Originally published in the November, 1994 issue of GQ, this story appears here with the author’s permission.
I am chasing a charcoal Mercedes sedan driven by a man whose silhouette in the tinted rear window is a bald pate flanked by two small but prominent ears. It looks the way Mr. Peanut would look without his top hat.
We are driving at insanely high speeds, flipping from lane to lane on a wide boulevard through a section of Phoenix called Paradise Valley. Outside, tract homes flash past, separated by expanses of dirt the color of congealed refried beans, and when I roll down the window the heat feels like a convection oven. I’m not sure whose paradise this might be.
This is the deal: If I want to follow Charles around the golf course I first have to follow him home to pick up his clubs. But he gave me no directions, and now he is losing me. As we come up on an intersection, Charles veers, without signaling, into a right-turn lane with a “yield” sign on it. But instead of yielding, Charles’s car accelerates as if swatted forward by some huge unseen hand of Nature, and he’s off, ahead of the pack. Whereas when I stomp the pedal of my own mid-sized rental of indeterminate make, the engine responds as though I’ve awakened it from a deep sleep. The traffic flow to my left won’t let me merge, so I’m driving on the dirt shoulder, kicking up stones and dust, about to have an accident in a car that feels as if it were fashioned out of squashed Pepsi cans.
But then, as sometimes happens in stories like this, the car to my left, sensing that I am out of my mind, slows and allows me back on the road. A few hundred yards down the avenue, a traffic light appears. Charles has to stop, and I ease in behind him, seized by a spasm of anger; I have nearly killed myself.
Just as quickly, the anger passes: It was a contest, and Charles lives for the burn of the contest. Charles’s life is nothing but a series of contests. It was the burn I’d come to Phoenix in search of. It is the burn that has earned Charles Barkley his fame, his notoriety and, ultimately, his immortality. And it is the burn, I had begun to suspect, that lies at the heart of the difference between the game of Charles and Bird and Jordan and Magic and the game that has replaced it—the game of Kemp and Coleman and Starks and Mason. l suspected that the burn inside the new wave of basketball players is of an entirely different nature.
So it seemed only natural to seek out the greatest villain the game has ever loved to find out if this disaffection was mine alone or whether something’s really gone wrong. If I can just catch him.
But, in fact, the contest is over. l have passed his test. I risked my life for an interview, and thus earned Charles’s approval. He drives lawfully the rest of the way. He even signals as he pulls into the walled fortress that is his housing development. And then invites me into his home and tells me to help myself to whatever is in the refrigerator: the perfect host and—as is always the case with Charles—now redeemed.
A moment later, he reappears in golf regalia, smiling, bag in tow, and we head for the course, so that I can watch him play the sport that obsesses him. By getting close enough to feel the burn of the last player whose antisocial behavior on the court never, somehow, eclipses the beauty of his game, I figured, I might gain some insight as to how the NBA has become so lead-pipe ugly.
It never flowed in the nation’s veins or marked the seasons, like baseball. Its pedigree was distinctly pedestrian: Cities like Syracuse and Rochester gave the NBA life. In the years of Cousy and Schayes, the league was, at best, an accessory to the culture.
Not until television gave us our first glimpse of the work of West, Baylor, and Robertson did professional basketball catch our eye, and more than the athleticism, it was the level of the competition that hooked us. It was Bradley dueling Jack Marin, Reed posting up Unseld, that made us pay attention. None of them was brilliantly athletic, but they worked like motherfuckers, and one thing that America has always loved is good work habits.
When the technology blossomed—giving us both the means to fill up infinite cable capillaries and the free time to watch whatever they were filled with—it was the NBA’s tremendous good fortune to be able to usher in a new generation possessed of not only great intensity but also great skill. With first Bird and Johnson, and then Jordan and Barkley, the NBA hoisted itself right to the top.
