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It is 6:30 a.m. when the potential Alabama gubernatorial candidate arrives at an Atlanta hotel, registering under the name of a prehistoric cartoon character, an alias that has replaced his old favorite, Homer Simpson. It has been a long day and night. He has played 18 holes of golf, uncoiling (far too often) his burly torso into a frightening full-body yip that one of his playing partners, former NFL wide receiver Roy Green, likens to "a dog taking a piss." He has lifted weights and ridden the stationary bike for two hours, part of an ongoing effort to keep his weight below 300 pounds. He has flown from darkness to dawn on a red-eye from his home in Arizona, a flight that included an unscheduled stop in Dallas for a medical emergency. He has tossed out a few dozen opinions and elicited a few dozen smiles, including one from the flight attendant to whom he said, "Women should be home taking care of babies." Now he's shouting a hearty "Hello, girl!" to the woman behind the hotel desk. "Before I knew him," she confides, "I thought he was just a big shot with a big mouth. But he's the nicest man in the world."

Charles Wade Barkley drags his bags toward the elevator that will take him to his top-floor suite. He will sleep just a few hours, as usual, and by 11 a.m. will be pedaling a bike in the hotel workout room, drawing stares from a septuagenarian treadmiller.

"I want you to think about this before you go to bed," he tells his bleary-eyed traveling companion, picking up the thread of a conversation that began on the plane. "Sports are a detriment to blacks, not a positive. You have a society now where every black kid in the country thinks the only way he can be successful is through athletics. People look at athletes and entertainers as the sum total of black America. That is a terrible, terrible thing, because that ain't even one tenth of what we are." He steps into the elevator and pushes the button for his floor. "And by the way," he adds, "that is the sorriest-ass suitcase any white man has ever traveled around with."

The question to ponder about Charles Barkley is this: Can a man this funny really have anything serious on his mind? Or maybe it's this: Are we willing to listen if he does? In his role as the supersized boiling teapot of TNT's Halftime Report, maybe the best studio sports show ever, he has called Monica Lewinsky a "skank" (twice for good measure), hinted that Barbara Walters is ugly, summed up former Washington Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton and Al Gore as "two losers who live right up the street from each other," said Vince Carter ought to "shut up and take two Advils" when the Toronto Raptors star complained of a headache after a tumble, repeatedly trashed the lineup of games on his own network, not to mention the movies that followed, and opined that the Dallas Mavericks' Wang Zhizhi should not be permitted to play in the NBA until China returned that captured U.S. spy plane. Off the air he is even better.

It was about six years ago that Barkley, contemplating the end of a basketball career that will surely land him in the Hall of Fame, first spoke of running for governor of Alabama as a Republican. It seemed like a joke, but that was before an eye-gouger was elected to shepherd the great state of Minnesota and before Barkley, now in the second year of a two-year, $2 million deal with TNT, grabbed a public forum, one that should expand next season. To re-sign Barkley, TNT will almost certainly have to offer a role that goes beyond the studio. Hip-hop veejay? Alternative-sports-show maven? Talking (Milk Dud) head, the parenthetical being his own description of his vast bald pate? Bring it on. Charles wants it. Charles can do it. Then, too, Barkley will start talking into a tape recorder for a book (written by The Washington Post's Michael Wilbon) tentatively titled I Might Be Wrong, but I Doubt It. It's Charles's world these days--we're all just living in it. He has somehow pulled off the neat trick of becoming more popular in mufti than he was in shorts and sneakers, and he was pretty damn popular back then.

But let's take a hard look at this governor thing. Citizen Barkley, a native of the small town of Leeds, Ala., would be a controversial African-American stumping for votes in a very Southern state. Somewhere along the campaign trail he would say something that would offend half the voters, and he sure as hell wouldn't apologize, and the campaign would combust in a blaze of front-page headlines. Anyway, he would have to abandon a life that is, at the moment, splendidly predictable. He works two days a week, and that's just about perfect. He has turned down countless offers to star in sitcoms or host talk shows, because that would get in the way of golf, which he plays four or five days a week year-round.

