His first shot as a professional was a dunk, and that was a
tremendous relief to Charles Barkley, a 21-year-old rookie
forward for the Philadelphia 76ers, a plump kid from Auburn who
had never averaged more than 16 points a game in his life. When
he was drafted with the fifth pick in 1984, some thought he was
too small to rebound in the pros, but Barkley, who measured 6'4
3/4" in his stocking feet, wasn't worried about that. He was
terrified, however, that he might not be able to score. "My
attitude going in was, I wanted to average 10 rebounds a game
for 10 years and make a million dollars in one season," he said
His friend Michael Jordan, picked two spots ahead of him by the
Chicago Bulls, assured him there was a place for him in the NBA.
They first drew close to each other during the 1984 Olympic
trials. Barkley, mingling among players from highly regarded
programs such as Georgetown and North Carolina, was intimidated
by the talent. Jordan, after watching Barkley attack the glass
with abandon and pound the ball up the floor like a point guard
on steroids, wondered why. "I figured if they were on
television, they had to be better than me," Barkley said. "But
about halfway through, I called up [Auburn coach] Sonny Smith
and told him, 'Coach, I'm just as good as these guys. All except
Already Jordan was special. He and Barkley played cards, drank
beers, shot hoops, shared dreams. Barkley was cut; Jordan went
on to win a gold medal. It was a pattern that would repeat
itself through the long careers of these two elite athletes:
Charles coming up just short, Michael hauling off the big prize.
On Dec. 8, in a game between his Houston Rockets and the Sixers,
Barkley's glittering 16-year career was ended by a torn left
quadriceps tendon, abruptly terminating what was supposed to be
a yearlong farewell tour. In a lengthy interview with SI in
Boston last week, Barkley expressed only one regret--that he
didn't start lifting weights sooner. "Michael was always on me
about it," Barkley said. "It was one of the few times I didn't
listen to him."
His reflections on his basketball life are inextricably entwined
with recollections of His Airness. Who knows how Barkley's
career would have differed had he not played opposite the
greatest player of all time? Barkley doesn't care. "Michael
Jordan was the single biggest influence in my career," Barkley
said. "He has been my closest friend since the day I started. He
has been there for me in ways you could never understand, as a
basketball player, a personal friend, a financial adviser."
When Barkley wore a garish sweater to a game early in his
career, Jordan called him and told him to wear a suit, to be
professional. "Are you trying to look like a basketball player
or do you want to appeal to corporate America?" Jordan scolded.
One day, when Michael read how much Nike was paying Sir Charles,
he set Barkley straight again. "Insist on stock options," Jordan
told him. "You don't need the cash right now. You've got
plenty." Barkley took the advice, and, he says, it was worth
millions in extra income.
What cemented their friendship, though, was their willingness to
stand by each other during hard times. When Jordan was dogged by
the details of his extensive gambling in 1992 and '93, Barkley
was his most vocal supporter, both publicly and privately. When
Barkley landed in jail for a few hours after heaving a bar
patron through a glass window in Orlando in 1997, Jordan was the
first to make contact, offering help and begging Barkley to hire
a bodyguard. (He did.) When Michael received the call in 1993
telling him that his father, James, was dead, Charles was
standing beside him while the two were on a West Coast golf
The public never knew the depth of their friendship. They were
an odd pair: Barkley living by the seat of his pants and telling
the truth as he saw it, even though he knew the repercussions
would be ugly; Jordan measuring his words, mindful of political
correctness, always seeking to avoid controversy. Barkley
abhorred the idea of being a role model; Jordan carefully
crafted his life to become one. Though Barkley knows he often
pinned the bull's-eye on his own back, it bothers him that the
shots he took as a result may affect his place in NBA history.
"I've done some stupid things," Barkley concedes. "But how does
that diminish my game?"
The numbers don't lie. The kid who fretted about scoring
averaged 22.2 points along with 11.7 boards in 1,072 games. He
won the rebounding title in 1986-87, outfoxing men eight inches
taller and 40 pounds heavier. He was an 11-time All-Star and, in
1992-93, the league's MVP. Three years ago he was named one of
the game's 50 best players of all time. He, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in NBA history to have
20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. In Barkley's
ongoing game of one-upmanship with Jordan, that last distinction
gives Charles one of his few chances to say Take that, Michael.
In the eyes of the public, Jordan was impeccably stylish, like a
shiny new Jaguar; Barkley was a powerful pickup truck with all
sorts of nicks and dings on the door. In 1991, when Barkley was
a Sixer, a heckler at New Jersey's Meadowlands Arena made a
racial comment, and Barkley exploded. He spit at the man but hit
a little girl instead. "It was a watershed moment for me,"
Barkley said. "I sat in my hotel room that night thinking,
Everyone in the f------ world is going to hate me tomorrow."
The phone rang. It was Jordan, offering...what? Condolences? A
strategy for damage control? His friend and rival kept it simple:
"I'm here if you need me," Jordan said.
But Barkley had to sort through this one alone. He was up all
night, wondering how he had become so consumed with winning, so
obsessed with chasing down the elusive championship he was
constantly reminded he didn't have, that he had abandoned his
sense of decency. "Let's say I did spit on the person I was
aiming for," Barkley said. "That was wrong, too. I sat in that
room, and I told myself, You better figure out what's important,
because this sure as hell can't be it."
