SI Vault: Charles Barkley takes on the world as the Wild Bull of Las Ramblas
This story originally ran in the August 10, 1992 edition of SI. To subscribe, click here.
Charles Barkley, always outrageous, has been the talk of the Olympic Games, on the basketball court as well as off it
Along Las Ramblas, the mile-long, principal tourist avenue of Barcelona, one can find flower shops, bird vendors, taverns, bakeries and vegetarian restaurants. You can find mimes, face painters, musicians, contortionists, panhandlers and pin traders. You can find a couple dozen varieties of olives, roasted pigs, peaches, figs, plums and prunes, and a few saltwater creatures on ice that stare right back at you when you stare at them.
And on many nights during these Games of the XXV Olympiad, you can also find Charles Barkley. ''It is heem! I know it's heem!'' shouted a young Spanish girl as Charles strolled the boulevard one evening ... well, one morning, a few hours after midnight. ''It ees the Charles guy.''
Yes, it was the Charles guy, and he gave her an autograph when she rushed to his side. The crowd swelled and was carried along in Barkley's wide wake. He didn't stop for long, signing and talking and gesturing on the run, yet he seemed to take in everything. He was startled when one older fellow with slits for eyes darted in front of him and pointed, laughing like a hyena. Barkley tried to stare him down for a moment and then shook his head.
''Damn,'' said Barkley, ''you're crazier than I am.''
• MORE SI VAULT: 60 years, 60 iconic stories from Sports Illustrated
Yes, it was a typical Olympian night for the Wild Bull of Las Ramblas, the only member of the Dream Team to have elbowed an Angolan, drawn a technical for talking to the crowd, received gentle yet unmistakable rebukes from his teammates, been called on the carpet by the USOC and gotten alternately cheered and jeered in the pregame introductions. Barkley has earned a difficult and quite curious double distinction in Barcelona: He has become, at once, America's greatest Olympic ambassador and its greatest potential nightmare, a man who can turn a grimace into a smile—or vice versa—in an instant.
Barkley's legend has grown quickly, as legends tend to do at the Olympics, and a bit of perspective is needed. Unpredictable though he may be, Barkley is not running amok through the streets of Barcelona, smashing wine bottles and carrying off women, any more than he is doing anything out of the ordinary—what's ordinary for him, anyway—between the lines. Nevertheless, he has clearly emerged as the symbol of the U.S. men's basketball team: invincible on the court,
larger than life off it and, wherever they are, rather like a bad case of heartburn to certain unsuspecting U.S. Olympic officials and athletes.
That resentment toward the Dream Team—its celebrity, its $900-a-night hotel rooms, its all-encompassing, star-studded presence—would arise was inevitable. Swimmer Mike Barrowman, America's 200-meter gold medalist in the breaststroke, expressed this sentiment most eloquently and equitably. ''This is the Olympics, not the NBA championship,'' said Barrowman last week when asked if he was bothered by all the attention the Dream Team is getting. ''I love
these guys. I want them to go out and kill everybody. But this is our chance to come through for our country. We only get that chance once every four years. They get it every day.''
Slowly but surely, though, the Dream Teamers have opened the curtain that seemed to separate them from the other athletes early in the Games. Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and Scottie Pippen visited the Olympic Village, mingled with athletes from several countries and signed autographs. Larry Bird rode the metro (in fact, he rode it for quite a while because he went to the wrong stadium by mistake) to watch the U.S. baseball team and later met the players in the dugout. ''He came down for autographs,'' said U.S. coach Ron Fraser, laughing. ''So we gave them to him.''
Malone has become good buddies with U.S. lightweight boxer Oscar de la Hoya and huddled with de la Hoya's family during his opening match (a victory over Adilson Rosa Silva of Brazil). Malone and several of his teammates also found time to watch the women's basketball team play. John Stockton even went unrecognized as he conducted an interview for NBA Entertainment along Las Ramblas one evening. ''What do you think of John Stockton?'' Stockton asked an American woman.
''Oh, he's a very good guard,'' she said.