Now one of them is too pained to play, another has a terminal disease, and a third had the extraordinary good sense to pull out, whatever his reason. And now only Charles remains, for another year, to bridge the old and the new.
It is apt that Charles has endured. Only Charles belongs, really, with the new kids, because only Charles, among the old breed, had the trip-wire temper and fury and force with which the modern game foams at the mouth. Charles first kicked the chairs, and Charles once spat at a taunting fan, except that it landed on a little girl at courtside. Charles was the progenitor of the mayhem game. Without Charles, there’d be no tacit tolerance of Charles Oakley’s flagrant foul 19 seconds into a playoff game. No Shawn Kemp grabbing his crotch for the cameras at the World Championships.
But in one sense, Charles belongs wholly to an older league. There is a direct lineage from George Mikan to Charles Barkley: Mikan and Barkley and all the players in between had to earn their money. Barkley is worth several million now, but 10 years ago, when he was about to be drafted out of Auburn, the 76ers told him they were going to pay him $65,000 in his rookie year. When Havlicek was running for 48 minutes, when Bill Russell vomited from exhaustion after games, and then when Barkley, the rookie, dribbled end to end, feinted five men and dunked the ball, huffing like a freight train—it wasn’t all for the camera. It was to earn enough money to finance a crippled retirement.
Truth be told, here on the other side of the bridge, standing next to the likes of Shaq, the Disneyesque hologram with all the enduring appeal of a Happy Meal, Charles knows his time is about up. He doesn’t belong in a league full of men whose shoe contracts alone guaranteed a lifetime of leisure before they’d once dribbled a basketball in an NBA arena. Men who have unveiled a game powered by the weakest of fuels: a need to look good for the camera.
Now Charles Barkley looks around at what he’s spawned, and, as is often the case with elders among their children, finds himself confused and uncomprehending and unable to see the forest because he’s so maddened by the trees—one tree in particular. Last year, on the basketball court, a man named Latrell Sprewell called him a punk.
“I was like... ‘WHAT?’”
Barkley’s face balloons in wide-eyed amazement in the retelling. We are in the office of his home in Philadelphia. Both office and home are small—Barkley has never felt the need to live in a house the size of a theme park. He seems not only too tall but too wide for the place.
“And l was real pissed: Latrell Sprewell. Because I would never call him a punk. I might give him a hard time, but l would never say ‘Hey, Sprewell, you’re a punk.’”
The frown backs off and the lines soften. Then, with saucer eyes, he says, “It really hurt my feelings.”
This is the classically maddening, adolescent Charles. The man who thinks nothing of pointing to a teammate on the court and then pointing to the bench and staring at the coach, humiliating the player to the core in front of thousands or millions, professes to be pained by a one-word epithet.
To Charles’s way of thinking, the distinction is legitimate, even obvious: Raised by his mother and grandmother to adhere to rules of propriety (he is singular among athletes, for instance, in keeping his appointments), Barkley insists that insult for insult’s sake was never part of the Old Guard’s repertoire. It’s simply… unseemly.
“When I talk trash, I’m just having fun with it,” he says. “I’m not trying to embarrass a guy. l don’t say ‘I’m going to kill you.’ Larry, Magic and Michael—these guys talked trash, but it was a friendly kind of trash. We didn’t curse other players out. Every time we dunked we didn’t scream into the camera. Every time we scored on a guy we didn’t get in his face and stare at him. I think that’s just wrong.
“The players today… they’re like [what] you see on TV: Kids killing kids and stuff like that. Kids in gangs. I think that’s the generation of the young player that’s coming to the NBA. Rebellious. Undisciplined. They speak for our society. I mean, if they didn’t play basketball, they’d be the guys who’d be in gangs, who’d kill somebody.”
The closest Charles ever got to a gang was when he was a member of the Cake Bandits as a 12-year-old in Leeds, Alabama. He and his friends would wait for the cake delivery truck at the supermarket. After its wares had been deposited on the loading dock each Sunday night, they’d help themselves. One night the police were waiting. Charles ran through the woods behind the store, barreled into a tree, nearly knocked himself out, scrambled to his feet, ran home and hasn’t stolen anything more significant than a glance since.
