76ers' Barkley is always true to himself, on and off the court

January 06, 1991|By Shaun Powell | Shaun Powell,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

PHILADELPHIA -- Whether he grabs a rebound and makes like a migrating wildebeest downcourt, or bursts into the locker room to dress up himself and dress down anyone he chooses, it's all the same with Charles Barkley.

Because, in any situation, Barkley is like Christmas. You know he's coming.

You know he's coming because Barkley's arrivals are not trumpeted. They are bullhorned.

On this day, the Philadelphia 76ers' forward, a four-time All-Star who is on another MVP pace, opens the locker-room door and the fun begins. Barkley insults teammate Rick Mahorn; threatens to huff and puff and blow reedy 7-6 center Manute Bol away; and is playfully challenged by a local sports writer.

"You'll kick my butt?" a startled Barkley asks. "Only if you have your little own fraternity."

Suddenly, his antenna detect a queasy, weasly sound. That's adult contemporary music wailing from the locker-room boom box! Barkley's musical tastes include Kenny Rogers, but he isn't in the mood to be lullabied right now. In 30 minutes, he will be chasing Houston Rockets center Akeem Olajuwon. Get pumped up to Harry Connick Jr.? No. In seconds, the street noise of Public Enemy shakes the woofers.

Barkley's attention then turns to a luscious-looking box of chocolate chip cookies, obviously sent by admirers. An attendant asks if he should put them away for later.

"Naw, give it away, just in case it's got poison or something in it," Barkley says. "Might be from a Pistons fan."

Barkley stuffs the senders' address in his pocket. He will thank them later. No time now. He does a 360 and rips someone about their puny golf game, their clothes, and so forth.

Watching this, Bol grins. "Charles is a good player," he says. "The only thing Charles needs is to zipper his mouth."

Barkley called the NFL's rule against end-zone celebrations "the most asinine thing in history of sports." Asked what he would do if the NBA revoked his right to party, Barkley said: "I'd sue the bleep out of them."

In terms of the complete package -- athlete, personality, showman -- there is none quite like the 6-4 3/4 , 250-pound enigma that is respectfully labeled Sir Charles Barkley. Whenever Barkley's in the public eye, the public doesn't blink.

There is so much to see: A crowd-pleasing/inciting exhibitionist whose body language is deafening, a robust man who lifts his frame to incredible heights and brushes off defenders like dandruff.

He is a creature of impulse, so overcome by the competitive spirit that he becomes a marionette to his emotions. That propels him to a 38-point, 16-rebound blockbuster that is typically garnished with physical and verbal obscenities.

There's nothing contrived about Barkley. Refreshingly candid, he says and does what he wants. He doesn't consider the consequences until it is too late, and even then, so what?

"I got a reputation for being controversial," Barkley said. "I resent that. I am one of the few athletes in the world who is for real. I'm not phony. Fans respect me for giving my all and showing emotion. You will know if I'm happy or sad. What you see is what you get."

No one is immune from Barkley's barbs -- not his teammates, not even himself -- if they have it coming.

"When somebody asks me a question, I tell them the truth and not necessarily what people want to hear," Barkley said.

He is toughest on the refs and the opposition, and absorbing those confrontations has cost him considerably. No one knows the amount of Barkley's career fines; it probably equals the gross national product of Namibia. Last year's transgressions alone, including a friendly wager with the Knicks' Mark Jackson and his part in a melee in Detroit, cost Barkley $64,950. His ejections total 14; his technicals 130 and counting.

These are the byproducts of a sore loser, not a jerk. You hit Barkley, Barkley hits back. Only harder.

Barkley once slapped the Nets' Jack Haley after being provoked. Barkley's fist print is probably still on the face of Detroit center Bill Laimbeer, whom Barkley respects as a player but dismisses as a cheap-shot artist.

A courtside fan once tried to impress his friends by bad-mouthing Barkley. After the game, Barkley extended his hand in a no-hard-feelings gesture. When the guy extended his, Barkley pulled his own hand back and spit in the guy's palm.

But Barkley would not be a four-time All-Star and the game's most ferocious rebounder and inside scorer without this emotion.

It juices him to grab the extra offensive rebound. To anticipate the steal. To throw down the vicious, momentum-turning dunk. To celebrate a dramatic victory by leaping joyously or hoisting two teammates through the air, as he did last month after sinking the winning free throws against Milwaukee.

"There's no such thing as being too emotional if it makes you better," Barkley said. "Emotion makes you better than you're capable of doing yourself. I don't think emotion distracts me."

And you know what? Barkley's emotion is catching.

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