A chat with Charles Barkley about basketball analytics and beyond
There are few people I enjoy interviewing more than Charles Barkley, and with the All-Star game in New York City last weekend, I sat down with the TNT NBA analyst (and ‘beloved member’ of the analytics community) following a live broadcast of Inside The NBA at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. As is usually the case with Barkley, the conversation went everywhere, from Timofey Mozgov to Nelson Mandela to Klay Thompson to King Abdullah II.
Last week we saw a lot of writers and broadcasters criticize you for your comments about analytics in basketball. Are they right?
I’ve had at least four or five NBA coaches call me loving what I said. I saw Mark Cuban said something. I also saw a couple of coaches say analytics are a small part of it but the big thing is what Charles said is correct. So I think more people agree with me who know basketball than disagree.
Oh, my God, did you see that? [Barkley is reacting to a dunk by Cavs center Timofey Mozgov against the Bulls].
The Cavs are playing much better.
The big thing was Mozgov. They were too small. I said tonight [on TNT] that Anderson Varejao getting hurt was the best thing to happen to the Cavs. They might not have made that trade if he did not get hurt.
So is it just Mozgov’s size that game-changed things?
Yes, his size. I like him as a player but his size makes a difference. He is a big guy. Listen, Kevin Love is a small power forward. Him and Varejao are undersized power forwards. It looks different when you drive down the lane against two big guys.
Why do people react so vociferously to what you say?
Because I think people want their subject to be right no matter what. People like for Charles to be honest unless he says something different from them. That’s all it is. I’m pretty sure you get criticism.
All the time.
People like you as long as you agree with them. But that doesn’t really bother me.
Do you have any interest in talking to Daryl Morey?
Not at all. I have nothing against Daryl Morey. But what annoys me about Daryl Morey is they [the Rockets] go out and get James Harden. Then, they go get Dwight Howard. They go get Trevor Ariza. They go after Carmelo Anthony. They go after Chris Bosh. How is that analytics, just getting better players? Just explain it to me. Seriously. I am willing to deal with common sense. I mean, come on. They are just bringing in better players. How is that analytical?
Dean Smith passed away last week. Did you spend any time with him?
Michael [Jordan] introduced me to him and one time we played golf. It was really refreshing that someone you really respect from a distance was just as nice. He was still coaching at the time. I never played against him in college. We didn’t talk a lot, we just played golf. But he was just so nice. I’m a basketball junkie and it was like if I got a chance to hang it with Phil Jackson, or John Wooden, or Pat Riley, or Gregg Popovich. That would be pretty cool. Dean Smith didn’t think he was “Dean Smith.”
What about Jerry Tarkanian? What was your relationship like with him?
A couple of times we had dinner and it was the same way as Dean Smith. I hope he gets the admiration the next couple of years. My opinion is just my opinion but to win at UNLV ain’t the same as winning at North Carolina or Duke. You are not getting the blue-chip guys. His best player was Larry Johnson, a JUCO. His next best player was probably Reggie Theus. He’s not getting McDonald's All-Americans. I think he was underrated as a coach. There was also something that came up last week with Popovich.
What was that?
People were asking if he’s the best coach ever. I said for me he might be. Let me explain why: Look at his 15-year window. They’ve won 50 games every year, they’ve won five championships and look at the way he has won them. He won the first one with David Robinson, he wins the next one with Robinson and Tim Duncan. Then he wins with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili as maybe his best players. Now he wins with f---ing Kawhi Leonard. That is remarkable. How about him willing to change?
What about Red Auerbach?
I don’t want to judge Red because I don’t know. But to be able to win championships that many different ways—Popovich went from big dominance to point guard dominance and now he is doing it with a small forward. That is pretty amazing.
What did you think of the long profile published on you by The Undefeated?
I’m not sure how to answer that question. You have to be more specific.
Okay, let’s start with this. Was it fair and accurate?
Was it fair? I think it was fair and I like [writer] Jesse [Washington.] But I need a specific question.
Were you comfortable with the context of the piece, a focus on how you think about race in this country and how people think about you when it comes to race?
