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Original Issue

Turrrribly Good

At 50, the irrepressible, unparsable Charles Barkley remains a vital and popular voice

The MEDIA Circus

From his end-of-the-row perch on TNT's Inside the NBA, Charles Barkley predicts, preaches, proselytizes and pontificates, quite often in the same sentence. A large portion of the NBA's playing populace has gotten mad at him at one time or another—"Charles Barkley needs to shut up," proclaimed LeBron James in December—but few of those critics stay that way. After all, one of his TNT mates, the big fella at the other end of the row, once had an on-court fistfight with Charles, and now they get along just fine.

It is indeed a fascinating point at which Charles Barkley finds himself in our popular culture. On most Thursday nights he paints himself into logical and syntactical corners from which he seemingly has no chance to escape—until he does, acknowledgment or apology be damned.

During a 2009 broadcast, Inside the NBA producer Tim Kiely chose to focus for a moment on David Garibaldi, a self-proclaimed "speed painter" who often entertains at NBA arenas. As Garibaldi sketched, Barkley expressed confusion and—conjuring up an overweight and undistinguished former NBA player—asked, "Who's that he was drawing anyway? That looks like Oliver Miller." Host Ernie Johnson and broadcasting buddy Kenny Smith informed Charles that it was actually Martin Luther King Jr. because it was, you know, Martin Luther King Day and the game was in Memphis.

"I didn't realize," said Charles, "how much Oliver Miller looked like Dr. King."

There is one tangible reason that the Charles Show has worked for the last 12 years. "The black Jackie Gleason" (as Kiely calls Barkley) has a wonderful supporting cast—Johnson and Smith and now Barkley's old combatant from his final season, 1999--2000, Shaquille O'Neal.

But beyond that? Can we otherwise account for his appeal? "People are smart, smarter than some players and all sports writers," Barkley told me once. "They know that I'm having fun. That's why they tune in."

Maybe. But the best answer is that it works simply because it works. And so as we celebrate the 50th birthday of Charles's good buddy and fellow new quinquagenarian Michael Jordan (page 34; Charles is three days younger), we see two former stars who maintain a place near the top of our sporting-icon popularity pole for distinctly different reasons. Jordan remains largely hidden from an adoring public, a distant and elusive god; Barkley, by contrast, prefers to roam the public thoroughfares, a jester with the profile of a king.