Charles Barkley was ready for lunch. Breakfast was hours behind him, and as he walked out of the gym where the Philadelphia 76ers practice, dinner still lay somewhere over the horizon. Everything seemed to suggest lunch. Barkley was ready.
Though he owns a sleek new Porsche, on this raw, wintry day Barkley climbed into his four-wheel-drive Bronco and silently slipped it into gear. Everything was going smoothly until Barkley rolled up to a gate that someone had swung shut, a gate that was meant to make him turn around and go back the way he came. A gate that now stood squarely between Charles Barkley and his midday feeding. Barkley did not hesitate, he did not falter.
His front bumper hit the gate as he was still gathering speed, but the barrier did not give. Barkley continued to bull the Bronco forward, but the gate was soon entangled with his fender, and the harder he pushed, the closer to something like a postmodernist hood ornament the gate became. So Barkley simply backed up a few feet and whomped it again. And with that, the gate flew open and Barkley was off—bouncing over curbs, barging through parking lots and red lights in defiance of most of the laws of the traffic code and a couple of laws of physics. For the Sixers' irresistible new force, there is no such thing as an immovable object. Especially when lunch is waiting.
In his second NBA season, Barkley has been shaking the earth as he rumbles toward his destiny as the league's next great player. "He's the power forward in the league now," says Milwaukee's Terry Cummings. "And please tell Charles I said so."
Barkley runs the floor much as he drives the streets, flashing to the basket with Porsche-like speed and the brutish-ness of a Bronco, always banging against closed doors. In a game at Boston Garden in January, he had 26 points and 21 rebounds—the first of two times he has had more than 20 points and 20 rebounds in a game this season—and on one memorable end-to-end charge, he dribbled behind his back twice, once left, once right, without ever breaking stride.
That Barkley is almost certainly among the league leaders in three-point play opportunities (the NBA doesn't keep such statistics) is a tribute not only to his strength but also to his ability to sneak in on cat's feet and snatch rebounds away from players with better position.
At last count he was fourth in the league in rebounds (and closing fast on teammate Moses Malone), fifth in field goal percentage and leading Western civilization in the rim-roasting dunks that have become his trademark. "He's the most powerful player at that position I've ever seen," says Los Angeles Laker coach Pat Riley. "When he gets up a head of steam, people just go flying off him like he was knocking down bowling pins. You need chains and a billy club to stop him."
The only ones who have stopped him so far are the coaches in the Eastern Conference, who left him off the All-Star team, a wound from which Barkley was still smarting as he finally settled into lunch. "I should have made it, no ifs, ands or buts," he said over his second virgin strawberry daiquiri. "And I think a lot of people around me thought I deserved to make it." Could he have been referring here to his legendary teammate Julius Erving, who probably got Bark-ley's All-Star spot by virtue of his elder-statesman status? Barkley didn't say, but it is clear that he chafes at the kind of sentimentality that keeps older players in the lineup past their prime, and keeps the new wave from rolling in. "But it doesn't matter what anybody else thinks now," Barkley reasoned. "I know that I'm working hard. And I'm having a great year."
It didn't start out all that well, actually, and at one point early in the season Barkley was struggling. After a painful loss to New Jersey in early November, he warned ominously of detonations to come. "Sooner or later," he said, "I'm going to explode on somebody." There was a time, of course, when Barkley was eating so much that you never knew whether he actually would explode. But at 265 pounds, he is now in the lean and mean phase of his career.
Although it's not easy, given his dimensions, Barkley prefers to keep a low profile in Philadelphia. "Once I leave the floor, that's it," he says. "I don't do nothing other than play basketball or stay home. It's hard to get peace when you're out in public, so I would rather just sit around and watch TV. It's a pain sometimes. You basically lose all your freedom and your privacy." When he isn't spending his free time watching movies in darkened theaters, Barkley sits in the dim glow of the TV set in his nearly bare-walled apartment, gnawing on his new remote-control device as he furiously changes channels. He had another one before, but he chewed it up. No one knows why, although it now seems possible that he was just teething.
"I think he's still a baby in a lot of ways," says Barkley's mother, Charcey Glenn. "I was quite young when I had Charles, so he and I were almost raised together by my mother. His father and I separated when Charles was very young, and then I lost my second husband in an automobile accident 13 years ago. Charles was very sheltered as a child, and I think that has a lot to do with why he's such a private person now." Barkley still talks to his grandmother nearly every day on the telephone and is very close to his two younger brothers. "We're like five peas in a pod," his mother says.
Barkley was such a scrawny little pea when he was born, weighing just over six pounds and suffering from severe anemia, that his prospects for survival—along with everything else about him—looked exceedingly slim. When he was just six weeks old, his condition was considered serious enough that he was given a blood transfusion, and the doctors finally had to stick the needle in Barkley's foot before they found a vein big enough to get the job done.
