Barkley, Charles Wade

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BARKLEY, Charles Wade

(b. 20 February 1963 in Leeds, Alabama), basketball player and member of the first "Dream Team" (the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team) who is known for his rebounding skills and for his outspokenness and wit.

Barkley, the only child of Frank and Charcey Glenn Barkley, was born weighing only six pounds and suffering from anemia, which required a complete blood transfusion when he was six weeks old. Barkley's parents were very young when he was born, separating and divorcing when he was a baby. His mother, a domestic worker, remarried, but his stepfather died in an automobile accident when Barkley was in grade school. He grew up with his mother and grandmother, and the family saw difficult times, emotionally and financially.

Barkley resolved early to make his way out of his impoverished background by playing basketball, practicing shots seven nights a week and leaping back and forth over a chain-link fence to improve his jumping. His mother reported, "He said he was gonna make it in the NBA, nothin' was gonna stop him, and he meant it." As a junior at Leeds High School, Barkley was a chubby five feet, ten inches tall and did not even start for the varsity basketball team; but in the summer before his senior year, he grew to six feet, four inches, which enabled him to star for the Leeds team and go on to Auburn University in 1981.

Barkley may have been tall by ordinary standards, but he had an unusual build for a basketball player and was far shorter than many of those he battled for rebounds; nevertheless, he excelled in that area of the game. He also weighed 270 pounds and became known as the "Round Mound of Rebound." In the 1983–1984 season, he was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, averaging 14.1 points and clearing 9.4 rebounds per game. Auburn's record was 20–11 that season, their second-best in twenty-five years. Barkley was invited to the tryouts for the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, but Coach Bob Knight disliked his flashy playing style. Barkley didn't make the final cut.

Barkley majored in business management at Auburn but made a decision to leave school a year early to apply for the 1984 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft. In the same year that such stellar players as Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon were available, he was selected fifth by the Philadelphia 76ers, despite questions about his weight and his attitude—the latter due to his battles with Knight at the Olympic tryouts. Joining such stars as Julius Erving and Moses Malone, Barkley played only part time in the 1984–1985 season but averaged 14 points and 8.6 rebounds a game. In his second year he averaged 20 points and was second in the league in rebounding, a statistic he led the league in for the first time in 1986–1987. Though he had been known primarily as a rebounder in college, he improved his scoring as well, usually averaging over 20 points a game. In 1989 he married Maureen Blumhardt, and in that same year their daughter, Christiana, was born.

Despite Barkley's play, the 76ers began to slip in the late 1980s, and Barkley himself became even more controversial, publicly complaining about his teammates. In 1987 he called the 76ers "a bad team that has to play perfect to win" and was fined $3,000 by the team. Barkley continued to work on his game, however, and the 76ers made the playoffs in 1988 and 1989. In the 1991–1992 season he attempted to spit on a fan who had been heckling him and hit a little girl instead. He apologized and bought season tickets for her family, but he was fined again. Still, sports experts recognized his ability. Mike Lupica of Esquire said, "There will always be a lot of mouth to Charles Barkley. But there is also a lot of talent, the kind of talent only a handful of players ever have."

By 1992 the Olympic rules had changed, allowing professionals to compete in basketball for the first time. The United States put together the "Dream Team," made up of twelve of the top pros. Barkley was one of the stars, though he was criticized for his rough play, particularly when he elbowed a skinny Angolan player aside. The "Dream Team" did win the gold medal, but Barkley, along with Michael Jordan, almost refused to attend the ceremony because the team's uniforms were made by Reebok, and he and Jordan represented Nike.

Though his career was at its peak, he had worn out his welcome in Philadelphia, and after the 1991–1992 season he was traded to the Phoenix Suns for three players. He continued to flourish there, averaging 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds per game and being voted the league's Most Valuable Player for 1992–1993. The Suns reached the NBA championship series but were beaten in six games by Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Barkley injured his back in the 1993–1994 season, and his scoring average dropped; he considered retirement. However, he remained with the Suns through 1995–1996, continuing to star.

In 1994 Rick Reilly assembled a selection of Barkley's "wit and wisdom," entitled Sir Charles. Some of his remarks caused controversy, such as his statement that athletes should not be role models. He also became known for his Nike commercials, particularly one in which he played one-on-one against Godzilla, then asked the giant saurian, "Ever think of wearing shoes?" In 1996 the league named Barkley as one of the fifty greatest players of all time. But he was traded again, this time to the Houston Rockets for four players. There he continued to play well, but the championship eluded him and he struggled with injuries. In 1999 he reached a plateau of over 23,000 points, 12,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists for his career, a combination previously attained only by Wilt Chamberlain.

He announced before the 1999–2000 season that it would be his last one. But in December his farewell tour was interrupted when he tore the quadriceps tendon in his left leg during a game against the 76ers. Still, he was able to return on 19 April 2000, the last game of the regular season, for a cameo appearance in which he notched two more rebounds and a final field goal. After the game, with characteristic wit, he noted his retirement by saying, "Just what the country needs: another unemployed black man." Having once said, "If push came to shove, I could lose all self-respect and become a reporter," he moved up to the broadcast booth, doing the Inside the NBA show with Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson on the TNT network. Unsurprisingly, he proved to be an outspoken and witty commentator, never hesitating to criticize sharply but also recognizing good play.

In the summer of 2001 Michael Jordan announced that he was considering returning to basketball. Barkley practiced with Jordan and stated that he too was thinking of coming back. Barkley finally decided he was through as an active player, but he continued to ponder another stated goal—running for governor of Alabama as a Republican.

Barkley had a long and successful basketball career through hard work, courage, and determination. Although he was shorter than most, he excelled as a rebounder. His willingness to openly voice his opinions has gained him public notoriety as well as admiration. But despite his own words on the subject, one could do much worse than to take him as a role model.

Biographical information on Barkley can be found in his autobiography, Outrageous! The Fine Life and Flagrant Good Times of Basketball's Irresistible Force (1992), written with Roy Johnson, Jr., a typically no-holds-barred performance. Frank Deford's excellent article, "Barkley's Last Shot," appeared in Vanity Fair (Feb. 1995). Barkley's final game was reported by Michael Murphy in the Houston Chronicle (20 Apr. 2000).

Arthur D. Hlavaty

Barrow, Joseph Louis. See Louis, Joe.-