Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Happy 50th Birthday, Sir Charles

Charles Barkley was my last basketball hero. He emerged in 1984 back when I was young enough still to play the game, my hometown Sixers were still considered a league power, and the sport hadn't yet deteriorated into the isolation-dominated schoolyard game that has hurt its popularity with people, like me, of a certain age. And he was an unlikely hero. Drafted 5th in a class unmatched in league history (behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan, ahead of John Stockton), he was a 6'4" (he has since debunked the official height of 6'6"), 300-pounder out of Auburn, known (understandably, for any who remember seeing him at that time) as "The Round Mound of Rebound." He immediately made his impact known on a 58-win team still dominated by Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Mo Cheeks, and Andrew Toney. Despite playing only 28 minutes a game, he averaged 14 points (on .546 shooting) and 8.6 rebounds (including 3.2 on the offensive end) a game. By his second season Barkley had established himself as one of the league's best forwards (20.0 points per game, 12.8 rebounds per game, 3.9 assists per game, .572 FG%). That year was the first of 12 consecutive seasons in which Barkley averaged at least 20 points per game, as well as the first of 15 (!) consecutive seasons in which he averaged 10+ rebounds per game. His third year he led the league in rebounds with 14.6 p/g, including an astounding 5.7 p/g at the offensive end. He remains the shortest player in NBA history to lead the league in rebounds. From 1986-95 he was named to either the first or second All-NBA team. But his crowning achievement occurred in the 1992-93 season, when he led the Phoenix Suns to the Western Conference championship and was named league MVP, only to fall in the finals against—who else?—Michael Jordan and the Bulls in 6 games. Barkley's superhuman play in that series (42 points and 13 rebounds in the game 2 111-108 loss [for footage of this game, see here; 32 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists in the game 4 111-105 loss) couldn't offset the incomparable Jordan (42/12/9 in game 2; 55/8/4 in game 4). But the battle of the two titans that series matches anything I ever witnessed between Chamberlain and Russell or Bird and Johnson.

Of all the forwards I have seen since first following the sport in 1964, only four are clearly superior to Sir Charles: Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Tim Duncan, and LeBron James. Julius Erving was more flashy and offensively gifted. Karl Malone kept himself in better shape and had a longer career. But only Bird shared Barkley's remarkable relentlessness and on-the-court selflessness. And only James surpasses Barkley's combination of power and athleticism. What set Barkley apart was the completeness of his game. As Hall-of-Famer Bill Walton said in a SLAM magazine article ranking NBA greats, "Barkley is like Magic [Johnson] and Larry [Bird] in that they don't really play a position. He plays everything; he plays basketball. There is nobody who does what Barkley does. He's a dominant rebounder, a dominant defensive player, a three-point shooter, a dribbler, a playmaker."

And what a personality! Transparent and honest to the core, warts visible for all to see (remember his expectorating on the little girl at the Meadowlands arena in 1991? His throwing a bar patron through a plate glass window at a bar in Miami in 1997?). These are the ingredients that make him the most entertaining and insightful basketball analyst on the airwaves today. He may not have ever been a role model, but I consider myself lucky to have been able to see him play the game. Happy Birthday, Sir Charles.

For a video of some Barkley highlights from his years with the Sixers, see here.

No comments:

Post a Comment