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He's Everywhere

Charles Barkley is celebrated on buses in Phoenix, on basketball courts across the nation and in ads around the world

The mobile home is no surprise. This is for you to use, Charles. No surprise at all. In live or six routine steps Charles Barkley moves from the air-conditioned comfort of a white limousine to the air-conditioned mobile home in this parking lot behind the North High School gym in Phoenix. No surprise. This happens all the time. This is his amazing life this year. The preposterous is normal.

A man has laid out a black gym outfit and a new pair of basketball shoes on the bed. For you, Charles.

A woman has brought a boom box into the little kitchenette, stacking 20 of the latest CDs next to it. In case you want to listen to some music, Charles.

Another woman has brought food. Stuffed chicken with rice. If this pleases you, Charles.... No? The woman has taken away the stuffed chicken and returned in less than a minute with tenderloin of beef. Better? Enjoy, Charles.

The nagging little details of daily existence, the hanging threads of errands to run and tasks to do, have been expertly tied into so many square knots by other fingers. Charles is free to be Charles. Anything you need. Give me a call. That is what the woman says. In the high school gym more than 50 people await Charles's arrival, everyone on the clock, everyone being paid to film yet another shoe commercial. Nike. There is a man who will spray a fine mist on Charles's bald head to simulate perspiration. There is a man who will find Charles a chair the minute he feels he wants to sit. Here, Charles, a chair. There is a man...there is a man who is a Charles Barkley look-alike. He won a contest at a local radio station. His prize is the opportunity to stand in front of the cameras while all the adjustments are made to lights and background and camera angles. When all of the boring necessities are completed, Charles will move into the picture.

This scene is not as complicated as the one in which Charles played one-on-one basketball with Godzilla. That Nike commercial took three days to shoot outside San Francisco, Charles walking through a cardboard city to meet the famous monster. There was a man inside the Godzilla suit, another man to work Godzilla's mechanized face. Charles dunked on Godzilla. Maybe, you big lug, you should wear some shoes.

No, this is a normal commercial, one day of shooting, more than 50 people on the clock. Normal and amazing.

"I just did one for a noodle company in Japan," Barkley says as he stretches across the brown leather couch in the mobile home, eating his beef tenderloin. "They taught me the words in Japanese phonetically. It was fun. The other big noodle company's guy in Japan is Arnold Schwarzenegger. I'm going against Arnold Schwarzenegger."


"I did one for Nike that they only showed overseas at first, but now they're showing it here," Barkley says. "I did opera for it. A guy from the Los Angeles opera came to teach me how to sing for two hours, eight to 10 in the morning. At noon he had to leave to go sing the lead in some kind of Broadway show. He could really sing."


Every day seems to be like this, every single day. There might be variations in circumstances—the arrival of broadcaster Marv Albert at Barkley's new Paradise Valley home to conduct an in-depth interview for a new television show; or a visit to a photographer's studio in L.A. to shoot some pictures for Newsweek; or a night at work in the new America West Arena, leading the Phoenix Suns against, say, the New York Knicks while a Claymation Charles Barkley figure preaches physical fitness from the megascreens overhead during timeouts—but the buzz of attention bordering on adoration is constant. This is his time. This is his year.

After eight increasingly tumultuous seasons in the uniform of the Philadelphia 76ers, each year grinding him down further and further, capped by a 1991-92 season of frustrations on and off the court, Barkley has taken the most magical of modern celebrity carpet rides. New city. New team. New, preposterous life. The sun shines virtually every day, the rigors of a hard eastern winter reduced to a television picture on the nightly news. The team, the Suns, wins more often than any team in the NBA. The man, Barkley, is seriously discussed as the MVP of the entire league for the first time in his career. He has moved into the rarefied commercial air breathed in the NBA before only by Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. Magic is gone, and Larry is gone, and everyone else has been left behind. Michael and Charles are alone.

