Barkley's Last Basket

To Sir Charles, With Love.

I NEVER COULD understand why anybody involved with basketball didn't like Charles Barkley. He was the James Brown of the National Basketball Association -- the hardest working man in that particular branch of show business. He was also the most entertaining, occasionally the most annoying, and certainly one of the most competitive players of all time.

He was one of the last links to a league where winning used to be more important than shoe deals. He entered the league in the middle of the Magic-Bird Era and leaves at a time where hustle is something scrubs do at garbage time after the stars are done playing at 70 percent speed, where integrity means one's rap sheet includes only misdemeanors and no felonies, and where illiterate rookies try to commit suicide with Advil.

This was to be his last year in the NBA, a farewell tour of sorts. That all ended last week when he completely tore the tendon which attaches the kneecap to the quadriceps muscles in the thigh.

Barkley came out of nowhere (actually from a small town in Alabama which is just south of Nowhere) to burst onto the college scene at Auburn. With nearly 300 pounds piled liberally onto his 6-foot-4 frame, he immediately gained the nickname "The Round Mound of Rebound." (Sportswriters, bein' simple folk, love those rhymes.)

He single-handedly raised the Auburn program to national prominence with his full-bore, get-out-of-my-way approach to the game. He once said, "I'd dunk on my mama, but she'd probably undercut me." I would've paid to see that.

After a couple years at Auburn, he tried out for the 1984 Olympic team, coached by Herr Ubërcoach Bobby Knight. The frighteningly anal Knight is so strict, he reportedly quit his job coaching at Army because the Cadets lacked discipline. He then moved on to the University of Indiana, where he became a local legend and a national disgrace at the same time.

Knight said he expected Barkley to report to tryouts in better shape than he had been in during the college season at Auburn. Reports were that Barkley weighted 292, but Knight said publicly that he wanted Barkley to show up weighing 260 or less.

Barkley showed up weighing exactly 292. He then proceeded to kick everybody's butt in the camp during tryouts, then went home smiling after Knight cut him.

He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers (ironically, his career-ending injury occurred in Philadelphia) and became an overnight sensation, leading his team -- and later the entire league -- in rebounding while averaging around 25 points a game.

Barkley did incredible things. He jumped higher than anyone thought possible for a man of his girth. He roared down the floor with an incredible combination of speed, grace and strength. He fought people (including his own teammates) for each rebound as thought it were the last biscuit at the table. And he dunked on everybody but his mama.

Alas, the story of his career will be forever shaded by the fact that he played in a professional league where timing is everything, where teams battle time and each other, struggling mightily to climb a steep precipice in hopes of reaching the pinnacle. Most teams never even get halfway up the hill. And of the few teams which near the top, most will fall agonizingly short, perhaps making the Finals a couple years in a row before age, frustration and free agency cause the window of opportunity to slam shut. (This is what's happening to the Utah Jazz as we speak.)

Barkley came to the 76ers and found a team in steep decline after having won a league title only a couple years earlier. Moses Malone, Dr. J. and Andrew Toney were all on the dark side of 30; their toes were old and their fingernails were dirty. They sucked even with Charles.

He moved over to Phoenix and, in an MVP season, led the Suns to the Finals, where they lost to the Bulls. The next two years the Suns lost back-to-back agonizing Game Sevens to Houston, which then went on to win consecutive NBA titles.

Then, when he moved over to the Houston Rockets, it was too late there, as well. Clyde Drexler's nickname "The Glide" had been downgraded to "The Limp," Hakeem Olajuwon had been saddled with a mail-order bride by his Islam advisor, and guard Matt Moloney woke up one day to realize he was short, slow and white.

And now, just like that, Barkley's Hall of Fame career is over. He had talked about going into politics, but nobody knew if he was joking. In light of the ongoing Jesse Ventura fiasco in Minnesota, people are certainly wary.

When he mentioned publicly that he was a Republican, relatives blasted him, noting that the GOP "is the party of rich people."

He countered, "I am rich!"

Wouldn't it be great to see him run for governor of Arizona? Imagine the debates with the incumbent. He'd try to snatch that Brillo pad right off her head. It would give me a reason to vote for a Republican for the first time in my life. What would he do to Jeff Groscost and the other GOP weenies in the Legislature? They could charge admission.

Oh, he had his off-court follies, the bar fights and the regrettable spitting incident, for which he showed sincere contrition. But mostly, he just competed with all he had.

Barkley leaves the game as one of only three men (along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, both of whom are at least nine inches taller than Charles) to score at least 20,000 points and grab 10,000 rebounds. And with rebounding being a measure of one's heart, it's not surprising that he is the shortest man ever to lead the NBA in rebounding.

I hope he doesn't go away. He's too fresh, too honest, too funny to retire completely. Just minutes after he saw his grotesquely twisted leg and realized his time had come, he smiled to the TV cameras and said, "That's just what this country needs -- another unemployed black man."

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