Life with Charles was many things, none of them boring

June 18, 1992|By Bill Lyon | Bill Lyon,Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA -- He can leave you gasping and bedazzled by what he does on a basketball court.

And he can leave you seething and infuriated by what he does off it.

Has Philadelphia ever had a more enchanting, exasperating, confounding, inspiring, combustible, caring and controversial mercenary than Charles Wade Barkley?

In a word, no.

And now he is gone.

Traded at last, traded out West, traded to Phoenix.

Charles Barkley and the desert. What a perfect fit. Fry you to a crisp in the day, freeze you stiff at night. And the desert has wild swings, too.

Eight years he was with us. There were times it seemed like 80.

He can leave you exhilarated and he can leave you exhausted.

Life with Charles is a lot like a telephone ringing at 3 in the morning -- you're pretty sure it's going to be bad news, but you also know it'll never be boring.

What could be a more appropriate summation of his life and his career as a 76er than yesterday? First, he was acquitted of charges that had been filed after he had broken the nose of a provocateur -- with one punch -- outside a bar in Milwaukee last winter. Then, mere hours later, it was announced that he had been traded to Phoenix for three players.

So he had more befall him in a single afternoon than most athletes experience in an entire career. But then that is the way it always has been with him; moderation is elusive and, inevitably, uncatchable.

He seems never to have had an unspoken thought. He is a walking sound bite, a creature of impulse, impetuously blurting whatever flits across his brain pan. Sometimes what comes out is profound and sometimes it is merely profane and frequently it is both.

That has made him a delight with the media -- routinely he collects more votes than any other member on the NBA's all-interview team -- and frequently it lands him an audience with the commissioner. The commissioner does all the talking.

"I just tell the truth is all," he said.

What is unsettling is that there is, indeed, almost always an element of truth in what he does say, no matter how outrageous, no matter how volatile the content. His problem is that he tends to go two sentences too far.

Charles, he was told over dinner one night, you need an editor.

His response was typical:

"You're absolutely correct. I got a big mouth. But I got a mind, too, and I'm gonna relieve myself of what's on it."

Part of you cringes at his naivete and his utter lack of subtlety, and part of you openly admires his candor and his courage. Typically, he tends to have more of those qualities than are healthy for him.

But then excess is at the heart of his appeal.

There is a theory that if he were less inflammable as a person, then he would not be the raging talent that he is as a player.

For passion is his game.

He plays in relentless torrents of effort.

He is small by basketball standards, not even 6 and a half feet tall, but he is an unbending, undentable, armor-plated 250 pounds with astonishing foot speed and quickness, and he is able to launch that trash-masher of a body great distances into the air.

And come down and go right back up while the others around him are still reloading.

No player in any sport spends more of himself more consistently.

But he is not without flaws. He tends to pace himself on defense. His shot selection is often abominable and utterly without conscience. He usually does what he wants, which may not necessarily gibe with what the coach has ordered. And he often holds the ball too long so that the rest of the team begins to stand around. They become spectators, not participants.

One result is that the Sixers have missed the playoffs twice during Barkley's tenure and have never advanced very far. There is a school of thought that he is one of those star-crossed athletes who is, for all his singular talent, fated never to win a championship.

As the team's failures mounted, his frustrations increased. He criticized his teammates openly, and this year, for the first time, they began to snipe back. The locker room had become divided. That is an intolerable situation in any sport, and it is what galvanized the effort to trade him.

The 76ers are undergoing massive renovation. They hired a new coach, Doug Moe, who is unconventional in approach and execution. Now the Sixers have traded away their one neon name.

For all of the controversy he generated, Barkley was the franchise's one attraction. Now the team is without someone to put on the marquee. The 76ers are gambling that a team that runs incessantly will be entertaining, and successful, and that this will be enough to sell tickets.

Don't bet on it.

Although he has publicly professed otherwise, Barkley has wanted out of Philadelphia.

He despises the owner and was weary of the franchise's Band-Aid approach of changing the cast surrounding him every season, and often during it. The team seemed to have no sense of direction. Now it does, and the irony is that he is no longer a part of it.

He deserves a championship.

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