"I'm probably closer to Michael than to anyone else in the league," Barkley says in the mobile home as the 50 people wait, on the clock, to film the commercial. "We talk a lot on the phone. I called him the other day. I was watching him play on TV, and he looked tired in the fourth quarter. I wanted to talk to him about it. We know each other's problems better than anyone else. We deal with the same things."

For Jordan the life has become a grand imposition. He has become a room-service prisoner of his celebrity, unable to go to restaurants or movies or even to walk the streets. He has retreated from the autograph seekers and the backslappers and the noise, emerging only for the work. For Barkley, the most public of public figures, mouth moving at all times, opinions delivered on any topic, eyes looking at all aberrations on the landscape, this is not a possibility. Retreat? He is riding a hot-air balloon, and at last all the sandbags have been thrown overboard, and he is going as high as he can go.

"I understand what Michael is doing," Barkley says, "but that's not me. These are my glory days. I'm not going to spend them locked inside some room."

This is his time. Now. In Phoenix.

The city and the man are a perfect match. Barkley all but stands on the outskirts of town on Interstate 10, in the newly designed purple and orange Sun uniform, and greets new arrivals. "Welcome to my city," he says, again and again, to any new face. The city, still recovering from the bad national publicity of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday controversy and the withdrawal of the 1993 Super Bowl, all but puts Barkley's picture on a new local flag. See? Everything is fine. The holiday everywhere else is now a holiday here. The Super Bowl is coming after all, in 1996. Charles is here already.

"It's absurd to dislike a city because it doesn't have a holiday," Barkley says. "There are a lot of places that have Martin Luther King Day that are a lot more racist than Phoenix. I like it. It's quiet, but I like it."

The fit has been so good, so easy, so logical—man finds rebirth in desert while desert is reborn with man, cash registers ringing everywhere—that the trade that brought Barkley to Phoenix seems almost preordained. How could this not have happened? One day can make such a difference. A few words are spoken on a telephone. An agreement is reached. One day. A life is changed.

"June 17, 1992," Barkley says. "That is when good things started happening for me. And they haven't stopped."

The first good thing that happened that day took place in a Milwaukee courtroom, where Barkley was acquitted of assaulting a James McCarthy the previous December. This was the final leftover from the Sixers' long season, in which the team had finished with a record of 35-47, out of the playoffs, and Barkley had become a figure of controversy. He had feuded with management, feuded with teammates and been accused of dogging it when the team fell out of the playoff race. One of the many sidelights was the smack he landed to the head of McCarthy while returning to a Milwaukee hotel from a tavern after a game. The jury judged that McCarthy had provoked the smack. End of case. End of season.

While waiting for his flight back to Philadelphia that day, Barkley placed a call to the 76ers' front office. He talked with general manager Jimmy Lynam, just to kill time. Lynam provided more good news. Good? The best. He said a deal was just about clinched to send Barkley to Phoenix for guard Jeff Hornacek, center Andrew Lang and forward Tim Perry. Could Barkley call back in about 20 minutes? Barkley called back. The deal was official. Barkley celebrated.

"When I got on the plane, I bought everyone a drink," he says. "I told the stewardesses, A round of drinks for everyone. I've just been traded.' You know what? They didn't even charge me. They gave everyone the drinks."

The deal had been a possibility for more than a year. Barkley had been agitating loudly for a trade. He thought that Sixer owner Harold Katz was a cost-cutter, looking for profit rather than wins, unable and unwilling to put together a championship operation. Every move Katz made seemed tied to reducing the payroll, more expensive players dumped in favor of younger, cheaper replacements. Barkley felt doomed to mediocrity at best in Philadelphia. The Suns, on the other side, felt locked in an upper echelon of mediocrity. They had a team that had averaged 54 wins over the previous four seasons but had never been able to take that next step toward a championship. They needed some extra ingredient, a big rebounder, a star-quality leader, "a guy like Charles Barkley," according to Sun president Jerry Colangelo. They pursued the original before looking for a copy.

