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."
Barkley's superb play these days really can't be called surprising. After all, in each of the last two seasons he has won the Schick Pivotal Player Award, a statistical measure of all-around excellence. But most observers feel that Barkley has upped his game a level or two this season. Those observers include Barkley himself. "I made up my mind last summer that if we were going to have a bad team, I was not going to be the reason," Barkley said recently, settling into a back table at TGI Friday's, a Philadelphia restaurant near the condo in which he lives alone. "I knew it was my turn to take over the team. Doc and I never talked about it, but I knew it."
Barkley looks great, too. He says he weighs a career-low 248 pounds, and even if that's a bit lower than the reading when he steps on the scale, he certainly doesn't go more than 255. He's nowhere near the 305 he hit during his early Round Mound of Rebound days at Auburn. His body-fat content, according to Sixers strength and conditioning coach Pat Croce, is 12.6%. "Outstanding for a man of his size and strength," Croce says. So one might expect to hear Barkley recount the hellacious. Marine-style summer he put himself through to prepare for this season, right?
"Actually, I didn't do much working out at all," Barkley said. "Played in three charity games, and that was about it for basketball. Summer ball's too much of a letdown for me. Always has been. One day you're playing against Larry Bird in Boston Garden, next day you're playing against Sam Sausagehead on some playground."
The waiter arrived. Barkley opted for the egg rolls ("Bring me four instead of the three you usually get," he commanded), Buffalo chicken wings and "one of those margarita drinks without the alcohol." He drank three of those before the meal ended.
Barkley watches his weight, though not every minute. He stays in shape in the off-season by playing tennis and riding a stationary bicycle, and, says Croce, "Charles has learned earlier than athletes like Julius or Mike Schmidt the value of stretching exercises." Considering the unusual ways that Barkley contorts his unusual body to get off his unusual inside shots, that's undoubtedly a good thing.
Barkley doesn't particularly like programs and routines. He will listen to the experts for a while and then go his own way. Croce wants him to do more weightlifting, for example, but Barkley isn't ready for that. "I lifted exactly one day the last two summers, and I just don't like it," he said. "I'm contemplating it, but I'm scared that it will mess up my game."
The key to Barkley's game is the dunk. "How can I not shoot 60 percent with all the dunks I get?" he says. His .594 was third best in the league last season. There are a variety of reasons why he dunks so often (2.5 times a game in 1986-87) and so proficiently. First, he has a dunking mentality. Not everyone in the NBA does; even some 7-footers (the Boston Celtics' Robert Parish, to name one) don't. Second, Barkley is a strength-dunker who is able to throw the ball down in traffic while helpless defenders cling to his arms. And, third, he not only jumps high but he also jumps quickly: While a defender is just getting ready to spring, Barkley has already sprung.
There are other reasons for his offensive success. "It's his quick first step and his body control," says Bird. "He and Jordan are the best in the league at getting the contact and getting the shot off." Barkley explains how his being able to stay in the air a split second longer enables him to beat bigger defenders: "I have to shoot it a lot later because of my lack of height. That's just God-given hang time."
Says Bird's teammate Kevin McHale, the defender who gives Barkley the most trouble. "Charles nudges you off-balance in one direction, just with his strength, then goes the other way with his quickness. And he tries to put everything in the basket. Compare him to, say, Adrian Dantley [of Detroit]. They both post up and have great spin moves. But Adrian is trying to get the contact so he can get to the line. Charles wants it all."
Inside or outside. Barkley's jumper can also be deadly, though he'll fire an occasional blank. But he has a way of canceling out his mistakes from the perimeter. In a Dec. 22 game at home against the Celtics, for example, Barkley attempted a three-pointer with 18 seconds left and the Sixers trailing 114-111. The shot was way off, but Barkley came chugging into the lane, spilling bodies left and right, grabbed his rebound and scored. Guokas didn't appreciate the three-point attempt, but how could he get mad at Barkley's hustle? A little more of that from some of the other 76ers, and perhaps Philly would not have lost 118-115.
This season Barkley's scoring average is up by more than six points a game (he had a 23.0 average in '86-87). "I'm uncomfortable getting all those points a night, tell you the truth," says Barkley, who may be exaggerating the truth a bit. "Rebounding is what got me here."
He's relentless around the basket. "I'm like Christmas, because you know I'm coming," he's fond of saying. Because of his relatively small stature, he must be analytical as well as tenacious. "The main thing for me is to be the first one off the floor," he says. "Nobody in the league can jump as quick as I can, and that's important. I watch the flight of the ball carefully, whether I'm on offense or defense. I never take my eyes off it. Never. And I can usually tell where it's going.
"Boxing out, for me, is overrated. I had a coach at Auburn named Roger Banks who used to tell me one thing, 'Go for the ball." There are guys who are great at boxing out who get only two rebounds a game."
Says Bird, "Charles jumps from side to side, not just straight up. And he gets both hands on almost every ball, so he doesn't lose many."
Whether Barkley is ever accorded the same respect off the court that folks like Bird give him on it remains to be seen. He's a complex character, part unpredictable man-child to be sure, but also part hard-eyed realist. He seems to know exactly what he wants and exactly who he wants to be. He's not interested in living up to a celebrity image. "I absolutely refuse to get caught up in this lifestyle," he said, punching the air with a chicken wing. "It's a roller coaster, and I don't want to take the ride. Fans will turn on me in a minute. The best thing I can do for myself is win a lot of games and make a lot of money. [He'll make about $13 million over the next seven years.) I don't want to be treated like a role model. I don't want to be treated like a god. I play hard on the court, and that's all anybody can ask."
Before this season started, Barkley made a proposal that he hoped would appeal to at least 10 Philadelphia-area businessmen: If the Sixers didn't win more than the 45 games they won in 1986-87, Barkley would donate $200,000 of his own money to charity. If the Sixers won more than 45, the businessmen would donate $200,000.
When Barkley got only one taker, he withdrew the offer. "All they wanted out of it was free publicity," he says of some of the businessmen. "They wanted me to make appearances and crap like that to publicize it. They weren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts." Few athletes would make such a proposal in the first place; fewer still would have been so outspoken about it when it didn't work.
"Many times Charles just says things to put pressure on himself, to force himself to respond to challenges," says Nash. "If you don't understand Charles's competitive nature, you don't understand Charles."
Bird understands. "I'm the type of person who doesn't always say the right things myself," he says. "But I never apologize for what I've said, even though I may regret them. The best thing you can do is be your own person. And Charles is definitely his own person."
Barkley has squeezed all the talent he can out of a body that's too short and too wide.
The dunk is at the heart of Barkley's offense, which is yielding a hefty 29.1 points a game.
To Barkley, basketball is a contact sport, both on the court and off.
A cold shoulder from Green prompted Barkley to retaliate with a few warm elbows...
...which in turn led to an argument, ejection and some postgame barbs at his teammates.