Still, Barkley insists he's "dead serious" about a run. He says he's had many conversations with Alabama Republican leaders and has not commissioned a poll only because any campaign is at least five years away. There is much skepticism in party circles about his commitment, but there is also excitement. "I've dreamed of Charles Barkley in the Republican Party here, at fund-raisers, going one-on-one with people," says Marty Connors, chairman of the state GOP. Adds Jabo Waggonner, a Republican state representative from Vestavia Hills, "What we're trying to do as Republicans is sell our ideals to the African-American community, and it would be huge to have Charles as an advocate."

Barkley is still under contract to Nike and recently filmed a commercial for Coors. He estimates his net worth at $35 million, a figure that goes up or down depending on his luck in Las Vegas. He bet more than $500,000 on the Patriots in the Super Bowl (New England coach Bill Belichick is a close friend) at the Mandalay Bay Sports Book and walked away $1.2 million ahead. He's not always that fortunate, though, and he admits that "gambling is my vice, and I'll have to address it sometime in the future. But not now."

The ups and downs of his domestic life are more difficult to assess. His eyes darken when the question of interviewing his wife of 13 years, Maureen, is raised. "I keep my private life private," he says. Maureen politely declines an interview during a tour of the tastefully appointed Barkley mansion in Scottsdale. "Charles does enough talking for both of us," she says. But after at least one highly publicized separation, Charles and Maureen are definitely living together and doting on their 13-year-old daughter, Christiana. From the living room window one can see a backyard pool, a putting green and a guest house, "so no one like you will ever have to stay inside my real house," Charles says.

Could Barkley ever imagine leaving all this to cut ribbons, sign bills and preside over 8 a.m. staff meetings?

"You think I want to be governor?" he says. "But I have to think about running. I want to be able to tell people that there's no difference between white folks and black folks. We've got the same hopes and dreams. We're in this together, and we can't let the bulls--- get to us." Even if Alabamians would eventually be scared off by a man who has Spike Lee on speed-dial, oh what a campaign it would be, with Barkley touching all the hot-button issues in all the hot-button ways. Last week three topics were really bugging him: Enron, Lewinsky's TV special and "that crazy bitch in Houston who killed her kids." As regards the first, Barkley is more upset at the congressional investigation than he is with the white-collar misdeeds. "Almost all those politicians took money from Enron, and there they are holding hearings," he says. "That's like O.J. Simpson getting in the Rae Carruth jury pool."

On most Wednesday and Thursday evenings Barkley is what you might call "Sprewell late" to the TNT studio--later than the pooh-bahs might like but comfortably in time for tip-off. But when he walks in on this unusually cold February night, it's as if the electricity is suddenly turned on in the building; his smorgasbord of insults signals the official beginning of the evening. "I finally decided on the right diet for you, T.K.," Barkley says to producer Tim Kiely. "The Illusion Diet. You got no chance of ever getting thin, so what you gotta do is start hanging around with fat people, give the illusion that you're skinnier." Barkley discovers that his broadcasting buddy, Ernie Johnson, the underrated glue of the show, is not feeling well. He feigns concern. "Get me a jar of Vaseline, Ernie," says Barkley, "and I'll stick my finger up your butt to find out what's wrong." Barkley's cell phone rings. He checks caller ID. "It's my son," he says, just before saying hello to Tiger Woods.

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The TNT studio show is so absurdly good that the reasons for its success shouldn't be dissected. It can be compared, one supposes, with Fox's NFL pregame show, but the easy affability of Barkley, Johnson and Kenny Smith seems less forced than the testosterone-laced assault sent out on autumn Sunday afternoons. As in most good things that appear to come easily, there is much work involved in pulling off this show, but by and large that work is not done by Barkley. Johnson is usually in his office by nine on the morning of a show and stays at least an hour after the broadcast to roam the Internet for stats and tips, and Smith spends much preshow time in the control room watching action around the league. Barkley, after he arrives, invariably checks out The West Wing or scours one of the 21 monitors for something other than hoops, but his TV instincts are unerring. When he catches a glimpse of the horrible gray-and-white-checked sport coat worn by Houston Rockets commentator Calvin Murphy, Barkley leaps to his feet. "What the f--- is Calvin wearing tonight?" he says. "Lord save the man." He dashes out of the room to make sure his producers put up a shot of Murphy during the show.

