delanceyplace.com 10/8/13 - bad boy charles barkley
In today's selection -- the now-beloved and mischievously outspoken NBA Hall-of-Fame player Charles Barkley entered the league with a level of candor and venom that instantly made him one of its bad boys:
"Charles Barkley, during his time in Philly [with the NBA Philadelphia 76ers], was the antithesis [of the legendary player and goodwill ambassador Julius Erving]. Where Erving was dutifully apolitical, Barkley was brash and outspoken. In the late '80s, he began talking to Jesse Jackson and calling himself a ' '90s nigga.' Visits to the 76ers' locker room were the stuff of great theater, as Barkley would regularly castigate the overwhelmingly all-white press and a city still divided by race. 'Just because you give Charles Barkley a lot of money, it doesn't mean I'm going to forget about the people in the ghettos and slums,' he lectured. 'Ya'll don't want me talking about this stuff, but I'm going to voice my opinions, because this stuff's important. Me getting twenty rebounds ain't important. We've got people homeless on our streets, and the media is crowding around my locker. It's ludicrous.'
"He called Philly a 'racist city' and the town's sports punditocracy shot back in kind, beating him up for taking on issues beyond rebounds and free throws. 'I don't have to be what you want me to be,' he told them in 1990, echoing an Ali line from the ' 60s, after he read Thomas Hauser's oral history of the boxing great. 'I'm a strong black man.'
"Once he pointed across the locker room at genteel teammate Hersey Hawkins. 'I ain't no pussy black man like Hersey,' he said. Hawkins shook his head -- Charles was just being Charles, after all -- and the press nervously giggled. When I told him I was writing a magazine profile of Erving, he dismissed the legend: 'Man, I ain't got no time to talk about no Uncle Tom,' he said.
"His was a voice that resonated at street level at the precise cultural moment when rap music was breaking through to the mainstream. The innovative rap group Public Enemy even paid homage in its hit "Bring the Noise" by celebrating Barkley's ferocious dunking style.
"Yet, even then, he exhibited a greater potential for growth than any other athlete on the public scene. He was constantly answering questions -- with that stunning forthrightness -- and questioning answers. 'I'm somebody who has always thought for myself,' he says. 'Most people don't question what they're told.'
"Similarly, his iconoclasm was on display in 1991, when Magic Johnson tested HIV positive and other players like Kevin Johnson were calling for uniform testing in the NBA. Barkley simply stated: "I'm disappointed in myself that I haven't felt the same compassion for other people stricken with AIDS that I now feel for Magic."
"In 1992 Barkley was traded to [the Phoenix Suns], where he'd star for the Suns and where he would enter his Republican makeover phase. His world view began to mature; he became more focused on class, less virulent on race. He also grew close to Rush Limbaugh and Dan Quayle, dined with Clarence Thomas, and endorsed Steve Forbes in the presidential primary. Exit polls showed that his imprimatur sealed Forbes's win.
"And now here he is, in Houston [with the Rockets], playing for one last chance at a championship while gearing up for his posthoops political career. As his politics have developed, so has his place in the game. Somehow Charles Barkley has become one of the league's premier elder statesmen, a soundbite machine capable of putting into immediate perspective the problem with these kids today, as he did last season when he publicly lambasted [Allen] Iverson about his posse: 'Your teammates should be your posse,' he said. (Iverson, in true hiphop fashion -- you dis me, I dis in return -- fired right back: 'What has Charles Barkley ever won? How many rings does he have?')
"This isn't to suggest, however, that anything in Barkley's world is cut-and-dried. To the contrary, there is an ongoing internal conflict between his hip-hop roots and mainstream aspirations; the schism is manifested in his emotional -- rather than cerebral -- outbursts, as when he launched an obnoxious heckler through a plate-glass window in an Orlando bar prior to the season. But that's what is so intriguing about his foray into politics: He may be the only figure, in sports or politics, who carries cache with the brothers in the 'hood and with Stackhouse's blue-blooded neighbors.
" 'I don't think I run my mouth. That's just what redneck sportswriters say when you voice an opinion they disagree with,' he says. 'And I don't think I'm someone who gets in trouble. If someone throws a drink in my face, I'm gonna defend my damn self.'
"Indeed, it was the hip-hop Barkley talking when, after meeting with NBA honchos following the Orlando incident, he announced: 'Let there be no conflict in America. If you bother me, I whup yo ass.' "
|Keepin' It Real|
|Copyright 1999 by Larry Platt|