"Everything with trades is timing," Colangelo says. "We'd made inquiries a year earlier, but the time wasn't right. The Sixers weren't ready to trade Charles yet. This time, a year later, they were. From the beginning of our talks, I felt we could make a deal. When I added Hornacek to the package, that made it. I didn't want to trade Jeff—he'd played very well for us—but I knew that was what I had to do."

Barkley and his agent Glenn Guthrie had been hoping for Phoenix or Portland or Seattle. They figured the Sixers never would make a deal with an Eastern team. What pretty good Western team wanted to shake up its operation? Phoenix was perfect.

Barkley bounded from the plane in Philadelphia as if a ransom had been paid to his kidnappers in small, unmarked bills. Standing in front of the waiting television lights, answering questions, he looked across the airport hallway and, oddity of oddities, spotted Clarence Weather-spoon, whom the Sixers would choose in the first round of the draft a week later, arriving in Philadelphia for workouts. Barkley walked up to him, shook his hand and said, "I feel for you, man." Somebody else could have the old problems now. Barkley was going to Phoenix.

"It's all a question of being appreciated," he says. "I wanted to go to a place where I was going to be appreciated. I think they knew in Philadelphia they were going to trade me, and they were laying all the problems on me. They were trying to make me out to be a bad guy, questioning my character. That's what I resented.

"I just spoke the truth. Reporters asked me about our team, and I said that we didn't have the talent to win, that we had guys who didn't play hard. Management would always say, 'You're not being supportive of your teammates.' I said, 'How can I be supportive if they're not hustling, not playing hard?' Management said they weren't hustling because I wasn't being supportive. It was time for me to go. I loved Philadelphia, and I loved the Sixers—I'll always think of myself as a Sixer—but I hated the organization."

The next good thing that happened was that Barkley decided to play on the Dream Team. For 48 hours his participation was in question. Everything seemed to be happening too fast. He spent the night of Thursday, June 18, packing a suitcase with clean clothes, for he was scheduled to fly on Friday to Phoenix for a welcoming press conference. The Olympic team was scheduled to begin practice on Monday in San Diego.

How could he do all he had to do? His first thought was to forget the Olympics and simply spend the summer in Phoenix, buying and furnishing a house, settling in, clearing out of his head all the negatives that had accumulated. In addition to his basketball problems, his marriage had become unsettled. Charles was separated from his wife, Maureen, and his three-year-old daughter, Christiana.

"I'm a guy who likes to be alone when he goes home," he says. "Especially when things are going bad. I don't like to let a lot of things out. I like to work them out for myself. You lead a public life, you want to be alone. That's hard to do when you're married."

For two days he thought he would skip the Olympics, but in the end he decided, almost out of obligation, to join the Dreamers in San Diego. He says now it was the perfect decision. Hadn't he been saying that he wanted to play with good players? On the Dream Team he could play with the best. In the team's grand intercontinental sweep over all opposition in Barcelona, Barkley was the leading light in a group of leading lights, the top scorer, the most visible presence, the worldwide headline as he snarled and growled and elbowed Angolans and Lithuanians and Croatians out of the way.

Who was this bald-headed American tank, only about 6'5", outjumping everyone else, controlling the backboards, making his own imprint on every game? This was the start of the glory time, Barkley's personal renaissance. This brought both new lingers and old lingers to type out words of praise and recognition.

"I couldn't believe what some of these guys were writing," Barkley says. "It was like they suddenly discovered I was good. I'd always been good."

When the Olympics were finished he went for a two-week vacation on a Hawaiian island, paid for by Nike. He played golf every day with Jordan, 54 holes a day, whooping and hollering and missing far too many putts. Also on the trip was Cotton Fitzsimmons, retired at the end of the season as the Suns' coach, now an executive vice-president in the organization. He and Barkley talked about the team, about the future, about everything.