Listen, man, I have always said the same thing. Racism is here, and will always exist but we can’t use it as a crutch. I think it is important for me to speak out on social issues. Sometimes people will agree with me. Sometimes people will disagree with me. I don’t take that personally.
You are one of the few people on sports television who consistently talks about social issues. Why?
I think it is a great forum—because you have the voice. There are other guys who don’t have that voice, and are not on national television. But it is a double-edged sword. Because any time it comes to race, people like your opinion if they agree with you and if they disagree with you, they don’t like your opinion. But I am willing to speak because I think I can answer the questions [fairly] and honestly.
How comfortable are you talking about the 2016 presidential race?
I am paying close attention to the political situation. I have always voted Democratic. But I like some of the Republicans this time around. I like Chris Christie. I like Jeb Bush. I like those guys.
What about Hillary Clinton?
Well, I just told you I was thinking about voting Republican (laughs). But I was very disappointed in Chris Christie the other day on the measles thing. It is a shame that these guys are afraid of just answering the question and trying to make everyone agree with you.
You have a daughter. Was she vaccinated?
Yes. But they answered the question and started getting blowback and criticism and then change up. I’m like, dude, your opinion is just your f---ing opinion. I don’t understand why you answer a question and think everyone is going to agree with you. You can’t live your life like that.
What is Charles Barkley Avenue in Leeds, Alabama, like?
Projects and my mom’s house. I am there a lot. My mom is still there.
What is your involvement in that area?
I gave my high school $1 million and another school in that area $1 million. My goal is to send as many kids to college as possible. I don’t do stuff so people will say Charles Barkley is a good guy. I want my hometown to be better. One of the problems is we marginalize a lot of black kids. They think they can only play sports and be entertainers. I got lucky. I hit the lottery of life with basketball. But I still think the best way for people to be successful is academics. Leeds was a great place to grow up.
One of the interesting things about Jesse’s story was he talked and reported on your fitness level during your NBA career. I wonder if you had the best trainers in the world today, how much better would you have been?
Listen, I think after I got in shape in Philly, I was in great shape. I think I was in great shape in Phoenix. My first couple of years in Houston I was pretty good and after that I started breaking down. The only regret I have is I would have been traded out of Philly sooner because my last two years there were miserable. I was going to be traded every week. I finally had enough and said I’m not playing here anymore. So I would have left Philly two years sooner. They once had me on the cover of the Sporting News one year with six different uniforms because everyone was trying to get me.
Was there any other team than Phoenix that was close to getting you?
I got traded to the Lakers one day [in 1992] and they retracted the deal.
Yeah. The Sixers backed out. It was going crazy for two weeks so I knew it would come down to Portland, [the] Lakers or Phoenix. So I get a call from my agent one morning and he said, “Philly has traded you to the Lakers.” So I went to lunch and started drinking. I’m f---ing so excited that I am going to the Lakers. Three hours later I get a f---ing phone call from my agent saying that the Sixers backed out of the deal. I said, “Oh, s--t, I’m feeling pretty good right now.” So I went out and played that night.
How did you play?
I played pretty well. I wasn’t blasted, just a couple of drinks at lunch. I mean, I was excited to get the hell out of Philly.
Does doing Inside The NBA ever get boring?
Yes. We are on from 8 to 2:30 in the morning but we only work about an hour. Normally, we do five minutes before the game, halftime, and 30-45 minute show after the game. It gets boring, and I have been doing it for 15-16 years. That’s why I like going out to do games [as an analyst]. You are full of energy, the crowd is into it.
Are you excited about working on the NCAA tournament again for Turner and CBS?
Yes. I always look forward to the tournament. The tournament, the Olympics and the Super Bowl, you have to watch all of those.
Think Kentucky will go undefeated and win it all?
I think they will go undefeated during the regular season, but you can beat them in the tournament. You only have to beat them once. They will be the clear-cut favorite but they only have to have one bad day. I look at their SEC schedule and they are not losing a game in the regular season.
How legit is Golden State as a title contender?