Except for special gags--twin manicurists visiting Barkley on his 39th birthday, Mike Fratello delivering soup to Johnson, a taped challenge to Barkley from the members of the U.S. women's curling team because Charles had referred to their sport as "dusting"--nothing in the Halftime Report is scripted. The show works partly because Smith and Barkley squirrel away good lines and spring them as live surprises. Smith is himself a former NBA player who often sticks it to Barkley about the "glare from my championship rings" (Barkley is among those elite former players who never won a championship), yet Smith doesn't seem to mind that 99% of the attention, from both insiders and outsiders, is directed at Barkley. "A team can have only one MVP," he says, "and Charles is ours."

For all the free-form talk about everything in the world, the show ultimately works because the men come across as three guys who love watching hoops together. Smith, a former point guard, provides the limited X's and O's component. Barkley's reactions are immediate and visceral and carry the weight of a 16-year career during which he averaged 22.1 points and 11.7 rebounds and was voted one of the top 50 players of all time. As he gets ready to go on, he catches a glimpse of Carter passing the ball to Keon Clark instead of taking a potentially game-winning shot. "Do you believe this motherf------ pussy!" he hollers. He stands up and charges out of the control room. "Hey, Kenny. Kenny! You see this s---?"

The show over, Barkley spots a production assistant, a young woman who has a new boyfriend. "What's up for you tonight, honey?" Barkley says. "You making a booty call?" She blushes and punches him on the arm. The best thing about Barkley is not that he makes X-rated comments to a colleague like Johnson, it's that he takes the time to make a P.A. feel like an R-rated part of the team.

Around noon the next day Barkley is in a cab heading for a small airport in Atlanta, where he will board a private jet for Miami. Twice a season TNT sends its prize threesome to broadcast a game live. Johnson, Smith and various production people are already on the ground in Miami, having taken a 10 a.m. commercial flight. Barkley pays about $500,000 a year to a charter service and usually flies by private jet.

He reaches for his cell and speed-dials a man only hours removed from arthroscopic knee surgery. There are few people in the world Barkley respects more than Michael Jordan. They are great friends, and a smile often comes to Jordan's face when he talks about Barkley. At the same time it's indisputable that Barkley was much more enthusiastic about the prospect of coming back to join Jordan on the Wizards than Jordan was about having him. Jordan always qualified his comments about Barkley's potential return with "as long as he gets in shape." Barkley, for his part, says, "You can't believe the joy and pride I felt when Michael asked me to come back with him. It meant everything to me."

But now His Airness is a 39-year-old man facing an uncertain future. "Whassup, boy?" Barkley says after Jordan--it's a safe bet that he checked caller ID--picks up. "How you feeling?" It's obvious that Jordan doesn't feel great ("He in pain," Barkley will confide later), and he turns the conversation to Barkley. "Hell, yeah, I'm good," Barkley says. "I'm working out, not drinking, getting my fat ass in shape. I'm too good-looking to be fat." There's a moment of silence on Barkley's end. "Hell, yeah, I'll bet you. We'll go five hundred. Yeah, I'll do it. No, not on TV. I'll do it after I work out today. I'll check in with yo' ass later. All right, boy, be safe."

Jordan has bet Barkley that he still weighs more than 290 pounds. Barkley believes that he's as low as 285, 14 pounds below the figure at his TNT weigh-in six weeks earlier. At home and on the road he has been working out like a madman, sometimes four to five hours a day, spread over two sessions. He looks good, keeps fried food out of his diet, eats lots of fruit and, with a soon-to-be-noted exception, stays away from alcohol. He tells everyone it's because he doesn't want to be fat, but the truth is, until Jordan's recent surgery, Barkley hadn't completely abandoned his plans to come back. Barkley swears that even at 285, he could've averaged between 15 and 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds a game. "All those plans got smacked in the head when Michael went under the knife," says Barkley, who turned 39 three days after Jordan. "If Michael can't make it back, no one can."