"I told him I was a Bill Clinton man and a black multimillionaire," Barkley says. "He was a Bush man. He said if Clinton got elected, I'd be just a black millionaire by the time Clinton got through. And then he said if I got divorced from Maureen, I'd be just black. I liked that. Rush Limbaugh used it later on his show."

When Barkley eventually returned to Phoenix, buying and furnishing his new house in one week before training camp, trying to remember the numbered streets and avenues of his new city on a map in his mind, Fitzsimmons took him to the fourth level of the new arena, which was scheduled to open with the Suns' first exhibition game. Fitzsimmons pointed to the 20,000 upholstered seats and told Barkley that all of those seats had been sold before the trade, so Barkley had nothing to do with it. Fitzsimmons said that all the bricks had been laid, all the mortar spread. Barkley had nothing to do with that, either. Other Sun teams had built the building with their success. Barkley had had no part.

"There is one thing, though," Fitzsimmons said. "Look at the ceiling. See what's missing."

A championship flag. Barkley could do something about that. The thought sent a friendly jolt through his body.

The commercial is shot in sequences. In the first sequence Barkley dribbles with his back to the basket, his substantial butt bouncing off the handheld camera, clearing space as he pounds the ball on the wooden floor. In the second sequence he grabs a succession of loud rebounds, thumping the ball between his hands. In the third he dunks. In the fourth he talks. There are always lulls between sequences, and sometimes Barkley goes back to the mobile home and sometimes he doesn't. He stays to have fun.

"You're my double?" he says to the man who has won the look-alike contest. "You're supposed to look like me?"

"That's what everybody says," the man, Buddy Cheeks, a worker at a local counseling center, says. "I go places. People think I'm you."

Barkley is indignant.

"Well, either I'm not as good-looking as I thought I was," he says, "or maybe I'm just flat-out ugly. Or maybe some white people were judging the contest, and it's true, we all do look alike."

There are titters in the background. There are flat-out laughs. Checks doesn't know what to make of all this. He came mostly to sec what this Charles Barkley guy is like. This is what he's like?

"We don't look alike," Barkley says. "I can't look like you. Does your wife think you're good-looking?"

"Does your wife think you're good-looking?" Cheeks offers in reply.

"No," Barkley says quickly. "She thinks I've got $25 million."

Fun. He has fun with the director, a big, long-haired guy named Joe Pytka, who has filmed many of the Nike commercials and the Ray Charles "Uh-Huh" spots for Diet Pepsi. Barkley has fun with little kids who approach asking him for his autograph. He tells them to call him Chuck and instructs them to buy his shoes: "They only cost $140. Get it from your parents." He has fun with John Edwards, a friend since high school, from the housing projects in Leeds, Ala. Edwards visits Barkley often for a ride on the celebrity tide and then returns to Leeds, where he works as a heavy-machine operator at a coat-hanger factory. Edwards is four years older than Barkley.

"John, tell everybody about your team in high school when you were a senior," Barkley says loudly. "Tell about the state tournament."

"That's all right," Edwards says.

"No, tell 'em how you lost. Tell 'em how you had a great team, but you choked in the tournament. My team...we were the best. Well, I was injured, and we never won the championship, but we were the best. You didn't even get out of the sectionals. Right?"

"I have to admit it. We choked."

"And the girl?"

"A girl scored 14 points in the game against us. I have to admit that."

"A girl scored 14 points!"

"She was good, the girl."

"A girl!"

Fun. Barkley screams that the girl's name was Sandra Murray. Sandra Murray scored 14 points. Can you believe it? Sandra Murray. Checks, the look-alike, suddenly is bold. He asks if making commercials is always so much fun.

"Making commercials is repetition," Barkley says. "You have to do the same thing over and over. Ain't no commercial that's fun to do. Ain't nothing fun to do over and over except sex."

More titters. Fun.

