I am a fan of retired basketball player and television commentator Charles Barkley. He is refreshing in that he speaks his mind, unafraid to offend and takes responsibility for what he says, although some of what he says is ridiculous. Even he knows it.
Barkley was not just a good basketball player, his is a Hall of Fame member, who was an All-American at Auburn before joining the Philadelphia 76ers, then the Phoenix Suns, before winding up his career with the Houston Rockets. He was selected as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All Time, and played on two Gold Medal winning Olympics teams. Sir Charles has a bushel of awards, recognitions and retired jerseys.
Barkley is obviously a colorful individual, often quotable, and not immune from getting himself into embarrassing predicaments. He was charged with a DUI (and in the company of a prostitute), revealed his sports gambling problem, arrested for assault and was suspended by the NBA for spitting on a fan. Colorful, indeed.
Controversy seems to like Barkley, especially since he often invites it by his comments. He is very open about commenting on politics (he used to be a Republican), in fact he considered a run for Governor of Alabama, matters of race, the responsibility of being an athlete, NBA players, civil rights, homosexuality and whatever else is on his mind.
Here are a few examples:
Barkley recently that that athletes “deserve some preferential treatment” with coronavirus vaccines because they pay high taxes. That produced some backlash, especially from NBA players like Kevin Durrant who said, “I don’t know why they still ask for this idiot’s opinion.”
In an interview with The Atlantic, Barkley responded to criticism that his show, Inside the NBA, was too critical of current NBA players. “Who have we been hard on? Paul George? He was awful in the bubble (during the playoffs). I’m just making a point. KD is one of the greatest ever, but until he wins a championship where he’s the No. 1 guy, he’s gonna face that criticism. And you know what? It was the same criticism LeBron went through, and LeBron didn’t act like no punk.” Durrant had this in response: “Them old heads need to go enjoy retirement.”
When the NBA postponed several games because of player illness. “Back in our day, we were tough, and we were always out there on the floor, no matter whether we had Covid or how bad our Covid was,” said Barkley, recalling a 1994 game with the Phoenix Suns when most of the team came down with Covid in the first half and they still held on to beat the Utah Jazz. “You think Scottie Pippen or Patrick Ewing is skipping a game because he’s running a fever or lost his sense of smell? These guys today are quitting on their teams the second they hear they have it, and some of them don’t even have symptoms.”
In a game against the New Jersey Nets in 1991, Barkley attempted to spit on a fan making racial remarks. Barkley missed, and hit a little girl in the crowd. He was fined and suspended by the NBA. Barkley apologized and reached out to the girl and her family, reportedly developing a friendship with them. Later, he said the incident made him reflect and challenged him to be a better person.
“I think the media demands that athletes be role models,” he once said, “because there’s some jealousy involved. It’s as if they say, this is a young black kid playing a game for a living and making all this money, so we’re going to make it tough on him. And what they’re really doing is telling kids to look up to someone they can’t become, because not many people can be like we are. Kids can’t be like Michael Jordan.” His point was that kids’ focus was in the wrong place, that a million guys can dunk a basketball in prison; you should admire them?
On how he feels about politics. “I look at it like this. It’s rich people vs. poor people, and right now poor people are getting screwed and I feel bad for those people, plain and simple.”
“I’m a black man,” said Barkley. “I use the N-word. I’m going to continue to use the N-word with my black friends, with my white friends, they are my friends. In the locker room and when I’m with my friends, we use racial slurs. … What I do with my black friends is not up to white America to dictate to me, what’s appropriate and inappropriate.”
“For some reason we are brainwashed to think, if you’re not a thug or an idiot, you’re not black enough,” Barkley said. “If you go to school, make good grades, speak intelligent, and don’t break the law, you’re not a good black person. It’s a dirty, dark secret in the black community.”
And then there was this interesting event.
Lin Wang met Charles Barkley in a hotel bar, a chance meeting, but the two of them started talking and developed a long distance relationship. Their paths crossed a few times when they were in the same city and they kept in touch. Wang as a chemist with a PhD and basketball fan. As Wang’s daughter found out later, they often talked about family and life. When Barkley’s mother died, Wang caught a plane and showed up unannounced at the funeral. Barkley was touched. A couple of years later, it was Barkley who showed up at Wang’s funeral, and that’s when Wang’s daughter Shirley, found out about their friendship. A writer, she posted the story of her dad’s friendship with Barkley, and many people responded, including some who had taken photos of Barkley and her dad in places around the country. Two men, from different worlds, found things in common and grew a friendship from it.
“Friendships can be found anywhere and really weird things happen when you connect with interesting people,” Shirley Wang said.