In terms of athletic accomplishment, Barkley is far behind both of his good buddies Jordan and Woods--who isn't?--yet of the three it is Barkley who feels a restlessness of spirit, a desire to accomplish something beyond the sports arena. And sure enough, he is gathering populist momentum, his pied-piper charisma rising as he gets further away from the game he starred in but never really dominated. He is--dare we walk this plank?--almost Ali-like in his ability to move all kinds of people.

Ali is Barkley's idol. They met only once, at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, when they shared a quiet moment in the locker room of Dream Team II. "As close as I am to Michael," says Barkley, "Ali should've been ESPN's athlete of the century. It's not even close. Nobody, not even Jackie Robinson, was like Ali."

Barkley leans forward, warming to the subject. "Sure, Michael has a platform to speak out like nobody else. But he has a certain image, as a guy who's not outspoken, a guy who can get along with everybody. It's a great image, but there's no doubt he's stuck in it. Me? I don't worry about image, whatever that word means. I don't worry about always saying the right thing. Tiger doesn't like to speak out either. Look what they're doing at Augusta. They're lengthening the course for one reason: to hurt Tiger. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters six damn times, and he was hitting it past everybody else, and they never made a change. What they're doing to Tiger is blatant racism. Tiger wouldn't say it, but I got no damn problem saying it for him. We need black athletes to speak out. Michael could do it and Tiger could do it, but you have to be willing to be ridiculed. I'm willing to be ridiculed."

Playing the who's-doing-more-for-the-world game is dangerous. Jordan and Woods both have foundations and give away huge amounts of money. They've brought joy, hope and pride to African-Americans. Barkley works on a smaller and more personal scale. The Charles Barkley Foundation isn't even listed in the Alabama phone book; it's a one-man shop in the Birmingham office of Glenn Guthrie, Barkley's longtime financial adviser. It doesn't do much fund-raising or get much attention, which is how Barkley wants it. When it gave the Cornerstone Schools of Alabama and Barkley's two alma maters, Leeds High School and Auburn, $1 million apiece, the money came out of his pocket. Barkley wants to do more. Unlike Jordan and Woods, he wants to be out there. Barkley's dilemma is that he's having far too good a life to turn to politics full time, but politics is the arena in which people listen to what you say.

What Potential Candidate Barkley says, of course, is sometimes discomfiting. He swears that his Neanderthal beliefs about women are deeply held, based on his feeling that the family structure is disintegrating. One of his political heroes is Clarence Thomas, with whom he spent a day in Washington several years ago. The man he'd most like to meet is Colin Powell. (For the record, right behind Powell are Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton. He's already met "Old Bush" and likes him; "New Bush" he's not crazy about.) In an oft-quoted anecdote Barkley was scolded by his mother in 1988 when he told her he was considering a vote for Old Bush. "He'll only work for the rich people," she told him. "Mom," he answered, "I am rich." Barkley said the comment was made lightly and that he eschews political labels, but he's nevertheless a rock-ribbed Republican--Alan Keyes with monster ups, and no fan of Jesse Jackson.

"Jesse had his chance, but he hasn't done enough with it," says Barkley. "Instead of running for president, which was stupid because he wasn't going to win, he should've been trying to make social change in the black community, work on education, on stopping black-on-black crime, on all these teenage pregnancies. But no, he was too busy getting other women pregnant. He's a good speaker, but you can't speak it if you don't live it.

"We need influential black leaders. That's what I want to be. I've been given a special gift, and it's not just to have 50 million dollars in the bank when I die. I want to do something else, make a difference. I have to speak out, even if some people get pissed off at it. I don't think everybody's going to like me, and I don't think I'm right all the time. But I'm going to say what I feel and what I think."

The plane has landed in Miami. Barkley stares out at gunboat gray skies. "For some damn reason I've never had a good time down here," he says. "Maybe that will change tonight."

