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Original Issue

Rattling the Wrong Cage

Despite being baited by boorish bar patrons, Charles Barkley refuses to hide

There is so much work to do. I ride with Charles Barkley across the landscape of America, the two of us tying up our horses outside the arenas and sports taverns of the land. Our hats are pulled low. Our spurs jingle-jangle as we walk. The dust of the trail covers our well-worn jeans.

"Sarsaparilla," Charles says to the bartenders.

"Make it two," I say.

The idiots await. Always the idiots. They always have a fresh comment, a stupid request.

"Hey, Charles, what's the matter with those Phoenix Suns?"

"Hey, Charles, why'd you miss those free throws?"

"Hey, Charles, sign these 48 cocktail napkins for everyone I know. Write legibly, too, so they know it's really you."

The liquor always seems to be working its evil ways with these people. Or maybe these people simply are stupid. Hard to say. There are so many good people out there, regular sports fans, but there also are so many idiots. So much work to do.

"Hit 'em," I tell Charles.

"Do I have to?" he asks.

"Just crank 'em a good one," I say. "Let's get it over with, fast."

He is the last American hero. That is the job he has chosen to accept. He is the avenging angel, the cartoon savior of the city, the last athlete in the world to actually walk and talk among the masses. The other big-time, big-money athletes have elected to retreat from normal life, to move to the insulated show-biz world of limousines and bodyguards and exclusive country clubs. Charles is still out there with the people, no matter what. I am with him. I am his aide, his confidant, his comical sidekick.

Every night there is the potential for confrontation. Some bigmouth with dreams of fame and/or fortune will make himself known. He has the phone number of the local newspaper in one pocket, the number of a good lawyer in the other. For a moment, in front of a girlfriend or a gathering of his boyhood friends, he can dance with notoriety. Bait the tiger. Rattle the old cage. Maybe the guy figures he can wind up on Oprah, telling his harrowing talc. Maybe he is thinking of Court TV. Hard to say. The beauty is that Charles is ready to oblige.

"You think you're a big man, huh?" the idiot will say.

"Bigger than you," Charles will reply.

"Whack him, Charles," I say.

His recent quote—"Just because I'm famous doesn't mean I have to take any crap"—is lovely. He was accused twice within nine days last month of striking different customers at Stixx, a disco pool hall in Scottsdale, Ariz. The names of the two men, the two customers, were suddenly in the news all across the country, appearing under headlines that said something like BARKLEY ACCUSED IN INCIDENT. The fact that a manager of the bar said both of the men deserved a good punch did not make most of the stories. The fact that neither man pressed charges was noted later under smaller headlines, if it was noted at all.

"Charles is the best," the Stixx manager, Katrina Santa Maria, said. "When he first started coming here, I didn't know what to expect. I'd read all these stories.... I was wondering if he was some kind of wild man. Then he came here and was the best. He never asked for any special privileges. He never brought a bodyguard or asked for one of our doormen to stand near him. He just likes people. He has signed more autographs than anyone who ever came here. Both of the guys who bothered him were way out of line. The first guy was complaining that he chipped a tooth. There was nothing. It was ridiculous."

The trend in all of society is to let the idiots take control. Who needs the trouble? Walk away. The idiots control the downtowns of the nation after dark. The idiots control the subways, the schools, the movie theaters. Who will even complain when a group keeps talking during the showing of the latest Lethal Weapon thriller? Walk away. Swallow. It all is so much easier that way. Rent a movie instead of leaving home to watch one.

Charles does not swallow. He does not stay home. The idiots have forced Michael Jordan from the scene, sending him first to his elegant prisons in hotel suites across the country, then into retirement, but Charles is still out there. He meets with people. He asks them their names and listens to their politely told stories. He tries to live a normal life in his abnormal situation. He says he isn't a role model, but who is a better one? There are times when the grind seems to get to him (just last week the Arizona Republic had a story in which he said he might retire at the end of this season), but he keeps going.

Life is for living. That is his daily, nightly message. He is a throwback to John L. Sullivan, to George Herman Ruth, to big men in easier, simpler times. He certainly is for truth and for justice and for the old American way. If complications arise, they are handled on a one-to-one basis. Heck, he is a throwback to marshal Matt Dillon, walking the mean streets of Dodge City.

"What do you think, Chester?" he asks.

"I think we keep riding, Charles," I say.

So much work to do.