The incident, he said, changed him profoundly. The public did
not see his contrition or his pain, but he made a decision.
Winning wasn't everything--it couldn't be. He forced a trade
from Philadelphia to the Phoenix Suns before the 1992-93 season,
and basketball was fun again. He averaged 25.6 points, 12.2
rebounds and 5.1 assists and won his one MVP trophy. He and
Jordan talked about meeting in the Finals. When it happened, the
media caught wind of their friendship and began chronicling
their golf, dinner and nightclub meetings.
Magic Johnson, an NBC commentator for the Finals, condemned the
fraternizing between Barkley and Jordan. Barkley was stung by
this, and a bit amused as well; just a few years earlier Magic
was the one kissing his Detroit Pistons pal Isiah Thomas before
each game of the 1988 and '89 Finals. But after the Suns stunned
the Bulls in Game 5 to send the series back to Phoenix with
Chicago up three games to two, Charles told Michael he would
pass on the golf, dinner and cards when they got to Arizona. "We
were down one game," Barkley said. "I thought I'd try something
He was home in Phoenix less than 10 minutes when the phone rang.
"Charles," Jordan said firmly, "we'll be friends long after
we've stopped playing basketball. Have your clubs ready."
They played golf. The Bulls won Game 6 and sealed their third
straight championship. Barkley was left empty-handed for the
ninth straight season. As he sat slumped at his locker, head in
his hands, a familiar voice called out to him. It was James
Jordan. "I want you to win a championship so badly," the elder
Jordan told Barkley. "I know my son is in the other locker room,
but I was rooting for you, too. You deserve to have your own
Barkley hugged James, who was wearing his Bulls cap. "Well,
then," Charles told him, "how about I see you here the same time
One year later James Jordan was dead, murdered near Lumberton,
N.C., by two teenage thugs looking to rob someone. His
distraught son had quit basketball and was playing minor league
baseball in Birmingham. And Barkley was home watching the
Rockets, the team that had eliminated his Suns in the second
round, win their first championship. He would never taste the
Finals again. Jordan unretired and collected three more titles,
just like that. Friends wondered why this didn't eat away at
Barkley's relationship with Jordan. "Because," Barkley told
them, "our friendship means more than that."
Whenever they played each other, Charles and Michael had dinner
together the night before. During one of those meals, in the
middle of the 1997-98 season, Jordan told Barkley he was
retiring again, this time for good. By then Barkley had gone to
Houston, still in search of a championship. After he surrendered
$1.2 million in salary so that the Rockets could acquire Scottie
Pippen before last season, Barkley was hopeful. Instead, Pippen
struggled in Houston's post-up offense, demanded a trade in the
off-season, publicly vilified Barkley as fat and overrated, then
attached a damning kicker: He said Michael had told him Barkley
would never be a winner.
Jordan was on vacation but tracked down Barkley within minutes
of hearing Pippen's quotes. "I don't know if Michael was madder
that Scottie said all that stuff or that he dragged his name
into it," Barkley said. "I told him I was O.K. with it. I knew
about Scottie. The whole league knew he was a guy you couldn't
count on. You can fool the media and the fans, but you can't
fool the players. Scottie was exposed long before this."
In October, Barkley announced he would retire at the end of this
season. He was 36 years old, and while he would make $9 million
and could still put up numbers, Houston was rebuilding after
Pippen's departure, and there would be no ring. Barkley was
struggling with the idea that his career would soon be over and
frustrated by the team's erratic play. Jordan and Tiger Woods
flew out to spend a couple of days with him two weeks ago.
Charles was cheered by their visit. "I'm going to make sure I go
out in a big way," he told them.
His last shot was a post-up move, the alternative to a dunk when
your legs don't have the spring they used to. Barkley tried an
up-fake on 7-foot Sixers rookie Todd MacCulloch, who swatted the
shot away rudely, with no sense of history. Philly ran down the
floor in transition, with Barkley chugging in pursuit. As
forward Tyrone Hill moved toward the basket, Barkley leaped at
him, trying to block his shot. Barkley made contact, landed
awkwardly, grabbed his left knee. He immediately signaled for
trainer Keith Jones, his leg hideously distorted.
Barkley watched the rest of the game in a knee brace, signed a
hundred or so autographs, cracked some jokes. ("Just what this
country needs--another unemployed black man.") He went out with
his teammates and reminisced about the game he loved. "What you
hold on to is the feeling you had when you realized you had
something special going on and, unless Michael was on the floor,
you were going to be the best, and nobody could stop you,"
Barkley said. "At the end of the night you'd have 25 points and
12 rebounds, and all they'd talked about before the game was how
to slow you down."
As he limped back to his hotel room in Philadelphia, the city
where it all started, he remembered that feeling of
invincibility. Then he sat down on the bed and cried.
His message light was flashing, as he knew it would be. There
were dozens of messages, but the first one was from Michael,
telling him how sorry he was. "I'm here if you need me,"
Jordan's voice mail said.
Though it was late, Barkley considered calling his friend. Then
he realized it was pointless. Charles Barkley will never play
professional basketball again. Even Michael Jordan can't help
him with that one.
special, and unless Michael was on the floor, you were the best."