NBA Vice-President Rod Thorn, the man who hands out fines and suspensions, was asked recently about Charles Barkley. "It's fair to say," Thorn said, "that when it comes to visits to my office, Charles is in a class by himself."
This season Barkley is having a particularly rough time, and he is making life rough on others. At 2:30 on the morning of Dec. 22, he got into a fight outside a Milwaukee bar, breaking a heckler's nose with a punch. He spent four hours in jail and was charged with misdemeanor battery and disorderly conduct. He will answer those charges at a trial later this month. Verbally, Sir Charles has been just as rough and tumble. He has characterized Philadelphians as "racist" and teammates as "lazy." Last month Barkley suggested that his friend Magic Johnson shouldn't take part in the NBA All-Star Game.
Barkley has always had opinions, though lately they seem to have hardened. While he remains one of the most quotable of athletes, in sound bites it's difficult to get a complete picture of the man.
Sports Illustrated: What's bugging you?
Charles Barkley: Nothing.
SI: What was bugging you in Milwaukee? [The district attorney alleges that Barkley broke James R. McCarthy's nose after leaving Rosie's Waterworks and that when police intervened, Barkley was wielding a street sign above his head.]
CB: The thing in Milwaukee was nothing I could avoid. The guy followed me for two blocks. And I avoided him for two blocks. But once he put his hands on me, he was going to get hit. He wanted to see how tough I was. It happens all the time.
SI: Where were you walking?
CB: To the car. He was about 30 yards behind me. I could hear somebody screaming my name. But then, before I knew it, he was up on me. There were three guys. It was a little scary for a while.
SI: Did you hit him hard?
CB: He couldn't take a punch, and he was a bleeder [laughs]. I hit him one time with my left hand, and he went down, bleeding. Broke my hand, too.
SI: You broke your hand?
CB: Yeah. This little bone right here. [He points at his left hand.]
SI: And you've been playing anyway?
CB: The Sixers wouldn't pay me [if I sat out], so I played.
SI: So, how was jail?
CB: The cell was too small. I couldn't even move around. My advice to anyone over six feet tall is not to commit any crimes.
SI: On the road you're abused by fans more than just about anybody in the league. Why is that?
CB: Well, I'm a pain in the ass sometimes, but I feel if people take the time to come up and talk to me...I mean, I've been around athletes who are mean to people, and it's not a pretty picture.
SI: Like whom?
CB: Moses [Malone] is tough on fans. Manute [Bol].
SI: What kind of heckling do you hear?
CB: Well, I don't mind just heckles. But I go crazy if I hear racial slurs. Or when they get personal on my family.
SI: Is that why you hit the guy during that game in Indianapolis a couple years ago?
CB: He was just harassing my teammates, and I went to defend one of them. It was wrong, but you know, it gets tough sometimes to control yourself.
SI: How about the guy in New Jersey. What did he say that upset you? [Barkley spit at this fan during a game on March 26, 1991, and hit the little girl in front of him instead. The league suspended him for one game and fined him $10,000.]
CB: He was just on me the whole game. It was stupid because I didn't even mean to spit on anybody. On replays I did spit downward, but you would never really know what happened. In my rage of trying to spit down, I guess it flew everywhere. That's what really hurt me the most about that. That was a good experience for me, though.
SI: How so?
CB: That made me realize that you can't let anybody get you so mad that you could make a tragic mistake, so mad that you would beat your child or hit a woman or go out and kill somebody in a fit of rage. You need to sit back and look at yourself if you're that kind of person.
SI: And yet you carry a semiautomatic gun in your car. Don't you think that puts you in a dangerous position?
CB: No, I've had it for eight years, and I've never done anything. Only time I ever got in trouble for it was this policewoman searching my car for drugs. I mean, people —— with me all the time.
SI: But why a semiautomatic?
CB: Well, it's not against the law. I shouldn't carry a semiautomatic. I mean I can't explain why. It's just that I like that type of gun.
SI: Could you pull the trigger on somebody?
CB: If somebody tried to hurt somebody in my family, I could.
SI: Isn't it true that your wife has been harassed because of your interracial marriage? Didn't somebody spit on her once?
CB: Yeah. And afterward he said, "How do you like it?" And called her an "N lover." See, that's why I need my gun.
SI: Are you saying you might have killed that person if you were there?
