One of the most dominating power-players in the National Basketball Association in the 1980s and 1990s, Charles Barkley went on to shift his bigger-than-life court talents and personality over to the TV studio and pop cultural spheres. A small-town Alabama native, Barkley began earning national attention as an All-American forward at Auburn University. Drafted in 1984 by the Philadelphia 76ers, he proved a peculiar phenomenon as a short (6'4") power forward who could out-rebound much taller opponents and deliver dazzling fast-break play. He developed into one of the league's top scorers and rebounders and garnered a reputation as a smack-talking tough guy. His antics eventually led to his trade to Phoenix, which proved a career rebirth as he took the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals. After a final stint with the Houston Rockets, Barkley retired in 2000 as an 11-time All-Star with career averages of 22.1 points and 11.7 rebounds per game, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006. His snarky shoot-from-the-hip style made him an ideal analyst for TNT's "Inside the NBA" (1988- ) and, as of 2011, Turner/CBS' joint coverage of the NCAA basketball tournament. He became a much-in-demand featured guest on sports and mainstream talk forums, highlighted by Barkley's becoming the only sports figure to host "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) three times. Selected by the NBA as one of the 50 greatest players in the league's history, Sir Charles supplemented his legacy as one the funniest and most candid voices in sports.
He was born Charles Wade Barkley on Feb. 20, 1963, in Leeds, AL, the son of Frank Barkley and Charcey Glenn, a domestic worker. Frank abandoned the family and divorced Charcey not long after Charles' birth, which left him to be raised by his mother and grandmother, Johnnie Mae Mickens. Charcey remarried, but his stepfather was killed in a car accident when Charles was still in elementary school. In spite of the family's relative poverty, Charles developed a brashness and sense of humor as compensation for the anger he felt toward his absentee father. He convinced himself, if not others, that he was going to play professional basketball. It was an odd claim for an overweight adolescent standing 5'10" and became an even bigger challenge his sophomore year at Leeds High School when he failed to make the basketball team. By later accounts, Barkley trained himself arduously, made the team the next year, but did not start. Circumstances changed between his junior and senior years, when he hit a growth spurt and returned to basketball tryouts the next year at 6'4" and 240 pounds and wielding an astonishing vertical leap. He made the team and put up big numbers for a first-time varsity starter, averaging 19.1 points and 17.9 rebounds a game as he led Leeds to the Alabama high school tournament semifinals.
Though he had fielded no offers to that point, college scouts took notice when he put up 26 points on Huntsville Butler High School's blue-chip center Bobby Lee Hurt, albeit in a losing cause. As sportswriter Michael Wilbon later reported in a 1984 issue of the Washington Post, an assistant to Auburn University head coach Sonny Smith, reported back from the game that he had just seen a "a fat guy.who can play like the wind." Graduating high school in 1982, Barkley soon became a phenomenon as Auburn's center. He proved himself a rebounding machine in spite of his relatively short stature for the position (he was listed at 6'6") and dazzled crowds as a "fat guy" who could leap out the gym and throw down thunderous dunks. He played along when Auburn PR bestowed the fanciful title of "The Round Mound of Rebound" on him, though he, not surprisingly, grew to dislike it. After Barkley averaged 15 points, nearly 10 rebounds and an impressive 1.8 blocked shots a game in his junior season, the SEC tabbed him as the conference's Player of the Year, and he decided to forego his senior season to declare himself eligible for the NBA draft.
The Philadelphia 76ers selected him that summer with the fifth overall pick, and Barkley joined a talented but aging Sixers squad long led by ABA/NBA legend Julius Erving. Though yet to develop an outside shooting touch, Barkley averaged 14 points and 8.5 rebounds his rookie season and earned a spot on the league's All-Rookie Team among the class of 1984-85 that included Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. The team went to the Eastern Conference Finals that year, but lost to the Boston Celtics. When the NBA returned for its 1985-86 season, Barkley significantly improved his offensive game with 20 ppg, and the next year he led the NBA in rebounding with 14.6 rpg. He became the team's leader with Erving's retirement after the 1986-87 season. Barkley also developed a reputation as a candid interview and showed periodic flashes of goonish behavior on-court, particularly when paired in 1989 with former Detroit Pistons "Bad Boy" Rick Mahorn. Barkley's antics in Philly came to a head in 1991 with the publication of the first of five conspicuously candid books, Outrageous, in which he aired critiques of colleagues and even teammates. He stirred some outrage in Philly when he suggested the Sixers would not cut a Caucasian reserve center because the front office did not want an all-black team.
