The Leaning Tower of Pizza

When Auburn center Charles Barkley uses body language, people listen
March 12, 1984

First off, let's clear up the matter of Charles Barkley and the three chickens. The story has Barkley, Auburn's 6'6", 280-pound junior center and cholester-All-America candidate, devouring three of them—fried, a la mama—at one sitting before leaving his home in Leeds, Ala. for the National Sports Festival in Indianapolis two summers ago. "To make sure I wouldn't get hungry," he's supposed to have said.

Barkley's mother, Mrs. Charcey Glenn, puts the kibosh on that tale. "It was three pieces—two drumsticks and a wing," she says, but adds that he did down plenty of macaroni and cheese, fried corn, collard greens and Kool-Aid.

You may also have heard the one about Barkley threatening to be the first player since Vanderbilt's Clyde Lee in 1966 to lead the Southeastern Conference in rebounding for three straight seasons. Or about his being named UPI's SEC Player of the Year largely because of his 9.3 rebounds per game and 64.4% shooting. Or about his achieving those numbers despite playing most of the season with a painful injury to the sacroiliac joint in his back—and being unable to benefit from electronic therapy because the impulses couldn't penetrate all the beef on his bones. Or about his custom-made uniform trunks, or his wearing three sweatbands on each arm so he'll have extras to give kids after games, or how he calls his girl friend Knucklehead. All those stories are true.

But Barkley himself is the source of the gastronomic apocrypha, like the bit about the three chickens.

Q.: How'd you lose weight?

A.: Cut down to six meals a day.

"I've never seen anyone attract attention like this kid," says Sonny Smith, the Auburn coach.

In three seasons Barkley has become a mythic figure in the SEC—larger than life and just about everything else. At Tennessee, someone dressed as a Domino's Pizza deliveryman approached Barkley in the pregame layup line to take his order. Kentucky forward Winston Bennett calls Barkley "a cartoon character." Says Auburn assistant coach Mack McCarthy, "He loves LSU fans best of all because they're so nasty."

The preferred epithet in Baton Rouge is Fat Boy. But you could construct a thesaurus entry of the nicknames Barkley has inspired in his travels: Bread Truck, the Love Boat, Food World, the Crisco Kid, the Wide Load from Leeds, Ton of Fun, the Leaning Tower of Pizza, the Goodtime Blimp and the prevailing Round Mound of Rebound are just a few. "He's my favorite player in college basketball," says Oklahoma's Wayman Tisdale, who played with Barkley at the Sports Festival. "I call him the Eighth Wonder of the World."

Kentucky center Melvin Turpin still calls him the Kid, even though Barkley has feasted on the 6'11", 240-pound Turpin throughout their careers. It began with Barkley's 25 points and 17 rebounds as a freshman in Lexington's Rupp Arena, where Wildcat fans abused him before the game, only to have Barkley blow kisses in return. This season he outpointed (39-33) and outrebounded (21-12) Turpin in their two regular-season meetings, which the teams split. In the first game, which Auburn won 82-63, Barkley tried unsuccessfully to chat with the Dipper during lulls in the action. "Barkley's got a lotta loose lip," said Turpin.

Barkley thinks he knows why he excels against Turpin and other taller centers. "It's easier for me to get low," he says. "I can put my butt on Melvin's legs, but Melvin can only put his legs on my butt."

Like any big kid with an appetite, Barkley will go on binges. Take last Saturday's, which came after Alabama had cut Auburn's lead to 69-61 with 3:39 left. In the next three minutes Barkley turned sundry rebounds, steals and loose balls into 11 straight points, including three dunks, one after taking a steal the length of the floor. He finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds in the Tigers' 83-70 win. "We expect him to do that," says sophomore forward Chuck Person, whose 20.2-point-per-game average leads the SEC. "For a stretch he'll just gobble everything up."

Barkley's full-court ramble evoked another one, earlier this season against LSU, in which he stole an inside pass, split two defenders with a crossover dribble and jammed just as a Bayou Bengal came by to foul him. He danced a jig before sinking the free throw. "Inside this body is the best point guard in the land," says Barkley. Says Smith, "I used to go out of my gourd when he did something like that. I've finally figured out he's just getting points for us."

Indeed, before this season Smith had all but given up trying to control and motivate Barkley. "Several times I got out the Blue Book [a college athletic directory] and said, 'Tell me where you want to go,' " Smith says. "I tried putting things on the bulletin board. I tried sit-down sessions, motivational tapes, even puke sessions [physical exercises designed to induce vomiting]. But he'd run harder in his punishment than in practice."

With Auburn—12-6 in the SEC, 18-9 overall—coming to the end of its most satisfying season ever, Smith and Barkley have kept a truce: The coach promises patience, and Barkley puts out as hard in practices as in games. "It's so hard to stay mad at the sucker," Smith says.

Thanks to a summer of competition at the Pan Am trials and World University Games, Barkley was only two days late making the weight limit (258) Smith had set for him last fall. Pounds have returned since his back injury, but preseason tests revealed that Barkley's bulk contained only 14.5% body fat, one of the lowest percentages on the team.

As a sophomore at Leeds High, Barkley went 5'10", 220. He was 6'6", 240 as a senior. He finished his freshman year at Auburn at 265, and he topped out at 305 for the '82 Sports Festival, where his 25 points and 11 rebounds led the South to victory over the East in the title game.

It's suspected that U.S. Olympic coach Bobby Knight will want Barkley around to set a few picks and help keep the world safe for democracy this summer. "I hate the Russians," Barkley says. And this spring he'll decide with his mother and Smith whether to leave school for the NBA draft. "You'd have to put a weight clause in his contract," says Philadelphia 76er player personnel director Jack McMahon. "But he has a body like Wes Unseld's and jumps like Dr. J."

In fact, Barkley isn't a great jumper as much as a quick one. "His foot quickness is phenomenal for his body type," says Mississippi State coach Bob Boyd. And he doesn't have big hands, just sure ones. "He could catch a bullet, but he can't palm a ball," says Smith. Thus, Barkley's dunks usually come two-handed or off the glass. He had six tap dunks in one game last season.

Barkley refutes allegations that he's cocky. "I'm nonchalant," he says. Mark Stevenson, an Auburn grad student who has tutored Barkley in economics, says, "He's like a little kid who's just found out he can walk on his hands and says, 'Look what I can do!' That's not cockiness. That's enjoying what you can do with your body, and showing it."

Barkley spoke volumes in body language during Auburn's 68-53 defeat of Mississippi State earlier last week. After Bulldog guard Jeff Norwood buried a 20-footer, Barkley gave him a pat on the rear. Later, on his way downcourt, he stopped momentarily to put his arm around Boyd. When referee Hank Nichols reached for the ball after a violation, Barkley slapped Nichols five. If Democratic presidential candidate John Glenn, who was at the game, had been sitting at courtside instead of two rows up, no doubt Barkley would have slapped some part of his anatomy, too.

Barkley and Glenn met briefly after the game and had this exchange:

Barkley: Hope y'all enjoyed yourself.

Glenn: We certainly did.

The next day, out of the blue, Barkley said, "My goal in life is to become President, lock up everybody over 12 and let kids rule the world."

Well, he already rules the SEC.

PHOTOBarkley is slightly bigger than his bite. PHOTOThe Round Mound grabs another rebound.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)