Former basketball player and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley (1963- ) is one of Alabama's most recognizable sports stars. Nicknamed "the Round Mound of Rebound" and "Sir Charles," Barkley had a remarkable basketball career with the Auburn University Tigers before embarking on a career in the National Basketball Association (NBA). At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, Barkley was short for an NBA power forward, considering that the league's top power forwards stood between 6'8" and 6'10". He also battled weight issues throughout his basketball career. Despite these obstacles, Barkley was honored in 1997 as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players of all time. Barkley also played for the U.S. Olympic basketball team in the 1992 and 1996 Summer Games. Since his retirement in 2000, Barkley has carved out a niche as a basketball analyst, author, and commentator on political and social issues.
Charles Wade Barkley was born to Frank Barkley and Charcey Glenn in Leeds, Alabama, on February 20, 1963, and has two brothers. After taking Leeds High School to the state semifinals in 1981, the heavy-set forward enrolled at Auburn University. Barkley struggled with his weight throughout his three seasons with the Auburn Tigers, at times weighing more than 300 pounds. These difficulties did not stop him from winning the Southeastern Conference's Player-of-the-Year award in 1984. Although he skipped his final season to enter the NBA draft, Barkley remains among the top 20 scorers in Auburn history, with 1,183 points. He is currently seventh on the school's career rebounding list.
As an NBA rookie with the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1984-85 season, Barkley averaged 14 points and nine rebounds per game, nearly identical to his numbers at Auburn. In his third season, Barkley was named an NBA All-Star, making the first of 11 appearances in the league's All-Star game. Barkley also made the All-NBA first team for four consecutive seasons, from 1988 to 1991.
Despite Barkley's personal success, the 76ers failed to field a championship-caliber team during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In addition, Barkley found himself at the center of controversy. During a 1991 game at the Meadowlands Arena in New Jersey, he was heckled by a fan using racial epithets. Barkley spat at the fan, but missed his target and hit a young girl instead. The NBA suspended and fined Barkley, who immediately became a villain within the sports and news media. Following the 1991-92 season, Barkley's frustrations in Philadelphia had taken their toll on him, the franchise, and the city's fans, and the 76ers traded Barkley to the Phoenix Suns.
Barkley's basketball career reached its high point in 1992 and 1993. In the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain, Barkley played for the gold medal-winning U.S. men's basketball team. Known as the "Dream Team," the U.S. squad featured such basketball legends as Earvin "Magic" Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan. It was Barkley, though, who was the team's top scorer and most colorful character. He went on to win the NBA's Most Valuable Player award for the 1992-93 season, though the Suns lost to the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals.
On-court success could not shield Barkley from public criticism. In 1993, Barkley again stirred up controversy with a series of Nike shoe commercials. In these black-and-white ads, Barkley stared into the camera and exclaimed, "I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids." Many observers objected to the commercials and argued that athletes were indeed role models for American youth.
Barkley played in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, and the U.S. team won gold again. That year he was traded to the Houston Rockets, but he was increasingly sidelined with injuries. He retired in 2000, ending his NBA career as one of only four players to amass 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists. Since 2001, Auburn University, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Phoenix Suns have retired Barkley's number 34 jersey. In 2006, Barkley was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Barkley has earned critical acclaim for his work as an NBA analyst for Turner Network Television (TNT). His funny, brash, no-nonsense style has helped TNT's Inside the NBA program win several Emmy Awards for sports broadcasting. Since retiring in 2000, Barkley has also written several books of commentary on sports, race, and politics. Barkley is currently considering a run for the governorship of Alabama. Because Alabama law requires a gubernatorial candidate to be a state resident for seven years prior to vying for office, he will not be eligible to run until 2014. If elected, he would be the state's first black governor. For years Barkley described himself as a Republican, but recently he has become an opponent of the war in Iraq, as well as a critic of conservative positions on gay marriage and illegal immigration. He now describes himself as an independent.
Charles Barkley has been one of Alabama's most successful and notable athletes. His straightforward approach to the sport he played and to the controversial issues of the day continues to make him a relevant public figure both inside and outside the state. Charles Barkley may no longer dominate the basketball court, but he remains a lightning rod for controversy and a quotable figure for the media.
Barkley, Charles. I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It. New York: Random House, 2002.
———. Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man? New York: Penguin Press, 2005.