"Charles is the funnest guy I've ever played with," Sun teammate Danny Ainge says. "He reminds me a lot of Kevin McHale and Cedric Maxwell and M.L. Carr, guys I played with on the Celtics, guys who would have all this fun, but when the game started, they'd be right there. That's Charles."

"A woman out here said it best," Sun coach Paul Westphal says. "She said the world is filled with bad people who try to make themselves look good. Charles is the opposite. He's a good guy trying to make himself look bad."

The trade, the success have brought the fun back to him. Oh, it probably was still there at the end in Philadelphia, but it was buried under the losing and the nagging questions about the losing. How much better is it when people ask every day why your team is great rather than why it stinks? A year ago the odd comment just sounded odd. Now the mischievous twinkle in Barkley's eye is noticed again, with the realization that the words are said sometimes only to shock, to get a reaction. Here the reactions are so different.

"Something would happen in Philadelphia, and it would become a big deal," Barkley says. "We had a fight here one day in practice, Kevin Johnson and Tim Kempton. Here it was a humorous story. One day. In Philadelphia the stories would have run for a week."

The perceptions are so much kinder in Phoenix. Barkley is the city's first star. O.K., its first superstar. Maybe, people think, this is how all superstars act. Barkley has been adopted in the city as the good kid with the wicked mouth, the teacher's hidden pet, the one who makes the class laugh. His daily ramblings on a variety of subjects are reported in a column in The Arizona Republic called "Barkley Beat." His television show with Fitzsimmons, a half hour on Sunday nights, is a local hit. He reviews movies on the show. Chuck on Film. He picks out villains in local sports life. Geek of the Week. He laughs a lot.

The home locker room, as spacious as the locker room at an elegant country club, has become his room. He finishes a game and moves to a Jacuzzi the size of a used-car lot, sitting in the swirling waters for 15 or 20 minutes, a yellow rubber duck perched near his arm. He shouts something like, "What's the deal with these Catholic priests?" as he passes the large television on the way to his locker and sees a local news report about a man of the cloth in trouble. He grabs a light beer from a large refrigerator. He talks to the always-waiting crowd.

"He said one night...what was it?" Ainge says. "He said, 'Ninety-nine percent of the people in this country are worthless.' That's Charles. I mean, the thought was probably right, that most of us aren't living up to our potential, but the way he said it...."

He said one night, when asked what he would be doing if he weren't a basketball star, that he probably would be in "porn, video porn." That brought a letter to the Republic from a Douglas Bennett of Scottsdale, an associate pastor. He decried Barkley's lack of Christian behavior on the court and said that if Barkley had made those comments in a Muslim country, he would be "put to death." No one else said much.

On another night Barkley was asked what he knew about Indianapolis, the hometown of the Pacers, the Suns' next opponent. He said he knew Indianapolis was a city in the Midwest. The follow-up question was whether or not he had good grades in geography in college at Auburn. He said he never worried about his grades in college because he knew that "as long as I was leading the SEC in rebounding, my grades would be fine."

"You have to have a sense of humor when you listen to him," Westphal says. "I think most people understand, but some people just don't get it. They should put a little more bran in their diet or something. Charles is just going to say things. Most of the time he's just having fun.

"My favorite incident was when we were waiting for him on a bus somewhere. He's the last one on the bus all the time, but that figures, because he always has the most to do, talking with reporters and everything. He comes out, and if there are four or five people waiting for autographs, he signs. But if there are 100 people waiting, he just can't do it. He knows we're all waiting.

"Well, this night he comes out, and there are 100. No time. He moves through everybody, refusing everybody, but just before he gets to the bus this woman holds up this little kid. She says, 'Charles, will you sign? For the kid?' Charles notices the kid, stops and signs. This naturally gets everyone else going. 'Just one more, Charles. For me? Just one more?' Charles picks up his bag, looks at everyone and says, 'I signed one. The rest of you can die.' It was just so perfect. All of Charles in one moment. The good Charles signing for the kid. The bad Charles telling everyone to die. Perfect."

