Hours before Michael Jordan’s arrival at the Spectrum, Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers is taking his girlfriend to lunch. They have barely spoken in five days, and he is careful not to annoy her again—no minor effort for a man who flirts constantly, dresses in raggedy jeans and loves to spend entire afternoons on the couch watching soap operas. A few days earlier, his former Auburn University roommate, Mark Cahill, came to visit, and the two men stayed out until 4 a.m., while she waited up. Naturally, they lied, explaining that Cahill’s plane was late. Naturally, she found out.
Now they have reconciled, after a fashion, but she is not altogether in a forgiving mood. She is complaining that he brushes his teeth too much, which is a bit picky, although it is likely that he is one of the few professional basketball players to brush before games. He learned many valuable lessons from his mother and grandmother, who raised him meticulously, but they may have overdone oral hygiene.
Barkley’s girlfriend has asked that her name not be printed, because he’s black and she isn’t. Her family, she says, wouldn’t like her “dating a black 76er with so much money he can have any woman he wants.” Glaring at him, she adds, “That even sounds bad to me.”
Inasmuch as the theme of the luncheon is Barkley’s many failings, she wants to know why he can’t stop this Michael Jordan from scoring. Jordan is averaging 36.9 points per game, the best in the National Basketball Association since Wilt Chamberlain 23 years ago.
“Are you going to out-score him tonight?” she demands. “Aw, now honey,” he says, “he takes more shots in a half than I take in a whole game.”
“Why can’t anybody guard him?”
“Honey, our whole team tries.”
“Is he that good?”
“He had 63 against the Celtics.”
“If you know before the game he’ll score so much, why don’t you do something about it?”
“Honey, it doesn’t work that way. He’s a great player who takes a lot of shots. That’s a lethal combination.”
“I still don’t know why he scores so much.”
Among basketball players, Barkley does not have a reputation for patience, but he admits he is “a different person off the court than on.” Although he is just 24, completing his third year in the NBA, his strength and his fierceness are legendary. Standing only 6’4¾” (a height generally considered inadequate to play forward), he is an all-star, who also went into the final days of the season leading the league in rebounding, the shortest player ever to do so.
As a scorer, he possesses virtually no jump shot, which to a professional basketball player is almost as shameful as having no endorsements, yet he is averaging more than 23 points a game. He scores mostly on tap-ins and driving lay-ups, a player who combines the speed and mobility of a Baylor with the determination and power of a Sherman. That’s Baylor as in Elgin and Sherman as in tank. Asked whether he had ever seen another player crash through bodies with such contempt, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers replied, “Earl Campbell and Jim Brown. Nobody in this sport.”
Barkley’s vertical leap is 37½ inches, unheard of for a man who once played at 310 pounds. While he has never entered the NBA’s annual slam-dunk contest, complaining that “there’s no dunk that hasn’t already been done,” he would certainly enliven the slam portion of the event. Two years ago he dunked so enthusiastically at the Spectrum that he moved the 2,240-pound basket support six inches, a feat only a forklift could match.
He has also, in one of his more provocative moments, called his teammates “wimps.” (To be fair, he has called himself worse.) He does not apologize, explaining that those who have played like wimps know who they are. “You want to see a wimp,” interjects his girlfriend. “Three light beers and he’s drunk.”
When Barkley played college basketball at Auburn, he was famous not for what came out of his mouth but for what went in. Mostly that was pizza, although ex-roommate Cahill once watched him eat an entire bag of miniature Snickers during a half-hour TV show. With the encouragement of the university publicity department, Barkley accumulated such nicknames as the “Round Mound of Rebound” and “Boy Gorge.” He went along with the promotions good-naturedly, only because he believed it was expected of him. “People concentrated on how much I weighed, not on how well I played,” he says. “I led the conference in rebounding for three years, but nobody knew it. I was just a fat guy who could play basketball well.”
He was better than that. He was perhaps the finest fat basketball player in college history. He was good enough to be invited to the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, and he even dieted beforehand, reporting to coach Bobby Knight at a relatively svelte 284. Barkley led the camp in charisma, 360-degree spinning dunks and ball handling by a big man, just a few of the many entertaining qualities Knight does not tolerate in basketball players. Barkley was cut.
