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The Escape Artist

He's got a Jones for jams, but Charles Barkley stays honest and emerges intact

INDIANA JONES is back at your local multiplex, dodging danger at every turn, somehow escaping from perilous situations that lesser men would never survive. But as entertaining as Indy may be, his exploits can't measure up to the real-life adventures of Charles Barkley, who somehow continues to emerge unscathed from the kind of controversies—like the little matter of his $400,000 gambling debt that arose two weeks ago—that would deal death blows to the images of most public figures. Barkley, the former NBA star turned TNT broadcaster, is like a superhero who strolls out of the rubble of a collapsed building, calmly brushing dust off his shoulders as if nothing ever happened.

Forget Indy's fedora and leather jacket. Wouldn't you rather slip into one of Sir Charles's voluminous, double-breasted sport coats to see if it gave you the ability to say and do outrageous things and remain as wildly popular as the Chuckster? Barkley may be the only man alive who can refer to conservatives as "fake Christians" and describe the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as "race-baiters," and not lose any friends on either side of the political aisle.

Barkley has been striding blithely through the temple of doom that is public life for years now, armed only with a quick wit and refreshing candor. Those qualities have allowed him to weather all manner of potential p.r. disasters, the most recent of which was that neglected debt to Wynn Casinos in Las Vegas, which threatened legal action against him.

Consider how that incident might have played out if Barkley didn't come equipped with a handy Teflon coating. There would have been no shortage of pundits calling for his firing by TNT, citing the appearance of impropriety inherent when an NBA analyst with access to tons of inside information spends his free time blowing cash in Vegas. (For the record, Barkley said he never bet on basketball.) Some grandstanding politician would have begun a congressional investigation into Barkley's gaming habits, interviewing anyone who ever saw him hit on 16 at blackjack. Those Fave Five cellphone commercials with Barkley and Dwyane Wade would have been yanked from the air faster than a bad sitcom. After weeks of media flagellation Sir Charles would have been forced to issue a carefully worded statement, written by his attorney, apologizing for some vague, unnamed offense.

Instead Barkley handled the matter simply and directly. "I screwed up," he told TNT colleague Ernie Johnson in a televised interview after he had settled the debt. "It was 100 percent my fault. I'm not going to gamble anymore. Just because I can afford to lose money doesn't mean I should do it." Is there any wonder why we can't help but let him off the hook? Barkley is like the kid who takes your hand and leads you to where he colored on the walls with Magic Marker—you're so disarmed by his honesty that you can't stay mad at him.

Part of the reason Barkley gets away with outrageous statements and acts—like the time he responded to a reporter's question by saying, "This is why I hate white people"; or when he called the Washington Wizards "the dumbest team in the history of civilization" in reference to a couple of Wizards' calling out LeBron James—is because he doesn't deny, deflect or dissemble, like so many other sports figures do when caught in a sticky situation. Sir Charles doesn't say he misinterpreted anything, like Patriots coach Bill Belichick in the Spygate affair. He doesn't try to back away from inflammatory comments by claiming he thought they were off the record, as Mets manager Willie Randolph did after complaining about his treatment by the team's television network and by the media last week. It's not hard to imagine how Barkley might have handled it had he been in USC guard O.J. Mayo's shoes when Mayo was accused recently of accepting cash and gifts from an agent's representative. ("Of course I took the money, y'all. Those NCAA rules are turr-ible.")

Even though all around him broadcasters are taking career hits for saying the wrong thing—just ask Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus and The Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman, to name a few—Barkley continues to thrive. This is not so much a double standard as it is a Charles standard, reserved for public figures who have the courage to say what they think, the integrity to stand behind it, the humility to freely admit their mistakes, and perhaps most importantly the sense of humor to make it all palatable to the public. At the moment, that club appears to have only one member.

This is not to say Barkley is perfect. In fact he embraces his imperfections, usually with a smile. "I read that heavy drinking is bad for your health," he once said. "I decided I better stop reading." It might seem that his well-documented vices, his history of indiscretions—including the time he threw a heckler through a plate glass window—and his political incorrectness would make it difficult for him to fulfill his dream of a successful run for governor of Alabama. But all of that might actually work in his favor, since he seems to be completely humiliation-proof. There could be no October surprises against a man who not only doesn't hide the skeletons in his closet but also invites everyone in for a guided tour.

We may one day find out whether such brutal honesty, about his world view and about his own behavioral flaws, can really work in a political campaign. Until then, just enjoy watching Barkley in much the same way that a moviegoer enjoys watching Indiana Jones flirt with death on the screen. Even though you know they'll always avoid disaster, the fun is in seeing how close they come.

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He knocks Jesse Jackson, "white people" and himself, AND PEOPLE LOVE HIM.