I ask Charles if he ever tries to tell the younger generation, on the court, to cool out.
“I don’t think they would take it well during the game,” he says, “because they’re so violent. When we used to fight, it was more of a posturing thing, just trying to stake out your turf. I mean, you might see guys pushing each other, but you knew deep down they were bluffing.”
Ultimately, of course, Charles’s recollection ignores the key value in the equation: that his intensity, while singular, was always coupled with a dangerous catalyst—an abject lack of self-restraint. “Sigmund Freud,” Frank Layden, president of the Utah jazz, told me a few years ago, “would jump out of the grave to examine Charles Barkley.”
For whatever reason, Barkley has never had the power to rein himself in. Which is why his legacy must ultimately include, along with his moments of greatness, a catalogue of scuffles, middle fingers, two teammate muggings in practice and two instances of balking at returning to a game he’d been pulled out of.
Every transgression on the court, he’ll tell you, was the direct result of nothing but the natural intensity he’s brought to the game ever since he washed out of the Olympic trials in 1984—a necessary arrow in the quiver of a man who has always been basically earthbound. He has never, he’ll tell you, tangled simply because of the carnivorous need to fight. When the Knicks and the Suns exploded into a painfully violent rumble two years ago, Barkley was on the fringe, trying to pull people apart.
“I’m like, ‘You guys are fighting for real,’” he says now. “Nowadays, guys be fighting and trying to kill each other. And that’s crazy.”
At the same time, Barkley vows a moment later, should anyone talk trash at him and then try to drive the lane on him, he’ll waste a good flagrant foul on the fool.
What? I ask. What have we been talking about here for the past half hour?
“I don’t care,” Barkley says. “I feel like I paid my dues. Maybe I can’t play like I used to, but I’ve earned respect.”
Which means that, despite his quite exemplary behavior on the court in the three years since the spitting incident drove NBA Commissioner David Stern to within a whisker of levying a very long suspension on his least favorite court jester, we shouldn’t be surprised if Barkley happens to clothesline Latrell Sprewell in the next few months. And if he does, amid all the bemoaning of the modern state of the game, he’ll offer no apologies for his actions.
In fact, he’ll have an answer at the ready. It’s a tidy defense. You’ve already heard him utter it. In the commercial. “I’m no role model,” he says, and he’s right, of course.
And wrong. Because in disclaiming the mantle, he’s setting a terrific example. And there is a certain irony in this: If Charles Barkley is now the only athlete honest enough to tell you the truth about the sports posters in your kid’s room—that every picture of a superstar represents an unrealistic goal, nurtures irresponsible visions of unattainable riches and fame—then this honesty surely makes him one of the few role models in sport.
It’s not just a sneaker slogan, by the way.
This happens very late one night in a Phoenix nightclub. An hour before, there were dozens of people hanging at Charles’s pool table, most of them women, but the club has since been vigorously emptied by the security guards, save one member of the flock. The woman talks to Charles in hushed tones. She is very attractive. The smoke still hangs above the dance floor and the pool tables, and there’s a sensory echo of several hundred men and women drinking ridiculous amounts of liquor beneath a disc jockey’s giddy eye. It’s a time of night when all the rules should be taking the rest of the night off. Charles and the woman are speaking earnestly. I should not overhear what they are saying. But I do.
Woman: “I want to be able to put your poster on my son’s wall.”
Charles: “But you shouldn’t. I’m not a role model. You should be raising your kid, not me.”
2:00 a.m. and Charles Barkley is debating the role-model issue.
“I don’t want to sell sneakers,” he says a few days later, back in Philadelphia. “I want to get to people. We got to stop killing each other and get more educated. Kids all think they’re gonna make the NBA. And they’re not. Parents gotta take control over them and make sure they get an education. They all want to make it. But they’re not gonna make it until their parents take them by the hand and say ‘I’m going to beat you to a pulp until you learn.’”
