One of the NBA’s 50 greatest players and best ambassadors for the sport turned 50 last week. While media outlets all over the country were celebrating Michael Jordan’s 50th birthday, his close friend’s birthday was an afterthought. Charles Barkley’s 50th birthday received little fanfare; just a sit-down interview with Ernie Johnson that aired on NBATV. While Michael Jordan’s impact on the game of basketball worldwide is second-to-none, Barkley was a great player and possibly even a better ambassador in his own right.
Barkley was a small town Alabama boy who stared at Auburn University. Drafted with the 5th pick of the 1984 draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, the undersized power forward would go on to play 16 years in the NBA. He appeared in 11 All-Star games, was a five-time All-NBA first team selection and won the NBA MVP in 1993. He was also a member of the Olympic Dream Team, winning gold medals in both the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.
Barkley’s career averages of 22.1 points-per-game and 11.7 rebounds-per-game grabbed him a spot on the NBA’s 1996 “50 Greatest Players In National Basketball Association History” list. Sadly, one of the largest holes in his resume is the thing people remember the most. Barkley never won an NBA title. The closest Barkley ever got to winning an NBA title was when he lost in the 1994 NBA Finals to the Chicago Bulls.
Much of Barkley’s basketball legacy has been defined by this very fact. The 23,757 career points and 12,546 career rebounds are often forgotten when considering how great of a player Charles actually was. And while Barkley’s impact on the court can be quantified with statistics and accomplishments, one could argue his biggest impact on the game of basketball has been his mouth.
In 1993, Charles became the focus of a Nike ad in which he stated, “I am not a Role Model.” While the ad created controversy, the message was one the Charles has stood by to this day.
“I think the media demands that athletes be role models because there’s some jealousy involved,” Barkley told The New York Times in 1996. “It’s as if they say, this is a young black kid playing a game for a living and making all this money, so we’re going to make it tough on him. And what they’re really doing is telling kids to look up to someone they can’t become, because not many people can be like we are. Kids can’t be like Michael Jordan.”
This was only the beginning of Charles becoming a refreshing voice in a politically correct world. In 2000, he joined TNT as an NBA analyst and can still be found there today. His insights, humor and self-deprecating attitude have endured him to millions of fans around the country. In a media world of larger than life egos, Barkley’s ability to never take himself too seriously has made him must see TV.
Lost in some of the humor is the fact the Barkley still knows basketball. In the fraternity of ex-NBA players, few are willing to criticize current players like Charles. He’s never worried about ruffling feathers; often challenging players to become better versions of themselves.
Charles is never afraid to address more serious issues either. Barkley has long been a supporter of teachers, doctors and service men and women. He has often made it known that these are the people he truly admires. When Charles talked about not being a role model, these are the people he wanted others to look up to. So while we often overlook what Charles has to say, the message is correct.
In his sit-down interview for his 50th birthday with Ernie Johnson, Charles was asked to reflect on his life. A thoughtful Barkley said that basketball has given him everything in his life. It wasn’t arrogant, but thankful. In a day and age with spoiled and selfish athletes, Charles is one that understands just how truly blessed he is.
So here’s to 50 more years, Happy Birthday Charles Barkley.