I do not think they can win it all. I think they are too small. I don’t think you can win a championship shooting jumpers. It also depends on who they play. But I have said the same thing for 10-15 years: I don’t think you can win a title shooting jumpers. Their two best players are guards and I don’t think you can make enough jump shots in a seven-game series against a really good team. Let me tell you something, they do not want to see Oklahoma City in the first round. That is a bad matchup for them. One of those guards is going to get into foul trouble guarding Russell Westbrook.
How much better is Cleveland now than a couple of months ago?
Once they got Mozgov they went from being a little team to a big team. So it is different with Mozgov, but I still think if you asked me today, I would still go with the Bulls in the East. Cleveland is right there, though.
Is there a person that you have yet to meet that you’ve always wanted to meet?
One of my biggest regrets ever was not taking the time to go to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela. That is a big regret of mine. I should have figured out a way.
What about someone alive today?
Somebody I would like to meet today? King Abdullah (II) from Jordan.
That’s interesting and unexpected.
Well, that’s only in the last week. Because I think his actions when they (ISIS) burned that kid [a Jordanian military pilot] alive, I thought his actions were heroic. He was like, “No, you cannot do that to my people.” I wish President Obama was like that sometimes. I do. I think that is the way we have to treat ISIS. We can’t keep thinking it will go away. I thought it was heroic what Abdullah did.
The Noise Report
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.
1. In a stunning move last Thursday that had the U.S. soccer community chattering, FIFA announced it had extended its U.S. media rights agreements with FOX and NBC Universal’s Telemundo through the 2026 World Cup (the agreement includes the 2023 Women’s World Cup and other tournaments). CTV/TSN in Canada also had its rights agreement extended. No financial figures were released and competing networks were shut out of the process.
ESPN president John Skipper traveled the high road when I interviewed him Friday on the topic but multiple sources at ESPN confirmed company executives were ticked off—and rightly so. There are plenty of places to be critical of ESPN but its global soccer coverage is not one of them. The network delivered first-class coverage for viewers (and thus for FIFA) for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
“On the record, I confirm that we were surprised,” Skipper said. “We had no conversation with anybody or [were] given a heads-up by anybody. We loved doing the World Cup in 2010 and 2014 and felt like we really advanced the state of the game in this country and put on a very distinguished production. To not have the opportunity to follow up on that is disappointing.”
Asked if this would impact ESPN bidding on the 2030 World Cup, Skipper said, “Let me get the actuary table out and see what my odds are of walking the earth. I don’t know, honestly. I might be walking the earth but I don’t think I’ll be prowling the halls of Bristol.”
Some insiders suggest granting Fox and Telemundo an extra round without opening up the bidding means a move to the winter for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is a done deal. The current North American rights holders would be hurt by that move given that the loaded winter sports calendar would hurt viewership. FIFA extending Fox and Telemundo's rights, and not opening it up to other bidders, could be seen as a make-good for the shift in the Qatar tournament.
1a. Univision Communications also weighed in on being shut out of the bidding process. "We were not invited to participate in the process and find it curious that FIFA would think keeping the No. 1 Hispanic media company in the U.S. out of a competitive bidding process is good for the growth of soccer in the U.S."
1b. The always-excellent Gabriele Marcotti of ESPN FC on the unanswered questions of FIFA’s extension.
2. Last night's NBA All-Star game drew a 5.5 overnight rating on TNT and TBS, up 12 percent over 2014. Turner said the telecast drew an 8.8 overnight rating in New York City, the highest-ever in Turner's history hosting the event.
2a. TNT said Saturday’s All-Star competitions drew 6.1 million total viewers, up seven percent over last year and making it the fourth-most watched telecast in the history of the event. The telecast drew 7.8 million during the Slam Dunk contest.
2b. The top local markets for the Slam Dunk contest: 1. Cleveland; 2. Atlanta; 3. San Antonio; 4. New York; 5. Portland.
2c. How does a regional sports talk show book the President of the United States as a guest? Check out this detailed story by R.L. Bynum on how Hayes Permar, the producer of the North Carolina-based David Glenn Show, landed Barack Obama to talk about Dean Smith.
3. The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team remains an endless source of fascination. There are two excellent documentaries out now focusing on the 1980 Soviet Union hockey team and NBC has some promising coverage to celebrate the 35th anniversary (Feb. 22, 1980) of the “Miracle on Ice” game.