Barkley added shock to controversy when, during a 1991 game in New Jersey, he spat at a courtside heckler who had been hurling racial epithets, but instead hit a young fan. An apologetic Barkley eventually befriended the girl and her family but was widely seen to have worn out his welcome in Philadelphia. Unhappy himself with the struggling team, he was traded to the Phoenix Suns after the 1991-92 season. That summer, Barkley joined an array of talent as the U.S. national team drew from pro players for the first time to form the much-heralded "Dream Team" for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. With Barkley and future Hall-of-Famers like Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, David Robinson, Karl Malone and John Stockton scorching international competition, the team easily won the gold. Barkley led the team in scoring with 18 points a game. He also drew controversy again when he elbowed an opponent viciously in the chest during a game with Angola and later quipped about his victim possibly wielding a spear. His move to the 1992-93 Suns squad put him in formidable company with fellow All-Star Kevin Johnson, former All-Stars Tom Chambers and Danny Ainge, and rising star Dan Majerle. Barkley would take the league's MVP award that year as the team gelled behind his 25.6 ppg and 12.2 rpg on the way to a 62-20 regular season record.
They made a post-season run to the NBA Finals, where they met one of Barkley's off-court buddies, Jordan, and his defending champion Chicago Bulls. The series went hyped as a face-off of two of the league's biggest stars. Barkley peppered the series with tough talk and put up big numbers - including a rare triple double with 32 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 4 - but the Bulls prevailed in six games to earn their third straight title. Barkley's run to the Finals vaulted him beyond the sports sphere. In 1993, he was asked to host NBC's "Saturday Night Live." He also spurred public debate over the cult of celebrity in the U.S. when, in a stark commercial for his athletic footwear endorsee Nike, he posited that playing basketball did not make him a role model for kids. Though Barkley continued All-Star-caliber contributions when healthy, his years of rough-and-tumble play against the league's biggest, strongest players began to take its toll. His ensuing years with the Suns went marred by injuries and frustrating Conference Finals losses to the eventual champion Houston Rockets. In 1996, he appeared alongside Jordan and handful of other NBA stars in the Warner Bros. film "Space Jam," a basketball-themed sci-fi outing mixing live-action and Warner's animated Looney Tunes characters.
After the Suns dipped to a 41-41 record in the 1995-96 season, Barkley returned to the U.S. hoop team for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Barkley and Rockets center Olajuwon led the team to another gold, then would reunite not long after when the Suns traded Barkley to Houston. In spite of high expectations, injuries continued to dog Barkley. His scoring dropped below a 20-point average for the first time since his rookie season and the Rockets failed to make it out of the Western Conference Playoffs. In December 1999, in a game in Philadelphia, he suffered what was diagnosed as a career-ending leg injury, which required him to be carried to the locker room. Barkley rehabbed just enough to make a brief return the next April. He grabbed an offensive rebound and scored the put-back before being pulled from the game, and walked off under his own power as the home crowd gave him a standing ovation. Barkley retired effectively at the end of the game with a career average of 22.1 ppg, 11.7 rpg and the most steals ever recorded by an NBA power forward.
Barkley's No. 34 jerseys were retired by Auburn University and the Sixers in 2001 and by the Suns in 2004. His charisma and mince-no-words style made him a much-coveted talk show guest and even infrequent actor. In the latter capacity, Barkley always played himself, as with his recurring cameos as an amiable foil to Jay and Silent Bob on the short-lived animated series "Clerks" (ABC, 2000). More prominently, the TNT cable channel snapped Barkley up to provide commentary on its NBA coverage as part of its pre-game, halftime and post-game studio analysis show, "Inside the NBA." Barkley developed a comic rapport with host Ernie Johnson and co-analyst and ex-Rocket Kenny Smith as he became notorious for pull-no-punches critiques of players, coaches and referees in the league and at times even started minor wars-of-words with current players. He also used the platform to occasionally veer into punditry on other national issues, both pop-cultural and political. Though long touting himself a pro-business Republican, Barkley articulated stridently pro-choice and pro-gay marriage positions and very publicly broke with the GOP on the air and in print, particularly over Bush administration policies.
In 2006, Barkley was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA. In 2007, he made a video endorsement of Barack Obama for president of the U.S. That same year, he revealed that an obsessive gambling habit and, though he refused to admit it was an addiction, claimed to have lost over $10 million wagering during his life. After a tabloid flap over unpaid debts, he publicly announced he would quit gambling. He was arrested in Phoenix on Dec. 31, 2008 on a drunk-driving charge, whereupon Barkley, with characteristic candor, explained to police that he was rushing home because his female passenger had promised him oral sex. He later pled guilty and served three days in jail with a $2,000 fine and entered an alcohol treatment program. TNT suspended him from on-air duties for two months. Ever true to his straight-shooter ethos, Barkley, after every flap, discussed his private-life foibles openly with Johnson and Smith on "Inside the NBA." The rare sports animal as popular in his TV career as on the court, Barkley again hosted "SNL" in 2010 and 2012. In 2011, with a new NCAA "March Madness" TV rights package parceled up to CBS and Turner networks, Barkley brought a more tempered version of his game analysis to college basketball for the first time as part of a cross-network studio all-star team.
By Matthew Grimm