Somewhere along the way, Charles Barkley made the transition from basketball villain to cultural icon who has the rare quality of being able to do and say whatever he wants with little repercussion.
This is the path traced by Timothy Bella in his new book “Barkley: A Biography”, published Tuesday by HarperCollins. Bella, editor and managing editor of the Washington Post and former sports reporter for ESPN the Magazine and other outlets, interviewed more than 300 friends, colleagues and teammates of Barkley and others in Sir Charles’ considerable orbit for which he hopes is final. watch the life and legacy of one of the two true originals of the state of Alabama and the world.
Bella spoke Monday with AL.com for the following questions and answers, which have been condensed for length and slightly edited for clarity:
Q: What drew you to the story of Charles Barkley? How long have you been following his career and what interests you most about him?
A: “I started out in sports, covering football and basketball in college. [at TCU]. Sport has always been in my blood. I grew up in Houston, so I’ve always been a pretty big Rockets fan. My first exposure to Barkley was absolutely hating him every time the Suns (Phoenix) came to town. As someone who grew up loving sports and didn’t have a ton of confidence back then, I saw someone like Charles Barkley, who was undersized and plump, but didn’t have no problem kicking that much ass. He made me a fan. After entering journalism, I had a better understanding of him and his story. Some of the things he was saying back then weren’t what other athletes were saying. For me to have the chance to approach and explore this great life of someone who has been a public figure for over 40 years now, who is an obvious legend among legends, was just an absolute honor.
Q: How long did you work on the book and were you able to get Barkley to participate?
A: “In May 2019, before interviewing a single person, I reached out to Charles and his camp to try to get him involved. I told them “this is going to be a really good book and I really want you to get involved”. And they thought about it, and they finally said no. So I haven’t spoken to Charles for this book, but I’ve interviewed over 370 people from his childhood to now, from his first college coach to Sonny Smith at Auburn, to Bobby Lee Hurt, including Charles kind of made a name for himself. during a holiday tournament when he was in high school. So it was everyone from that period, but also people like Dr. J, Shaquille O’Neal, Adam Sandler, Chuck D, Dan Quayle – it’s a wide range. It’s been a lot of fun, and I was hoping to go back and see how that life unfolds — that incredible life of projects in Leeds, Alabama, raised by a single mother in her grandmother’s house. This short and fat kid has become a prominent cultural icon.
Q: Jeff Pearlman recently published a bo jackson biography, and there are a lot of parallels between Bo and Barkley – they’re from the same part of the world, both played at Auburn, both were strangers coming out of high school and weren’t top recruits in their class. How did Barkley become what he became?
A: “It really started from that holiday tournament, where he just dominated Bobby Lee Hurt up and down. He blocked four or five of his shots, just dived the whole time. At that time, Barkley was getting looks at smaller schools or junior colleges where he could possibly transfer into a major program. But once that happened, it seemed to open his eyes to what was an anomaly at the time – that undersized forward/center in high school who could jump out of the gym.
Q: One of the fascinating things about Barkley is that he never really won much as a player other than at the Olympics later in his career. How significant is his story that he might be the most famous non-winner in basketball, if not a major sport?
A: “It is true. This is something that still follows him today. You see him every Thursday night on ‘Inside the NBA’ [from the other analysts], ‘oh Chuck, you never won anything.’ And he takes it head on. He obviously had a great career and accomplished a lot that few others have accomplished. But when you think of the athletes who didn’t win, it’s either the first or the second name that comes up for everyone.
Q: Speaking of the Olympics, the fact that he didn’t make the team in 1984 is a big part of his story, but he came back in 1992 and became one of the faces of the ” Dream Team”. So that makes for an interesting juxtaposition, doesn’t it?
A: “1984 is so interesting for many reasons. He comes over there (for tryouts) and immediately runs into (coach) Bobby Kinght. He mocks Bobby Knight’s shoes, Knight scolds him for showing up late, it’s just oil and water. But during these trials, something happens. Charles becomes the second best player there behind Michael Jordan. He dominates everyone there. I spoke to Jim Boeheim, who was an assistant on that team, and he made it clear that he didn’t want to be the one to tell Charles he wasn’t on the team. He was just a force of nature. So when he made the team in 1992, 1984 was very fresh in his head. It really hurt him and he wanted to make up for it.
Q: Early in his career Barkley was seen as a villain in many ways – the famous Nike ‘I’m not a model’ ad and a few other incidents where he got into fights on the pitch or in bars etc. . At what point does this turn, where Barkley goes from villain to everyone’s crazy uncle?
A: “He really is this crazy uncle for a lot of people. But very early on I think he saw where he was in the NBA hierarchy. It was Michael Jordan and then everyone else. But there had a 3-4 year streak in the early 1990s where the NBA saw him as No. 2. I’ve talked to several people about it, and they all landed on the same thing: Barkley was such a showman that he was always more comfortable being Darth Vader than Luke Skywalker. And he saw big business in it. He definitely embraced that bad boy image for a while. But as he got older and got out of the point where he was competing for NBA titles, he kind of settled into that adorable role and started having more sympathetic exchanges with the media, he saw his finish line. , he knew he was going to be an announcer one day and he was preparing for it.
Q: Not just in her career as an announcer, but in general, Barkley seems to be one of the few people in the United States, if not the world, who can say or do whatever they want and get away with it. like that. What is this quality that makes him capable of doing so?
A: “He definitely is. The difference with Barkley and a few others is that almost everything he says seems to come from a place of love. Even when he touches on important topics like police brutality or politics , people seem to understand that he’s mostly joking about it. He doesn’t mean anything bad. And he’s a very public person. He says things that are untrue, but he has that “crazy uncle” quality. which gives him the benefit of the doubt, especially since he’s been doing it for so long.”
Q: I think one topic that might be of interest to people in this state is that it’s been rumored for years that he might run for governor. How serious was he about it, in terms of actually exploring doing it?
A: “He was serious. I spoke with (former) Vice President Dan Quayle about it and he was very clear – Barkley was about to file for Alabama as a Republican. Years later, Barkley would say “I was never a Republican, I was always a Democrat,” but a lot of the things he said in public said the opposite. He was someone who had been friends with Clarence Thomas and Rush Limbaugh and who at one point agreed with the Republican Party and said ‘if I ever run for public office – one, that would be in Alabama, and two would be as a Republican He said years later that he had made too much money and enjoyed his life too much to get into politics, but he’s not doing any doubt he was serious about it at any time.
Q: We’ve talked about his career as an announcer, but the fact that he recently agreed to a 10-year, $100 million contract for a job where he probably works 15 hours a week, it seems like he’s still living his dream, isn’t it? ?
A: “Okay, sign me up for that. I think he’s happy to do it right now, but I don’t know if he’s going to stay there for the full term of the contract. He has a little- son now, he’s about to turn 60. He likes to fish and play golf and he’s said many times, “I’m not going to die in this chair. If he plays the whole contract, he’d be 70.” He always said he didn’t want to be a (game) announcer because he wasn’t totally connected to the current NBA and hated the hours I think it’s great that he’s there for a some time, but I can’t say he’ll stay the whole 10 years.
Q: What else do you have to add about the book that readers might want to know?
A: “I just want to say that it was an amazing experience working on it. When I took on Charles as a subject, I wanted someone who would keep me engaged all the time, and I couldn’t have picked a better person. It’s so interesting and important on so many levels. His story keeps me captivated and I think readers will too.
Creg Stephenson worked for AL.com since 2010 and has covered college and professional sports for a variety of publications since 1994. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @CregStephenson.