Two weekends ago both the good and the bad Charles were having dinner at a restaurant in Scottsdale. A woman asked him to sign a napkin for her, and he graciously complied. Then she asked for more autographs, and he refused. They argued. The woman tore up the signed napkin and threw it at him, and Barkley poured his beer on her.

The qualities he has added to the team on the basketball court have been obvious. In a short time the Suns virtually have been rebuilt around him. The always-good team has become better. The Suns are as much Barkley's show as the Sixers ever were. How opposing teams handle him, whether they decide to double-team him or play him in a straight man-to-man, determines what the Suns do. Barkley is the beginning of the offense. The foundation.

"So much has been made of the idea that now he has much more talent on his team," Ainge, another addition to the Suns this season, says. "Well, maybe he has more talent around him, but if you look at us, we're not an overpowering team. We don't have the overpowering center. Only Kevin Johnson, of all of us, really can create his own offense. The rest of us are complementary players. We work off what Charles does. I do, Dan Majerle does, Cedric Ceballos, Mark West, Tom Chambers. All of us."

"He gets rebounds that no one ever has gotten here," Fitzsimmons says. "There was a play the other night against Portland. He went up between Buck Williams and Jerome Kersey for a rebound. Charles came down with the ball. No one we've ever had here would have gotten that ball. He's such an interesting player. He's always intrigued me. Someone his size. How does he do it? There simply aren't guys that size who play pro basketball. They all have become linebackers somewhere. He jumps so well for a big man, moves so well. You add to that his personality, his heart. That was why I wanted him here. No problem."

The idea from the beginning has been to make life easy for Barkley, to make him feel instantly at home. Be the star. Play here. Be happy. Fitzsimmons's wife virtually decorated Barkley's house. Fitzsimmons is his neighbor, always close with advice. What do you want to do, Charles? The pace of life is slower in the Southwest, but there are compensations. Enjoy the weather. Play golf. No nightlife? The satellite dish was one of the first installations at Barkley's new house.

"I watch sports at all hours," Barkley says. "I watch any kind of sports. I love boxing best. I'd watch boxing 24 hours a day if it was on, enjoy it all the time. The money these guys make? I'd do that. I'd get in there with George Foreman, and I'll tell you, it'd all be over fast. I wouldn't be boxing him, I'd be fighting him. What I'm saying, I guess, is that I'd be knocked out for the right amount of money."

His wife has noticed a change. She says that this, at last, "is the guy I wanted to marry five years ago," freed from dealing with "those knuckleheads in Philadelphia." She still is living in their house in Philadelphia, but she and Christiana have visited Phoenix and will visit again. Barkley says he never mentioned the word divorce and is trying to make things better in this relationship. He carried his daughter around the arena as if she were the best MVP trophy of all. She saw her first game. She fell asleep. He asked her why she should fall asleep when "I'm the one who's getting beat up, not you." He laughed. He says he wants to share his good fortune, that the people who have "been through the thin should be here for the thick."

His thick, it seems, grows thicker daily. The endorsement interest in him—advanced into the Michael Jordan category (international) by the good performance in Barcelona—continues to grow. The media interest, with the Suns' good season and his good season, became so intense around the All-Star Game that Barkley stopped doing interviews. Took a break. Julie Fie, the Suns' director of public relations, sometimes feels as if she is Barkley's director of public relations.

"I've never been involved in anything like this," she says. "I worked in Sacramento for 11 seasons, and the only person close to this was Bill Russell when he became general manager. That was easy. Everyone wanted to talk to Bill Russell. Bill Russell didn't talk to anyone. All I had to do was say no. With Charles you have to work out a schedule, make sure he isn't doing too much."

"If you laid the trade out on paper, predicting all the best things that could happen, you wouldn't have laid it out as well as this," Guthrie says. With two games left in the season, Barkley is fourth in the NBA in scoring, with a 26.0 average, 16th in shooting percentage at 52.1%. He is sixth in rebounding. His salary is $2.42 million, in the third year of a nine-year contract. His endorsement earnings? If the Suns win the NBA title, there should be no limit.

