“To all the small power forwards and the short guards out there, you can still get you’re thing done.”
On Friday, September 13th, 2019, Charles Barkley joined the Legends Walk with a statue outside of the 76ers practice facility in Camden, New Jersey. Charles was joined by friends, family, former teammates, and coaches. When speaking about Charles, the stories people told consistently related to his connections with people in the small moments, when no one else was around.
“There [are] only two ways people look at you: you’re either a good guy or an asshole.”
Charles the Good Guy
Sixers president Chris Heck told a story that he heard from a friend at dinner. His friend had remembered a story from nearly 25 years ago of meeting Charles and the genuine generosity of spirit he displayed towards a young girl who was shy and unable to come over to meet him. Barkley, per Heck, asked the girl’s name, and then walked over to her with arms wide open. “So good to see you! I’m Charles!”
Barkley, 56, is a fixture on national television and core to the NBA culture and landscape. His unvarnished style when assessing players and teams can cause some to bristle and sparks conversation and outrage online. But Charles, the human, is genuine, kind, and unabashed in his love of the game and people involved.
Charles The Role Model
“I am not a role model,” Barkley famously said in 1993 in a Nike commercial. Here is the commercial.
And it was easy to view the outspoken Barkley as a counter to the silky smooth and famously apolitical Michael Jordan. In the 1980s and 90s, the NBA had a number of big archetypes. Magic Johnson and his huge smile. Larry Bird, the mean assassin. Michael Jordan, the jumpman whose play was perfect for the ESPN highlight culture. And then there was Barkley, who would say what was on his mind without regard for fake outrage. Shaquille O’Neal came along in the 90s and was more Charles than Micheal, but at 7’1″ he was the dominant giant to Charles’ plucky undersized dynamo.
In an age of carefully crafted personas of the modern athlete, Barkley remains a unique voice. His ease and comfort in saying things that would make headlines if any other athlete said it remains impressive. Over the course of 30 minutes or so, Barkley, on a day he was honored for his past, gave back to all media assembled by answering every question asked. “We are so lucky to play the game of basketball,” Charles said as he effortlessly weaved in and out of topics around the game, society, and culture.
“I think the most underrated group of all time is Public Enemy,” he said consistently. He spoke about the honor of being referenced by Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy, a seminal rap group that has continued to speak with uncompromised clarity about social issues of race and economics for the past 35 years. Chuck D formed the group in Long Island, NY but wore a Philadelphia Phillies hat in their breakthrough music video for Fight the Power, a rap anthem that remains relevant in 2019. As Chuck D said in Rebel Without a Pause:
“Simple and plain
give me the lane;
I’ll throw it down
your throat like Barkley”
Sir Charles Holding Court
“We should be thankful, and I’ve always been thankful,” said Barkley. “I look at these guys on the 76ers now, they are the luckiest people in the world… they should always be in a good mood!” And with those simple words, Charles spoke to the modern athlete who is plagued by self doubt and unhappiness all too often. His demeanor of low stakes and high spirits serves a crushing blow to the narrative that everything about a professional athlete’s career needs to be carefully managed like LeBron James.
He then weaved his way effortlessly (it seemed) through topics such as paying college athletes (he doesn’t think it’s right) to student debt. He gave sound advice for Joel Embiid (he thinks he should become a swimmer to stay in shape without putting undue load on his knees and joints) and expressed confidence in Ben Simmons’ ability to develop a perimeter game.
Charles talked about his love of the city of Philadelphia and why he lives in the city each summer. Long past the normal bailout from PR giving him an easy exit, Charles stayed to make sure everyone got not just the opportunity to ask a question, but an answer that would give them what they needed to tell their story.