Charles Barkley truly is the gift that keeps on giving. Not necessarily in his role as cantankerous contrarian on Inside the NBA, where he’s settled into a comfy role scolding today’s players for not being as tough as the players in his day. When Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors, he predictably railed against it, saying, “[H]e’s gonna kind of gravy train on a terrific Warriors team. … I’m pretty sure Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone and John Stockton – we think we’re pretty damn good. We could have played with some of those other guys and kind of cheated our way to a championship.”
This, of course, conveniently ignores that Barkley forced his way from the Phoenix Suns to the Houston Rockets in 1996 when Houston came up short against the Seattle Supersonics in the Western Conference Finals after winning back-to-back titles. He joined Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler there and at the time said, “The best thing about it would be getting the chance to play with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. We would be very formidable.” Their best season would end up being Barkley’s first with the team, one that saw the team advance all the way to the Western Conference finals before being eliminated by the Utah Jazz.
To be sure, Barkley has always taken a page from Walt Whitman – “Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes” – but it was more fun when he was less a nudge and more an agent provocateur as in this recently unearthed story from Barkley’s teammate on the Philadelphia 76ers, Jayson Williams:
“I’ll never forget this story. My second day of practice we’re out there running up and down. Charles Barkley comes in about five minutes late. He comes in and he has a big McDonald’s bag. And he goes and he sits down on the bike. And like a chemist. You know a guy over there cutting up lines or something. You know? He’s just making – he’s got his back towards us and he’s doing stuff – I’m like what the hell is he doing?
“So he takes the eggs, and he takes the pancakes, the sausage, maple syrup and butter, puts it all in one, wraps it up with the pancake and gets some extra syrup. And the butter’s oozing out. And I’m going wow, you going to eat that then and come run with us? Hell no. He’s going to eat that while he’s on the stationary bike. Peddling one mile an hour going ‘You sons of bitches! Run the floor! You lazy bastards! You fuckers! That’s why we ain’t never going to win the game!’ And pancake is spitting out his mouth.”
This is the Chuck who wanted to sign on with Hakeem and Clyde, who was willing to do whatever was in his best interests, even if it involved the tremendous sacrifice of, say, piling on 20 pounds in two days so the Sixers wouldn’t draft him.
Speaking with Sports Illustrated‘s Richard Deitsch last year, he explained that his agent told him that if Philadelphia picked him, he would only make $75,000 his rookie year (this was before rookie’s had specific contracts based on where they were selected). But one of the thing the Sixers wanted was for Barkley to come in under 285. He’d cut his weight down to 283 after playing at 300 pounds in college, so what did he do with just 48 hours to the draft?
“We went to Dennys and I had like two Grand Slam breakfasts,” he said. “We went to lunch and I had like two big barbeque sandwiches. That night we went to a big steakhouse. The next morning I had two more Grand Slam breakfasts and when we flew to Philly, I weighed 302.”
Of course, Philly took him anyways and he went on to become an All-Star and beloved miscreant in the City of Brotherly Love, but that didn’t stop him from turning on Houston after they reneged on their handshake deal to pay him a (then) big $12 million after he took a paycut so the Rockets could get Scottie Pippen.
“OK, I would love to play with Scottie,” he told Bill Simmons in the first episode of Any Given Wednesday. “They said, ‘We’ll give you $12 million next year.’ So when I showed up the next year, they bring me a contract. I said, ‘This looks like an eight.’ They said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to give you $8 million.’ I said, ‘What about the other $4 million?’ They’re like, ‘Well, we just changed our mind.’ So I wasn’t motivated.”
His response? Get fat. Pretty impressive, being able to pack it on as a response both to motivation and frustration.
Since his retirement, there have been plenty of memorable moments in Barkley’s career, largely thanks to his ability to laugh at himself. There was the footrace with NBA referee Dick Bavetta in 2007, there was batting practice with the Cubs just recently and, of course, his perpetually futile golf game, which has him at 6,000-to-1 odds for a CELEBRITY tournament this weekend.
But there is perhaps no weirder testament to Barkley’s off-the-wall personality than a video game titled Barkley Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. Created in 2008, the game is an unofficial sequel to an actual licensed game, 1994’s Barkley Shut Up and Jam! – still not clear on whether the title is exhortation to Barkley himself or just the kind of extreme word salad the Nineties specialized in. But instead of a sports game, BSUPAJ:G is a role-playing game. The story can be found here, and it involves a Chaos Dunk wiping out millions, a cybernetic Vince Carter and a terrorist organization called B.L.O.O.D.M.O.S.E.S.
Based on the legends of Barkley we’ve heard from others and the man himself, it’s tough to say whether the game is science fiction or prophecy. What greater compliment could be paid to a self-styled maverick?