CB: I would have kicked the —— out of the guy. But people don't do —— like that when I'm around. Only when I'm not. Like my wife and I were traveling together one day, and we had to leave each other. Two little kids saw us hugging, saying goodbye, and this little kid came up to her later and said, "I saw you hug Charles Barkley. Do you know him?" And she said, "Yeah, he's my husband." And the little kid says, "He can't be your husband. He's black." And my wife explained to the kid that it doesn't matter. All of a sudden my wife hears: "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't teach my son any bad habits."
Now, what about the guy in Chicago earlier this season? [On Jan. 15, Barkley was in a Chicago bar when teammate Jayson Williams broke a beer mug over a patron's head. No charges were ever filed against Williams or Barkley.]
CB: I had nothing to do with that. The media threw my name in for no reason. See, I haven't been talking to them all year. I think they want me out of town.
SI: The rumor is that you want yourself out of town.
CB: No. I want to stay here. I'm a man. I'm not a boy. I don't want to pick up my bat and ball and go home just' cause we're not winning. I don't want to bail out on the rest of the guys.
SI: But aren't these the guys you called lazy?
CB: Well, I was just saying our team has got to be professional. If you're not professional, then you're lazy on the job. Some guys didn't know the plays, and they weren't working hard. I told them: I don't care if we win or lose, just as long as we work hard. They owe me that and the other guys that.
SI: Are your feelings hurt when you hear the Sixers are considering trading you?
CB: It disappoints me that they would trade me. People know I'm not the problem. Why is it always the guy who plays well who gets blamed for not winning?
SI: Well, it's not your play that makes them want to trade you, it's your personality.
CB: No, I don't think so. They're between a rock and a hard place as far as the team is concerned. Do we trade Charles and rebuild? Or do we try to make it work?
SI: Have you ever tried to leave the Sixers?
CB: I've come close. I came close a lot of times to saying "I want out." I think the Sixers are a very difficult organization. They don't treat the people in the front office—the secretaries and the people—with respect. I'll give you an example. This year they have taken [back] the team chaplain's tickets, the doctor's tickets, the head security guard's tickets and the assistant equipment manager's tickets. That's just terrible.
The Sixers are gutless. For example, we can't have beer in the locker rooms. I can't have a beer after I run up and down the court for two hours, but they're going to serve it to the guy who's got a wife and two kids to drive home. That is so gutless. They're only concerned about making money.
SI: How do you get along with [team owner Harold] Katz?
CB: He treats me decent. Not great. He does things I don't like. I don't like the way he treated Rick [Mahorn]. They left a message on his machine to call the Sixers [last year]. He called and they said, "Rick, we're going to release you." Hey, they can come to his house or he can come there, and they can tell him person-to-person. Rick was devastated. And then the thing with Maurice Cheeks. A TV guy says to Maurice, "Well, how do you feel about the trade?" and Maurice says, "What trade?" The guy says, "You've been traded to New York." And the tears came to his eyes. I'll never forget that. It burns my heart every day. Here he was, one of the best point guards in basketball for 10 years, and they treat him like that. That's ridiculous.
SI: Isn't it true that at the end of his career, the Sixers wanted to trade Dr. J to Utah?
CB: They wanted to. They didn't want to pay him, actually. And everybody wonders why nobody ever wants to hang around the Sixers' organization.
SI: If they're going to treat Dr. J like that, do you think they'll treat you like that?
CB: You expect them to.
SI: Pretend you've been the Sixers' general manager throughout history. How do you alter the history of the team?
CB: The Moses Malone deal [Malone, Terry Catledge and two No. 1 drafts picks were dealt in 1986 to Washington for Cliff Robinson and Jeff Ruland, who played a total of five games and then sat out five years with knee injuries]. We still haven't found a center.
SI: What about your current center, Charles Shackleford?
CB: I don't think he can play center. I don't think he's big enough.
SI: What do you think of Armon Gilliam?
CB: He's a good player. He's a good person. He just frustrates me sometimes. I want to know why he's not consistent. This game is about consistency. One thing I'm proud of, I've been consistent for seven years. I think to be good in this league, you got to do it every single night.
SI: You're notoriously tough on teammates. Would you want to be your teammate?
CB: Well, I don't curse them out after the first mistake. Second mistake I might let go. Once they go to three and four, and I don't think they're playing hard—hey, we have an obligation to each other.
