- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 1999

Charles Barkley was great fun.
He just happened to be a professional basketball player, and the pleasure was almost as much ours as his.
He never forgot that basketball is a game and that he was one of the lucky ones to earn a living playing it. He would let you in on his secret on occasion. The sun, he would say, will rise tomorrow, win or lose.
Barkley brought 20 points, 10 rebounds and a whole lot of perspective to each game. He could do it all: dunk on an opponent’s head and then clown with a fan sitting at courtside.
He enjoyed himself so much that it increased your enjoyment. He made a ton of money, as he was inclined to remind, and wasn’t that a gas?
Barkley was a guy’s guy in an increasingly androgynous world. He celebrated his ample dose of testosterone even as certain feminists in America tried to add it to the list of banned substances.
He did not yield to the politically correct times, and indeed the times almost seemed to encourage him.
Barkley was secure enough to say what he pleased, and it pleased him if what he said raised eyebrows. He was an equal-opportunity offender: black and white alike. Angola, too. His list is too long to include everyone.
He was John McCain before there was a John McCain on the national landscape. He, too, could slip and call the Vietnamese “gooks.” He was neither all good nor all bad. He was human, real, and he didn’t mind sharing his flawed self with America. He could laugh at himself, which made it easier when he laughed at you.
Barkley was a small-town guy from Leeds, Ala., who had a small-town wisdom about him. He could see through the big-city tripe that sometimes passes for intellect. You’re dealing with pent-up rage? He’ll show you pent-up rage.
Barkley didn’t play by the rules off the court, whether the subject was politics, race or relationships. He refused to sell his soul to corporate America. He also refused to be a prisoner of his fame.
Barkley earned a number of endorsements over the years but lost an equal number because of his outspokenness. He couldn’t be a bland drone, mouthing the corporate tune. He couldn’t hold his views in check merely because Republicans buy shoes, too, as Michael Jordan once noted.
Besides, he voted Republican in the 1988 presidential election.
He couldn’t tell you that he was taking it one game at a time, because to be honest, there are certain teams you just know you’re going to beat before you step onto the floor.
Barkley was approachable in a way that few celebrities dare to be. His openness invited challenges and sometimes resulted in annoying situations. He could laugh with you or, if necessary, throw you through a plate-glass window. It was your call to make, not his.
Barkley was a bundle of contradictions, not unlike most people. He professed not to care what people thought of him but was a people person. He pretended to be difficult with the media but actually was the media’s best friend. He could be a jerk but was lovable. He could get angry, but he couldn’t stay angry for long.
Barkley was serious about the game but not insufferably serious. He didn’t need critics. He usually was his best critic.
He could see beyond the self-absorption so endemic to his profession. His levity was a strength.
To be a great athlete, you must have two qualities, among others: an almost desperate drive to be great but the ability to relax when it matters most in a game. Practice takes the body only so far. Eventually, the brain must be as trained as the body.
Barkley’s brain ended up being tougher than his body, as it always is with great athletes.
His game started to slip the last few seasons, but not his way with words.
Last spring, near the end of what turned out to be Barkley’s last victory in the playoffs, he offered Shaquille O’Neal a place to stay at his house. The offer was made only because the Lakers, thinking they would eliminate the Rockets, had not bothered to get hotel rooms in Houston. O’Neal, of course, did not appreciate the offer and let Barkley know in so many unprintable words.
Barkley laughed at his foolishness, as he often did, and America, with the exception of Los Angeles, laughed along with him.

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