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Charles Barkley, the basketball player, was always unique.
He stood at 6′ 5" but became one of the all time great rebounders, averaging just fewer than 12 boards a game for his career.
He was mocked as "The Round Mound of Rebound" because he didn’t have a ripple of muscle tone on his 260 pound pear shaped body, but he bent rims with his strength and once even threw the 350 pound Shaquille O’Neal to the floor.
He was "too short, too fat, too slow" for the NBA but is one of two players in NBA history, along with the legendary Wilt Chamberlain, to finish his career with 23,000 points, 12,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists.
He never won a championship but played huge in big games, scoring 44 points and grabbing 24 rebounds in game 7 of the 1993 conference finals against the Seattle Supersonics and averaged 27 points in the NBA finals against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
Yet what set Chuck apart was his larger than life personality. In a league that produces corporate robots droning about ‘playing one game at a time’ Barkley spoke his mind with the same reckless disregard that marked his playing style.
Now, as a TNT studio analyst, he is achieving more fame than ever with his no holds barred approach to commentary.
While he makes us laugh – with classic lines like when he said to hyper religious AC Green, "If god’s so good, how come he didn’t give you a jump shot?" – Barkley speaks to agitate as well as entertain. In the tradition of Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, or Billie Jean King, Barkley uses his athletic prominence to speak about issues like racism and poverty not usually discussed in "mainstream" U.S. political discussion.
Early in his career he raised eyebrows by stating his desire to become the "first Black republican governor of Alabama" after his playing days ended. But to judge him by his words, it is clear that Barkley is not a Republican or Democrat. He is a political being who wants to shock by speaking hard truths that are sharper and more provocative than anything uttered in the Beltway.
As a public service, here is the best of Mista-Chuck.
Here is Charles on the Janet Jackson Super Bowl scandal: "I wish people were more irate with the Bush administration for starting a war for profit than they are with Janet Jackson for showing her breast. But that’s America … we don’t know what’s important and what’s not important. It’s much ado about nothing. It’s not like she’s going to traumatize anyone. Everyone is all offended now and bent out of shape. Give me a break. There are a lot of trashier things on television that what Janet Jackson did."
On basketball player Rasheed Wallace calling himself ‘exploited’: "If you’re a grunt for CNN, those people are exploited. The guy behind the camera I talk to, he’s exploited. This guy is making $17 million, and he’s exploited? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. "
On the Enron scandal investigation: "Almost all those politicians took money from Enron, and there they are holding hearings. That’s like O.J. Simpson getting in the Rae Carruth jury pool."
On racism: "Any time something bad happens to a black person because of racism, I feel it in my soul. I really do. You take the Abner Louima case. That let me know one thing: If some white guys wanted to stick a plunger up a black guy’s butt, and I’m the black guy who happened to be around, I’d have a plunger up my butt."
On Saddam Hussein: "I think he’s still alive. . . . Look at Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein – they used to both work for the United States and now they’re enemies. That’s part of the hypocrisy that goes on here."
On the flak celebrities get for their anti-war beliefs: "That’s part of the hypocrisy that goes on when you’re in the limelight – if you say something, you’re anti-American or unpatriotic or too liberal. We’re all free to say what we want to, but if you ever forget your place, we’ll put you back in your place."
On politics: "Politics is too corrupt," Barkley said. "You know how you can tell politics is corrupt? President Bush is going to raise $250 million for a job that pays $400,000. Now tell me there isn’t something wrong there?"
On his priority in life: "My No. 1 priority is to help poor people. In this country, 90% of the money is controlled by 10% of the people, and that’s not right."
Agree or disagree, Charles Barkley recalls the words of Malcolm X in describing a young fighter named Cassius Clay: "Do not underestimate the quality of the mind he has in there. Although a clown can never imitate the wise man, the wise man can imitate a clown."