-2000).
Barkley suffered a torn quadriceps tendon on Dec. 8, 1999 in Philadelphia. He returned to play one final game, on April 19.
After retiring, Barkley has drawn raves as a studio analyst for TNT.
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