"This is what I wanted to do in Philadelphia," Barkley says. "That's the only part of the dream that's missing. That I'm not doing this in a Sixer uniform."

The commercial is finished. Barkley has said his lines enough times for the director: "I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I can dunk a basketball, that doesn't mean I should raise your kids." He likes the commercial. These are his true sentiments. He likes most of the commercials he has done. They are all in keeping with the image he has of himself.

As he moved into the limousine, there was a rush of autograph activity. He signed all the pictures and T-shirts there were to sign. He signed for his look-alike.

"You are a relatively handsome man," he told Buddy Cheeks.

"Really?" Cheeks said.

"Yeah, your relatives all think you're handsome."

Now Barkley is stretched out in the back of the limo. His knees are killing him. There was a game last night, there will be another tomorrow night. His knees didn't need these dunks in between.

What can he do? Dunks are his business. The third finger on his right hand is swollen and hurting. He hit it on the rim of the basket. There is an assortment of scratches along his arms and shoulders, leftovers from rebounding work. More will follow in the coming weeks.

"I'm going to retire in two more years," he says. "That's it. Gone. I'm going to learn how to play the piano, how to do karate and how to speak in sign language. Those are my goals. I'm not ruling out coaching or working in broadcasting, but I'm going to be retired. I'll be 32. I'll be set for life. I'll be retired."

He says that he is going to wring all the enjoyment possible from what is happening now, here. Recently he was watching Phil Simms, the New York Giant quarterback, on some show on cable. Simms talked about winning the Super Bowl and not appreciating the moment. He was too young. He thought that winning and championships came easy. These words sounded right to Barkley. In his early years in Philadelphia, with Dr. J, Julius Erving, and Moses Malone, it seemed that wins were as easy to find as tap water. Since then this obviously has not been the case. Everything can change in a hurry. Everything can disappear.

"You realize how short all this is," Barkley says. "You never hear about Dr. J anymore. You never hear about Magic. Magic! He played last year!"

Edwards, Barkley's boyhood friend, has a sports section. They look at the standings—Phoenix in first—and try to figure out the approaching playoffs. Barkley says he would love to play the Los Angeles Lakers. Phoenix would beat the Lakers in four straight. The limousine follows broad highways back to his house. There is little traffic a few minutes before seven on this Saturday evening. There is no noise coming in from outside. The windows are closed so the air-conditioning can do its work.

"You know, you say two years," Edwards says. "I think you should go for five."

"Five?" Barkley says. "You want me to play five more years?"

"Five. I need five. Then I'll be satisfied," says Edwards.

"I get it. You want five so you can visit me for five years. You like this, huh? The games. The limousines. The stuff."

"Just give me five."

Barkley laughs. How could he keep going like this for five more years? Somewhere he is dunking on Godzilla again. Somewhere he is singing in Italian. Somewhere he is talking in Japanese. The film for the latest commercial, no doubt, is on the way to a processing plant. Edits will be made. Sound tracks will be synchronized. The mist of water on Barkley's head will become a glow, the rebounds and the dribbling and the dunks cast in a surreal light, sent into the air in order to land in the strangest of places. Somewhere, someone is planning yet another project for Charles. What will it be?

"You have to keep your perspective with all of this," Barkley says. "This is a job, and someone's got to do it. I'm just glad it's me."

Sir Charles. Indeed.





The ubiquitous Barkley has inspired everything from a female fan's chrome dome to Claymation figures in a public-service ad to sneaker-sponsored mock opera.



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What Barkley lacks in size he more than makes up for in heart and strength.



Barkley's act plays even in Milwaukee and for a pair of Bostonians (with Ainge).



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Barkley bubbles over when talking about how ducky his life is in Phoenix.



Playing for a title contender has brought the joy back into Barkley's game.