Love/hate him, he's our Charles BARCELONA '92


July 27, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

BARCELONA SPAIN — BARCELONA, Spain -- Yes, he's an idiot. But he's our idiot. That's what you need to know as the Charles Barkley Olympic saga begins.

One game into the tournament, someone would already have to explain that Charles is Charles, which means an international incident waiting to happen.

That's what they always say about Barkley: Charles is Charles. Yesterday, Charles being Charles meant slamming his elbow into the chest of an unsuspecting Angolan for all to see in the midst of a 30-0 American run, sort of as a point of emphasis.

Ugly Americanism reared its shaved head.

So, when they say the Dream Team is everything and more, they're right. It's everything and Charles.

Now, you also have to understand that to know Barkley is to love him. Everyone does. Well, unless he spat at you at a game or something. What's so lovable about him is his joyously irrepressible personality. He's impulsive, he's exuberant, he's unpredictable. He wants to have fun. He wants you to have fun, too, except if he wants to slam-dance you to the floor and jump on your face.

And yet, people tend to forgive him. Charles is Charles, remember. He's the only guy who can win the Mr. Congeniality award and get arrested for assault in the same minute -- and for the same action.

After the game, the victimized Angolan, Herlander Coimbra, whose chest is half as thick as one Barkley thigh, had his picture taken with Barkley and said he was one of his favorite players.

He was one of his favorites even though Barkley, after making a basket and thinking he had been fouled by Coimbra, ran up in plain view and hammered the guy. A few minutes before, after a foul, Barkley had pushed another Angolan player.

Charles is Charles?

What about perspective? What about figuring this is not exactly a fair fight?

Some of Barkley's teammates were less forgiving. And the fans at the Palau Municipal d'Esports whistled their disapproval. In Europe, they whistle instead of boo, meaning that if they'd made "To Have and Have Not" here, Bacall would have said to Bogey: "You know how to boo, don't you? You just put your lips together and blow."

Michael Jordan said of the incident: "There just wasn't any place for it. We were dominating the game. It could cause mixed feelings about the U.S. There's already some negative feelings about us. That didn't help the cause."

David Robinson said: "That was very bad for us today. I mean, image-wise, it was a tough one. But we love Charles."

We love Charles. We do. We can't help it.

And yet.

He's an idiot. You know the rest. He's our idiot.

He's also a convenient antidote for the too-good, too-wonderful, much-too-much Dream Team.

I can't decide about the Dream Team. On one hand, I love watching them. I loved the one play yesterday where Malone lofts the pass deep to Magic who throws a blind pass behind his head to Jordan who jack-hammers the dunk while Magic celebrates. To see Magic and Bird on the court together -- maybe for the last time for either, this time as teammates -- if you don't love that, you don't love basketball.

It's the best team in any sport at any time. But I confess I got a little bored during the 48-1 run against poor Angola. The 116-48 final could have been 216-28.

Can you be too good? Can you be too popular? Chuck Daly said touring with the team is like touring with a rock band. People tear at their clothes. Opposing teams want to be photographed with them. The Dream Team is the Beatles, and Magic is John and Paul combined. People ask Michael Jordan, like they ask Clapton, how it feels to be called a god. This is what we've got here.

And we've got Barkley, who will leave here as the third-most popular player on the team, after Magic and Jordan, and easily the most unpopular. You don't love him or hate him. You love him and hate him.

"You guys don't understand," said Barkley, who once claimed he was misquoted in his autobiography. "Somebody hits me. I hit him back. It's a ghetto thing."

I understand. When something happens bad to Barkley, he says no one understands him. David Robinson understands. He says Barkley is a constant practitioner of the cheap shot. That's not a ghetto thing.

Barkley is also a practitioner of the funny line -- you heard about the news conference Saturday when he had the place rolling -- and he's just about as good a basketball player as you'll ever see in the non-Jordan/Magic/Bird category.

And he's colorful. That was Daly's word. Daly also said he's hard-working and comes to play. And then this: "I'm glad I only have to coach him for five weeks."

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