The Alabama town of Leeds, where he grew up—and out—is still the kind of place where people say hello when they pass each other in the street, and for Barkley it is still very much home. The coal mines where his great-grandfather labored are all played out now, so much of the town works at a nearby cement plant. Barkley's grandmother worked for years as a beautician, and his mother has worked nearly all her adult life as a housekeeper, or what people in the South still quaintly refer to as a "domestic." That doesn't sit well with her son, who wants his mother to have all the things she never had. "Charles doesn't like it," she says. "He wants me to stop, but I won't. I couldn't just sit around all day and do nothing."
Barkley had the same problem when he was growing up, so when he wasn't playing basketball he burned off extra energy by jumping back and forth over a five-foot fence around his house. Ten to 15 times a day he jumped the fence. "And he was heavy then, too," says his mother. "But that's how he strengthened his legs." Though he badly wanted to be one of the stars of his high school team, Barkley was still only 5'10" in his sophomore year—too small and too slow to be more than the seventh or eighth man. The plans that he had made for himself seemed to be slipping away. "His friends all used to laugh at him," says Barkley's mother, "because even before he made the varsity, Charles would always tell people that someday he was going to the pros."
"I had no hope," Barkley now admits. "Most people who brag are insecure, and I was insecure because I wasn't that good. There were so many talented guys on my team in high school, the only way I was going to get to shoot the ball was if I got the rebound myself and put it back up." At night he would often go down to the court behind the projects to practice, spending hours rebounding different kinds of shots, acquiring a feel for where the ball was going to bounce. What he never did learn, however, because he usually practiced alone, was the skill that most great rebounders consider paramount to their trade—the art of boxing out. "I basically don't believe in boxing out," Barkley says now. "The only thing that matters is getting the rebound, and if you watch the ball you're going to get most of them."
Sixers assistant coach Jack McMahon first saw Barkley during his senior year of high school, by which time Barkley had sprouted at an astonishing rate to 6'5" and 240 pounds. "Here is a guy," McMahon said, "with Wes Unseld's body, who can jump like Doc." Barkley is still just slightly over 6'5", but as Boston center Robert Parish says, "When he leans on you, it's like being crushed by a trash compactor."
"To be that big and powerful and be that quick up and down the floor, he's definitely an enigma," says Portland forward Mychal Thompson. "You can't move him because he's got such a low center of gravity. And by low center of gravity, I mean he's got a big butt. He's definitely got a butt that could win any big butt contest he enters."
Barkley was, in fact, the original Refrigerator, not one of those appliances-come-lately. He has been large for a long time. During his three years at Auburn, his weight sometimes swelled to a zeppelinlike 290 pounds in the off-season. At Auburn he was known as Boy Gorge, or the Round Mound of Rebound, but on the road it was sometimes simply Fatboy.
"I played at 270 or 280 pounds at Auburn because I knew I could," he says. He also knew that he would have to lose weight to keep up with the swifter players in the NBA. But even after he dieted down to his current playing weight of 265 pounds and a 36-inch waist, people still saw him as fat. "It upsets me sometimes," he says. "People come up to me and say, 'You're not fat at all,' and they seem very surprised. I think they concentrate more on the weight than on how I'm playing."
That may have been the mistake Indiana coach Bob Knight made when he was selecting players for the U.S. Olympic team in 1984. Barkley was clearly one of the most impressive players during the trials, yet Knight dropped him because he supposedly didn't fit in. Barkley was almost apologetic for wasting Knight's time after he was cut, saying he "just didn't play well." Now, however, he says the only reason he tried out at all was to improve his position in the NBA draft that June. "I know I didn't try to make the Olympic team," Barkley says. "I don't think I liked the way he coached, and I didn't want to play for him. I didn't like the fact he was screaming at players all the time."
Barkley is pretty demonstrative himself. He is a babel of body language, pumping his fists like huge pistons when he is happy with himself, wagging his finger at officials, barking at opponents that they can't stop him. "I believe in expressing what you feel," Barkley says. "My momma told me a long time ago to let all my emotions out, not to be repressed." When Barkley gets a basketball in his hands and prepares to express himself these days, crowds in arenas all over the country begin to buzz expectantly.
The 76ers don't run many plays for him in their offense, so Barkley's best work often comes in sudden spurts when he is rumbling end-to-end with a rebound. In a game against Portland recently, Barkley went on two of his coast-to-coast stampedes in the first half and kicked the ball away both times. But on the third try he put his huge head down so it must have looked to anyone who thought about getting in his way as if he couldn't see where he was going, gathered speed and dunked the ball so hard that he pulled down both the rim and the Spectrum's new collapsible backboard. (A year ago, Barkley celebrated his 22nd birthday with a dunk so vicious that he moved the 2,240-pound basket support six inches to the right. "The last time that support was moved," noted a Spectrum publicist, "it was by a forklift.")
"He's got terrific court sense in the open floor, even against smaller people," says Sixer coach Matt Guokas. "He kind of dares them to get in his way. A lot of them stay with him for a while, then they kind of get lost out there." Portland guard Jim Paxson has made the mistake of fouling Barkley as he was heading for the basket. "If I had it to do over again, I'd a lot rather be behind him than in front of him," Paxson says. "I was just grateful he didn't pick me up and dunk me, too."