SI: Is that why you pointed at Mike Gminski one night earlier this season and motioned him to the bench?
CB: He wasn't playing well.
SI: But you're not the coach.
CB: Yeah, but if he's not playing well, it'll reflect on my team. He came to my defense. He admitted he was playing horrible.
SI: Whom will you yell at in the Olympics?
CB: You don't have to yell at superstars.
SI: Speaking of the Olympics, what did you think of Bill Laimbeer's threats of a lawsuit against the U.S. Olympic Committee because he didn't get a tryout?
CB: He wouldn't have got on that team.
SI: We heard a rumor that you like Laimbeer.
CB: Well, I like him. I enjoyed making a movie [Hot Shots] with him. I don't like some of the things he does on the court. I think he's literally tried to hurt people. I mean, I'm all for physical intimidation, but he does so much stuff on the court that's mean. You can grab somebody and stop them from making the shot without trying to put him through the floor.
SI: Back to the Olympics. It's ironic: The time you did try out for the team—1984—you didn't make it, and now, when you didn't try out, you made it.
CB: Well, in '84, I didn't really want to make it. I just wanted to move up in the draft.
SI: So why do you want to play in the Olympics now?
CB: This is different. How often do you get the chance to make history? I mean, I want to be on the greatest team ever assembled. They've had a million Olympic teams, but there's only been one of these.
SI: One of your teammates in Barcelona will be Magic Johnson. He recently told us that he was going to advise you to slow down and enjoy life a little. Did he?
CB: Yeah, he and Michael [Jordan] both told me. I told Magic, "You're right. I should have fun. But it's very difficult when you're five games below .500." It's frustrating when you're losing. Those guys are my friends, but they play with great teams year after year. They can't stand in my shoes.
SI: Speaking of Magic, do you stand by your statement that he shouldn't have played in the All-Star Game because he'd be taking away attention from—
CB: No, that's not what I said. I said that as a friend of Magic, I feel bad about what some Lakers—A.C. Green, Byron Scott—said about him [that he shouldn't play]. And some of the media were killing him. As a friend I said I was going to call him and say, "Maybe you should stay home because you don't need all this abuse." The "attention" thing was two different conversations. The guy [interviewing me] has been telling people I didn't say anything detrimental about Magic.
SI: How did the news about him hit you?
CB: Like a ton of bricks. It was a frightening thing. It was the most stunning news I think I've ever heard.
SI: Have you been tested?
CB: Yes. I passed.
SI: Were you scared?
CB: No, because I am not afraid to die. I have accomplished everything I want to accomplish in my life. My only goal in life was to make sure my family has a great life. I have accomplished that.
SI: Let's go on to a few other things. First: How do you get misquoted in your own book? [When Barkley's autobiography, Outrageous, was published in January, Barkley said his co-author, SI senior editor Roy S. Johnson, had misinterpreted certain things—all of which, as it happened, were controversial and got Barkley in trouble with his team's management.]
CB: That was my fault. I should have read it before it came out.
SI: O.K., now, this may be strange, but would you mind ranking your body parts?
CB: Well, number one has to be my legs. I've got supreme confidence in my legs. I'll put my legs up against anybody's. Two would be my mind. I know how to play the game. You can't fool me. I might make a mistake, but I know what it takes to be successful, and I know who can play and who can't.
That's about the only parts that work. I'm serious. I got bad ankles, bad knees, bad back, bad shoulders. Other than that, I'm fine.
SI: There's probably not another head like yours in the universe. Could you describe it?
CB: Well, I'm a man who keeps his hair cut low because he's going bald, number one. And number two, he hates to comb it. I just woke up one morning and I saw my hair wasn't growing at the top, and I said, "I don't want to grow up bald." So I shaved it.
SI: Who shaved first, you or Jordan?
CB: I think I started first.
SI: We presume Michael is represented in your autograph collection. Whose autographs do you have so far?
CB: Anyone more famous than me. Brett Hull. I've got Wayne Gretzky's hockey stick. Ron Hextall gave me a puck. Dr. J's shoes. Richie Allen's bat. Magic Johnson's jersey. Larry Bird's jersey.
SI: What's it like to walk up to Larry Bird after you've been beating on him all night and ask for his autograph?
CB: Well, I just tell him I respect him a lot. You can't get good in basketball unless you work your ass off, so I feel like I have something in common with these guys.