No one, though, has done more to defuse the criticism than Magic Johnson and his good buddy Barkley. As expected, Magic has been the Sunshine Diplomat, waving to the crowd at boxing one night, at gymnastics the next, at track and field the next. Each day the Dream Team is not in action, Magic peruses the schedule of events and then says he wants to go to them all. Sometimes he even does. But Barkley not only has taken in events other than his own but also has gotten sweaty down on the streets, drinking (not to excess, it should be noted), joking and mingling with the crowd that lingers on Las Ramblas until the street cleaners come on duty. His nocturnal promenades, however diverting they might be for Barkley himself, have gone a long way to alter the image of ( the Dream Team as a collection of millionaire isolationists.
''I just can't sit in my room and do nothing,'' said Barkley one day last week, doing exactly that for the moment and looking plainly restive. ''Sure, it's a pain in the butt to sign autographs all the time, but I'd rather walk around and be bothered than sit around. As far as I'm concerned, it's fun going around meeting people.'' Not nearly as much fun for him as it is for them. One night as Barkley posted up at a bar in Plaza Real, an open courtyard just off Las Ramblas, an astonishing number and variety of fans vied for his attention. ''Get back, please,'' Barkley had to say to an overzealous group of autograph seekers at one point. ''You are definitely in my face.''
One man rode a bicycle in and out of the assembled crowd, always within sight of Barkley, a jester auditioning for the jester-king. Barkley kept up a steady stream of conversation with both his friends and his rapt audience, from time to time dipping his head and slurping his cerveza rather than just picking up the glass. The man doesn't even drink beer conventionally.
''Well, gotta go,'' said Barkley. ''Playing golf with Payne Stewart in the morning.'' Considering the hour, which was close to 4 a.m., he played with pain, as well as with Payne. (But he didn't play badly, shooting a 91 to Stewart's 66.) As Barkley left, the crowd scurried for prime spots and followed him all the way to the door of his hotel.
''I heard this Barkley supposed to be bad guy,'' said one Spanish teenager in broken English, holding up an autograph. ''I think he is nice guy.''
On the other hand, Barkley has done a few bad-guy things. He was whistled for a technical foul during the game against Croatia when he talked to the crowd, a definite no-no in international play. ''If they gave T's for that in America,'' Barkley said, ''I wouldn't make it past the first quarter.''
And no matter what his protests to the contrary, his teammates were upset by his elbowing of a spindly Angolan named Herlander Coimbra (it resulted in a flagrant foul) during America's opening game victory. ''That kind of stuff just isn't good for us imagewise,'' said Stockton. ''In our situation, we have to be extra careful.''
Barkley then compounded the error with an ill-advised comment in a press conference two days later. ''People told me to hit a fat guy next time, not a skinny one,'' said Barkley. ''That guy probably hadn't eaten in a few weeks.''
Did he really mean to make light of the catastrophic famine in Coimbra's African nation? No, but that's how it came out.
Barkley could have handled his hassle with the USOC over a column he was writing for USA Today a little better too. USOC rules prohibit an athlete from acting as a journalist unless he is writing for a hometown newspaper, so the committee forced him to cancel la columna de Barkley after two days. His reflections still appear but under staff writer David DuPree's byline. Said Barkley, ''The USOC is a little jealous of our success. It's an ego thing. We don't think we're above the Olympic committee, but it shouldn't pick on every little thing we do. We should be given our due for being a great basketball team.''
• MORE SI VAULT: Jack McCallum on LeBron James's status and his future
If there is one point that is beyond debate at these Games, Charles, it's that the U.S. has been given its due as a great basketball team. And if there is one Dream Teamer who has taken a giant step toward the footlights on this world stage, it is Barkley. After America's 122-81 laugher over Spain on Sunday, which moved the U.S. to this week's medal round, Barkley stood first on the team in points (21.6 per game) and third in rebounds (5.4). Not that there were doubts about Barkley's skills, but his astonishing range of abilities—outrebounding much taller players, running the floor like a guard and getting his shot off with either hand while bouncing off bodies around the basket—seem more pronounced when performed within the Dream Team galaxy. ''That Charles Barkley,'' said Brazilian star Oscar Schmidt, shaking his head after Barkley scored 30 points in America's easy 127-83 victory. ''We just don't see any like that.''
That's because there's only one like that. After his final field goal against Brazil, Barkley trotted to a corner of the court and held his arms aloft, a Pavarotti in short pants, inviting the emotions of the crowd to roll down upon him. Some jeered him, but most cheered. And absolutely everyone noticed him. He likes it that way.