From the time Barkley arrives, at about 2 p.m. for an 8 p.m. tip-off between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks, he is Concern Numero Uno for TNT's various production and public-relations people. Get Charles out of the hotel gym. Get Charles into the shower. Get Charles to the lobby. Get Charles into the limo. Get Charles to AmericanAirlines Arena. By the time Barkley enters the arena, at about 7:15, Smith and Johnson have been there for an hour, meeting with coaches and getting game notes together, little things like learning names of players. ("Who is that?" Barkley will ask later when Heat reserve center Vladimir Stepania enters the game.) Get Charles away from the reporters. Barkley chats up the small army that greets him, spending most of the time ripping the Knicks. Get Charles hooked up next to Ernie and Kenny. Whew!

The game is mediocre; the TNT threesome is terrific. At one point Barkley brings the conversation back to curling. "I'm still trying to get my grandmother off her old behind and into the Olympics," he says. "Why not? She can dust." The worse the game, the better Barkley is. He can talk about almost anything, criticize almost anybody, "straddle that line without going over it," as Turner Sports president Mark Lazarus puts it.

The fascinating question is how Barkley acquired what Johnson calls "diplomatic immunity," carte blanche to speak his mind. "I think it's because his softer side is well known," says Johnson.

Barkley thinks it's because he's consistent. "You know I'm going to praise you if you do good, and I'm gonna criticize you if you do bad," he says. Whatever it is, his likability index is off the charts. The in-your-face attitude that wasn't always accepted when he was an overpaid jock is O.K. now that he's an overpaid talking head, a one-man vox populi.

Barkley has beaucoup postgame invitations and finally lands at a South Beach club called Crobar, where he falls off the wagon with a thud, drinking a concoction--blessedly unnamed since no one else in Western civilization has ever ordered it--of Merlot, ginger ale and ice. Even as an imbiber, Charles is an original.

Barkley rarely makes a major decision without consulting some component of his war council of Jordan, Woods, Roy Green, Ahmad Rashad and Quinn Buckner. He solicited a few of their opinions about whether he should don shackles for the cover of this magazine. He also asked Maureen. No one thought it was a good idea. But here, big as life, is Barkley Bound. He is asked what the image means to him.

"There is a great differential between how you're treated when you're black and how you're treated when you're white," he says before climbing into his chains on a Miami rooftop. "Any time something bad happens to a black person because of racism, I feel it in my soul. I really do. You take the Abner Louima case. That let me know one thing: If some white guys wanted to stick a plunger up a black guy's butt, and I'm the black guy who happened to be around, I'd have a plunger up my butt.

"Look, I'd be crazy if I didn't realize it's different for me most of the time because I have money and a platform and fame," he says. "And once you get those things, you have to stand up, because poor black people--poor people of any color--can't stand up for themselves. I was having dinner with Ramsey Lewis one night, and he told me something I never forgot. 'When you get to the top,' he said, 'don't forget to send the elevator back down.' Well, I'm sending the elevator back down. That's my goal."

Barkley gets into the chains, his broad face breaking into a grin when the shackles are on. "I bet you're all thinking how funny it would be if you went to lunch and left me here," he says. "'Course when I finally got loose, I'd hunt all your asses down."

The afternoon sun finally peeks out, and Barkley's oiled-up skin glistens with sweat. He grows quiet, looks down at his chains, and for a moment you forget how funny he is and remember how far he has come. Brought up poor and fatherless by a mother and a grandmother who worked as domestics, Barkley says he never would have made it out of Leeds if not for basketball, might have faced a fate like that of his younger brother, Darryl, a former drug addict who needs a heart transplant and needs it soon. No one else in Barkley's family is particularly athletic; his mother insists there was something magical in the blood transfusion he received as a baby because he was born severely anemic. Another glance and you remember that countless black men, loud and proud men, have been bound and silenced by racism and poverty. How lucky we are that such a fate did not befall this one.


2002COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR.COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. Maximum overdrive Barkley's golf game is all muscle, but on the basketball court (opposite, with the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 of the 1993 NBA Finals) he was surprisingly nimble for a big man.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. Size matters The erstwhile Round Mound of Rebound has ballooned since his days at Auburn (opposite), so now he eats more sensibly and works out assiduously to keep his weight under control.COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN/GT IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: TED PIO-RODA Pray for mercy From his seat in the studio, Barkley zaps everyone from Smith (left) to Vince Carter, from Enron to Monica Lewinsky.