SI: A number of them—Gretzky, Magic, Bird—have won championships. Right now it looks like you will never win an NBA championship. How does that feel?
CB: It hurts. For me, it's a burden with God. He has blessed me so much. If I got a ring, it would make me feel like I've used everything he has given to me.
SI: Let's say you've got winners at the playground, and you get to pick four guys in the history of the NBA to be on your team. What players do you pick to keep the court?
CB: Well, Maurice Cheeks is going to be my point. Then it's a toss-up between Jordan and Andrew Toney at off guard.
SI: They're just sitting there. Got to pick one.
CB: I'd take Andrew. Andrew Toney was the best I played with. He was so good sometimes it was frightening. My center would be Moses Malone. The most tenacious rebounder ever. In his prime he was the best rebounder that ever lived. And my power forward would be Kevin McHale. Best player I've ever played against. No question. Unstoppable.
SI: If you could steal a part of Bird's game, what would it be?
CB: I already took a part of Bird's game—mental toughness. I learned from him how to play hard every night.
SI: Magic's old game?
CB: Ability to see the floor.
SI: Kevin Johnson's?
CB: Kevin Johnson, I thought, was the best point guard in the league two years ago, but he didn't fulfill that. Now I think Tim Hardaway is the best point guard in the league.
CB: His championship ring.
SI: Try this one. What do you secretly crave?
CB: Chocolate chip ice cream.
CB: Oh. Well, to learn to play the piano, to take karate and to learn a foreign language. Oh, and try out for the [Philadelphia] Eagles one year. If my shoulder didn't hurt so bad, I'd do it.
SI: We've heard you're impeccably neat. Could you give us a tour of your closet?
CB: Everything has got to be perfect. Every shoe matches perfect. I've got a little spot in the corner for my tennis shoes. I've got about 20 pair of them stacked neatly on top of each other. The shirts are in their little section, all lacing the same way. People think I'm strange, but I think it's normal to be clean. I mean, like I get on the guys' cases. They'll take tape off in the locker room and just drop it. I say, "Is it really going to be that difficult to take two seconds out of your life to walk up to the trash can and drop it in there?"
SI: You're the kind of person who re-vacuums a room because they didn't get the lines exactly right, aren't you?
CB: Yeah. You've got to have the lines going the same direction.
SI: Please don't demonstrate, but do the head butts you do with teammates hurt?
CB: No, but a couple of kids' parents called and said we should stop doing them because their kids got hurt doing it.
SI: Did you?
SI: Speaking of childhood, did you ever steal as a kid?
CB: That's when I actually got started playing basketball, because I had started the stealing. We weren't stealing anything big. We were about 15, just stealing stuff to have something to do. We were going into stores and stealing ink pens. One day I stole about 100 pens for no reason whatsoever. We just had a contest, who could steal the most pens. Then we stole cakes. We noticed every Sunday night that this big delivery truck would deliver all the cakes for the week to the supermarkets. We could have any kind of cake we wanted. Like a big, seven-foot-tall cake. One night the police chased us and almost killed us. We ran into these woods. A cop said "freeze," but we didn't freeze. We just started crawling on our hands and knees through the woods. I crawled like 200 yards that night, on my hands and knees. And I ran into a damn tree. It gave me a big knot across my forehead. That's when I said, "Hold it. There's got to be a better way." That's when I started playing basketball.
SI: Did you try drugs?
CB: I smoked pot a couple times. I didn't like it. Every time I tried to keep it in, I'd choke. I'm scared to try cocaine.
SI: Is that because your brother Darryl suffered a stroke because of coke?
CB: Yeah. He's clean now, but he messed up his life with that stroke. I'm proud of him, though, because he's made a miraculous comeback.
SI: What caused the stroke exactly?
CB: Well, he had a thyroid problem, but obviously if he hadn't been doing drugs, he maybe wouldn't have had the stroke.
SI: How has it affected him?
CB: He'll never be 100 percent again. He's not as quick and mobile as he used to be, both in his speech and physically. He can't move his hand too good.
SI: What's he doing now?
CB: Nothing. I think he works for me doing nothing. Best job in the world.
SI: How do we get that job?
CB: Sorry. Got to be family.
Barkley has always been one to speak his mind.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
Barkley says the thrust in his legs keeps him at the top.