The 76ers took him fifth in the college draft, and when he reported at nearly 300 pounds, former general manager Pat Williams observed, “He’s so fat his bathtub has stretch marks.” Barkley signed a four-year contract worth $2 million, and after averaging 20 points and 12.8 rebounds in his second season, he renegotiated. According to Lance Jay Luchnick, who represents Barkley, he will earn $1 million this season, and $12 million more—all guaranteed—over the remaining seven seasons of the contract. Barkley now plays at 245 pounds, and the only stretch marks are on the bank account of 76ers owner Harold Katz.
“I used to enjoy basketball, but now I play it for the money,” says Barkley, supine on the couch in his one-bedroom apartment, just off the expressway to downtown Philadelphia. “The pressure of the NBA, the physical abuse my body takes—I love basketball, but I wouldn’t do this unless I was making money. My knees, ankles and back hurt so much I wonder, ‘Is it worth it?’ ”
When he goes back home to Leeds, Ala., a town of about 8,000 just outside Birmingham, the aches seem less worrisome. He sees other young men working at the cement plant while his family resides in a remodeled five-bedroom house with a Lincoln Continental, a Mercedes 560 SEL and a Thunder-bird out front. Barkley has nothing against Philadelphia, at least no more than he has against any big city, where people get murdered every day, but he’s nearly rhapsodic when talking about his hometown. “In Leeds, one person dies a week and that’s from old age,” he says. In Leeds, he eats at the Old Smokey Bar B-Q, shoots pool at the Fuzzy Mule Lounge and plays baseball on the empty lots in his neighborhood. Two summers ago he promised a dollar to every kid he couldn’t strike out, and he had to ask his mother for a loan.
He speaks hardly at all of his father, Frank Barkley, who left Leeds when Charles was a baby. He tries to appear indifferent, but finally he admits, “I hurt to the extent that I wish he had been there and hurt that he wasn’t. I was very angry and very resentful all my life, until the last couple of years.” He saw his father occasionally while growing up and now sees him whenever the 76ers are in Los Angeles. Charles’s mother, Charcey Glenn, 45, and his grandmother, Johnnie Edwards, 60, raised the boy and looked after him. Before Barkley signed with Luchnick, the attorney had to visit Leeds and pass maternal inspection. As Luchnick recalls, “We all sat down at 6 o’clock to go over the contract. By 7:30, Charles was snoring on the couch. About 9:30, his mother went to bed. At 1:30 in the morning, his grandmother pushed her glasses up on her nose and said, ‘All right, tell me again, what do you mean by full power of attorney.’ ”
Barkley dropped out of Auburn after his junior year to play pro basketball, but he plans to attend summer school to get a degree, probably in business management. “At least I’ll know if my attorney is robbing me,” he says, making certain his lawyer is listening. He really doesn’t want a degree—”It’s not like I’m going to be a brain surgeon”—but he expects he will be spending the next three summers in school, because his grandmother made him promise he would. “And she keeps riding me,” he sighs. His grandmother also takes a profound interest in his basketball career and is able to follow it diligently ever since Barkley had a satellite dish installed in the backyard. “She can watch me play and tell me everything I’m doing wrong,” says Barkley. He sighs again. “And she does all the time, unfortunately.”
It is just after 6 p.m., 90 minutes before game time, 45 minutes before he is supposed to be dressed for Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Barkley is still on the couch. In a league where stardom is asserted by arriving as late as possible for home games, or by hiding behind potted palms in hotel lobbies in order to be last on the team bus, Barkley is a cinch to make the All-Late Hall of Fame. He says he gets nervous sitting around locker rooms. At 6:22 p.m., he drives his Mercedes out of the apartment complex. At 6:36 p.m., having negotiated 11.3 miles of Center City rush hour traffic in 14 minutes, he arrives at the Spectrum.
By late in the fourth quarter, the 76ers are leading the Bulls by six, but Jordan is on his way to a 49-point game. Barkley is assigned to guard him. He picks up Jordan at mid-court and delivers a forearm that jolts him upright. The message is clear: while Michael Jordan might rule the air, Charles Barkley controls the turf. After the game, Jordan is sitting by his locker, shaking his head and trying to figure out what got into Barkley. Meanwhile, Barkley is sitting by his locker, shaking his head and trying to figure out how to explain 49 points to his girlfriend. “I told her before the game he always gets 30,” he says hopefully. “Maybe I can tell her we held him to 19.”