The network is taking NHL Live to Lake Placid next weekend as part of USA Hockey’s annual “Hockey Day In America.” At noon Sunday on NBCSN, the network will interview members of the 1980 team live prior to coverage of the Capitals-Flyers game, and there will also be a feature story on Mark Wells, the last player selected for the team who has undergone multiple back surgeries, has incurred hundreds of thousands in medical bills and has struggled with depression over the years.
3a. Awful Announcing’s Douglas Pucci reported that the ESPN 30 For 30 premiere of “Of Miracles and Men” drew 611,000 viewers on Feb. 8. That rates as one of the lowest-viewed 30 for 30s this season—a disappointing number because the doc was excellent.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• ESPN’s Jesse Washington headed to Leeds, Ala., to examine the soul of Charles Barkley. Long, but worth it.
• In a piece titled “Why I Prefer Having Sex With NBA Players,” GQ’s Myles Brown interviews adult film star Lisa Ann. Honest stuff here.
• SI.com’s Jessica Luther examines the Vanderbilt football rape case.
• Mike Ogle, writing for Charlotte Magazine, on a trying week in Chapel Hill.
• Great piece by Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel on Jerry Tarkanian.
• Deadspin’s Kevin Draper on whether Cavs owner Dan Gilbert attempted to silence a Yahoo Sports writer.
• This Pat Forde column on Dean Smith is terrific.
• Giants offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz on how to survive the NFL combine.
• Wall Street Journal writer Tom Perrotta on the reunion of Aaron Krickstein and Jimmy Connors.
• Via Mike Freeman: A Richie Incognito Return Is the Last Thing the NFL Needs Right Now.
• Terrific piece by Pirates star Andrew McCutchen on how difficult it is for socioeconomically challenged kids to make the major leagues:
Non-sports pieces of note:
• If you are on social media, I’d urge you to read this: How One Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.
• Via Popular Mechanics and Reeves Wiedeman: How The New York Times gets made in 2015.
• Via 538.com’s Mona Chalabi: Anyone between 25 and 29 is already older than most of the people in the world.
• A ranking, by Rolling Stone, of all 141 Saturday Night Live cast members.
• The New Yorker's Phillip Gourevitch on the Chapel Hill massacre.
• Via Campbell Robertson: The history of lynchings in the South documents nearly 4,000 names.
• What do you have to make in a year to be in the top one percent? Check out this map.
• The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple on the late David Carr, friend of journalism.
• Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan on Carr.
• Katie Holt, on memories of war and her father’s Alzheimer’s.
• The Washington Post’s Monica Hesse on a probate judge in Chilton County, Ala., now issuing same-sex marriage licenses.
5. Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier had a long examination of whether Michael Sam is truly a media distraction for NFL teams.
5a. The Sports TV Ratings feed said UConn’s win over South Carolina on ESPN2 drew 1.136 million viewers, a monster in-season number for women’s basketball.
5b. FC Barcelona’s site paid tribute to the late Bob Simon.
5c. Next Monday, CBS Sports Network will air Forward Progress: The Integration of SEC Football, a one-hour documentary on Nate Northington, the first African-American football player in the Southeastern Conference. The documentary airs at 8 p.m. ET on CBSSN.
5d. Toronto Star baseball writer Alison Gordon, who covered the Blue Jays for the Star from 1979 to 1984 and was Major League Baseball’s first female beat writer, passed away at 72.
5e. Rob Tobias, a member of ESPN’s public relations staff since 1983, is retiring from the department at the end of the month. It is a big loss for Pravda.
Tobias was the first person from ESPN PR I ever dealt with, and it came when I was a graduate journalism student at Columbia University. A small magazine had hired me to profile both Linda Cohn and Charley Steiner, and Tobias treated me as if I was a staffer at the New York Times. He was professional, he was honest, he didn’t lecture me. That I would cover his organization years later was an amusement to both of us, and there is no doubt that I gave his pitches more consideration than others because of his initial courtesy. His professionalism taught me a valuable lesson: You never know where the young people you meet will end up working in life. I wish him the best in whatever next chapter comes his way.