Charles is always mindful of kids. On the golf course—deserted, save for Charles and his friends; no one in his right mind would play golf in August in the desert—Charles is watchful of Vince Coleman’s two little boys, shooing them away from water hazards while their father is hitting his shots.
And after Charles rockets his drive off the ninth tee at a 45-degree angle into a pool lined with stones, and the ball ricochets around the inside lip of the pool, bounds out and comes to rest under a eucalyptus bush twenty feet from the tee, and he yells “FUUUUUUCK!”—one word, delivered operatically and in several syllables—he immediately turns to Coleman’s children, sitting nearby in a golf cart.
Of course, when one of them calls Barkley “Michael Jordan” for the third time that afternoon, his immediate rejoinder is “If you call me Michael Jordan one more time I’m gonna throw your ass in the water.”
It is a regular game—Charles, Coleman and the former Cardinals receiver Roy Green. Barkley plays golf all the time, wherever he is. On this day, he shows no sign of the back ailments that incapacitated him in last year’s Western Conference semifinals—he needed two anti-inflammatory shots at halftime of the seventh game, which the Suns lost to the Rockets.
Between shots, as he steers the golf cart, Charles offer up glimpses of the Barkley sub-psyche.
Once, apropos of nothing, he says, “I want to be better than everyone else.” A few minutes later, he says, “I can’t stand to be like the rest of these motherfuckers.” He waits a beat. Then: “Mediocre.”
As afternoon stretches toward evening, a tree-bending wind signals a storm blowing in over the back nine. The sky is lit by sun on one horizon and lightning on another; it’s apocalyptic and a fitting setting for this battle between three great athletes from the three major sports. Green is smooth, sinking long putts with regularity. Coleman is not as skilled but, workmanlike, has whittled his handicap to 10. Barkley’s game waxes and wanes; it’s feast or famine. The competition is real but not intense; the event is as social as it is athletic. “Go, ball, go like Ben Johnson on steroids!” is what Barkley yells at one putt Green has hit too hard, prompting Green’s retort: “With friends like you, who needs the Klan?”
On the 18th tee, Coleman and Barkley decide to put all of whatever they’ve bet all day on this final hole, a par five, and the mood shifts. Barkley has his match: one on one. By now, it is growing dark, and the wind is bringing clouds of sand into the wealthy refuge.
It would be folly to expect good golf out of this hole. Which means that, finally, there is enough pressure on Charles Barkley to make this a contest, and even in the way he walks up to the tee, it is apparent that the rules have changed.
His drive disappears in the twilight. We find it well down the fairway, behind a small hill. He cannot see the green, which is now barely visible anyway. His second shot vanishes into the gloom. We find it in the middle of the fairway, a brilliant shot, fifty yards from the hole.
Coleman is behind him, foundering in the dusk. All Barkley has to do to win is to play it safe. But now it’s dark. Charles might as well be wearing a blindfold and hitting into a wind tunnel.
There is a calm before he swings. He lofts the ball into the night. It stops three feet from the hole.
It is his best shot of the round.
He leans back and looks at the sky: “YEEESSSSSSSS!”
He and Coleman shake hands.
“You can’t have no heroes,” Charles says, “unless something important is on the line.”
Back at the clubhouse, Barkley and Coleman sign autographs, and they and Green discuss plans to meet for dinner. Then Charles turns to me.
“You’re coming, right?”
I tell him I don’t know where the restaurant is.
“Let me give you directions,” he says, and he does. Very good directions. I will join him and his friends. I am flattered. Barkley never gives it a second thought. It was the polite thing to do.
Then he climbs into the charcoal Mercedes and pulls out of the lot and disappears—the last one out. When he’s gone, the place is empty, and his absence is a tangible thing.