The First 50 Years With Sir Charles

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When you walked into Charles Barkley’s little slice of the locker room, you might as well have stepped into a whole different world. It was a world where heads were shaved, complimentary tickets distributed, insults hurled, jokes told, social commentary delivered, reporters sent away sated and one of the best basketball players on the planet had to prepare himself for the next game. All of it seemed to occur in the space of five minutes.

“There will never be another player like me,” Barkley once said. “I’m the Ninth Wonder of the World.”

You know? He was right.

Here is Barkley, 13 years after lacing up his sneakers in an NBA game for the final time, more popular than ever as a television personality, opinionator and, well, just plain liver of life.

If Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday on Sunday felt like a royal occasion with seemingly everyone in the basketball world taking time to genuflect in the throne room, then Barkley’s, coming just three days later, has all the trappings of the morning after a keg party. In other words, a lot more fun.

The Chuckster’s persona — and at times, even his person — has almost grown large enough to be one of those floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade and that’s actually the perfect image, full of hot air, constantly changing course with the wind and barely tethered to earthbound reality.

He says so many things, and it is our job to figure out which ones he really means. For in these ongoing best days of his life, it seems that everybody still wants to know the real Charles Barkley. Trouble is, the answer has always been a lot more complicated than the question.

During his playing days, was Barkley the obnoxious, overbearing sort who once charged toward the stands to spit on a boorish fan and wound up hitting an 8-year-old by accident? Or the sincerely apologetic type who responded by buying season tickets for the little girl and her family?

Was he the nit-picking critic that found fault in every single thing done wrong by his teammates? Or the selfless, ideal team players who charmed the socks off everybody in the locker room and at the same time lifted them to heights?

Is Barkley the fun-loving fellow who likes to joke and cajole his way through encounters with the media? Or the guy who would always tackle the tough issues of race and child-rearing with his whip of a tongue?

Remember the stir he created with a simple phrase: “I’m not a role model.”

How out of touch is that view today in an era of Tiger Woods, Marion Jones, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius?

His was the first voice you normally heard upon entering the locker room and usually the last you heard on the way out. And truth be told, for all the the times his teammates would roll their eyes at some of the things he said, that role of spokesman/court jester was one they needed him to fill almost as much as the slot as one of the greatest power forwards of all time.

“I know a lot of people say a lot of things about Charles Barkley,” his former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich once said. “But I’ve never seen a guy who loves this league more than he does. He follows the game. He loves the game so much.”

Who else but Barkley could sit there on the TNT set week after week on Thursday nights and be so outrageous? And who else but Barkley would constantly take the wildly popular show to new heights by allowing himself to be the constant butt of jokes.

There was the time Kenny Smith played the role of a bouncer controlling the velvet rope outside the “Champions Club” and kept taunting the ringless Barkley about the partiers inside.

“Hey Chuck, Zan Tabak’s in here,” Smith said laughing. “Look it’s Jack Haley, Chuck. Jack Haley!”

And, of course, there was Barkley paying his “I’ll kiss your ass” bet to Smith when the rookie Yao Ming hit the 20-point mark in a game.

Smith showed up the next week with a donkey in the studio, but only Barkley would have unthinkingly believed he had to actually pucker up to the back end of the four-legged ass.

He could have an MVP season and carry the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals, grab a career-best 33 boards in single game (more than the entire opposing team) and, at an honest 6-foot-4 1/2, toil away to be the shortest player ever to lead the league in rebounding.

Mostly, Barkley could be himself.

Once, when pondering such a milestone birthday, he said: “I just want to be living the day after I turn 50.”

In that case, check in tomorrow when The Chuckster will still be living turribly large.

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