"He can be quiet for most of the game, and then for a two-minute span he can turn the whole game around," says the Lakers' Magic Johnson. "He makes so many things happen on the floor. He's quick, he's a leaper, he's a power man, he's a scorer—he's one of those four-dimensional men in one body. He can come straight at you, jump right around where you're standing, gorilla the thing and never touch you. You can't put a value on that kind of guy."
Like Magic, Barkley plays best when he is carrying the crowd on his back. "Sometimes I need the crowd to get me going," he says. "When I do some showboating or something spectacular, I do that to get myself motivated. What's wrong with that if it gives you an emotional lift? People want to see that." Erving has already announced that Barkley is his "heir apparent" as thrill king to a grateful nation, although no one knows yet if it will actually require a ceremony to transfer the orb and scepter.
Barkley has been criticized for his occasional lapses of maturity, especially when he purposely tries to show up referees for making calls against him. He feels people are expecting too much too soon. "There's nothing wrong with being immature when you're young," he says. "They expect you to walk in and be Mr. Responsibility right away." Erving feels that if the Sixers are to threaten Boston or the Lakers in the playoffs this year, Barkley will have to do just that. "He has to accept the responsibility of being in control of the destiny of this team," Erving says. "That's a lot to ask of someone who's just turned 23, but he's going to have to accept it."
Barkley appeared to be taking on responsibility in a big way earlier this season when he called a much-publicized team meeting. Philadelphia had gotten off to a shaky 5-8 start, and there was already talk about Guokas losing his job. After a particularly frustrating loss to Boston, the Sixers sat in their locker room, mute and bewildered. "I was kind of speechless, so there was total silence for a while," says Guokas. "Then Charles said, 'Why don't we talk about this?' " Talk about it was all anybody did for days after that. One Philadelphia columnist blasted Barkley for his presumption in not waiting for Erving or Malone to call the meeting.
"People made a big thing of it because I'm young and I called a meeting," Barkley says, "but that just shows how ignorant people are." The drama of this gathering was heightened somewhat by the unexpected appearance of team owner Harold Katz, who walked in and then refused to leave. "He just came to put his two or three sentences in," Barkley says. "We didn't need him there to tell us we were playing bad." Barkley seems to find Katz's meddling with the team particularly irritating and has never hesitated to say so. When the Sixers pulled out a narrow win at home this year against the hapless Golden State Warriors, Katz suggested in a locker room interview that his players shouldn't be happy about that type of win. Someone asked Barkley what he thought about Katz's statement, and with the owner still standing nearby, Barkley glared for a moment and replied. "Why don't he coach?"
Barkley's warm relationship with Katz developed even before Philadelphia had drafted him. As the Sixers' likely first-round pick, Barkley was invited by the team to come up from Alabama for a get-acquainted visit a month before the draft. Barkley showed up weighing 282 pounds, at which point Katz, who made his fortune from a string of diet salons, challenged him to lose seven pounds before the draft. "I want to see how determined you are to become a great player," Katz told him.
The Sixers were only offering Barkley $75,000 his first year, however, so when he heard the Washington Bullets were eager to have him for much more money, he went on an eating binge and took an almost unheard-of gamble for a high draft choice by reporting to rookie camp unsigned. "The Sixers tried to bluff me, but it just made me mad," he says. "They thought I was going to be a bust in that rookie camp. My attorney told me, 'If you go and mess up, we're in a lot of trouble,' so that was real pressure. But I have a lot of confidence in myself. I came here with the attitude that I wasn't going to be scared of anybody, because I knew that was the only way I could survive."
He has not only survived, but prospered. After an erratic rookie season, Barkley is delivering on all his promise. "I push myself unbelievably hard, and I expect perfection," he says. "If we lose and I say, 'Oh, it's just one game in 82,' then I'm a jerk. I've become a jerk just like everybody else. And I don't want to be like anybody else. I want to be special."
"He plays the whole game now," says 76ers guard Maurice Cheeks. "He does some amazing things, the kind of things Doc used to do. Sometimes we can be down, and he can jump up and do some awesome dunk or start hollering about something and wake us up. It's one thing when he gets the fans excited, but it's really something when his own team-mates sit there on the bench and check him out."
There is some question whether Malone is all that happy about seeing his rebounding numbers slide after leading the league in that department for five straight seasons.
"Statistically, he has hurt Moses's game," Guokas says. "Sometimes, because of his sheer strength, Charles actually takes rebounds away from Moses, just yanks them right out of his hands. Whenever Charles is asked about it, he always says Moses is still the man. Of course, he may be blowing smoke. With Charles you don't know."
Barkley says he never backs off from Malone under the boards. "I want every one of them," he says. "Rebounding is a personal thing to me. Most other parts of the game you have to have help from your teammates. Rebounding is something you can do on your own, that you can judge yourself by. I want to beat him in rebounding every game. There are enough rebounds to go around. Plenty 'nuf." The question now is, no matter how big he gets, will there ever be enough Charles Barkley to go around? Yeah, plenty 'nuf.