He was iconic as a NBA superstar, but if it's possible, Charles Barkley's legend has grown during his second career as a broadcaster.
The Hall-of-Famer is finishing his — can it really be? — 18th season as a studio analyst for Turner Sports/NBA on TNT.
Barkley's wit, candor and insight into the NBA game has made him popular with viewers, who regard him with both amusement and reverence for his "tell-it-like-it-is" repertoire.
As a player, Barkley was a favorite of the sports media for his cooperation, humor and, at times, enlightening observations about the game and the world around him.
I got to know Barkley after his trade from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Phoenix Suns in 1992 and have enjoyed a professional relationship with him for 25 years. He is on a short list of the best interviews — and personalities — I've come across in my 42 years in the business.
Barkley recently took on a major endeavor, a four-part TNT docu-series, "American Race." Barkley traveled to various parts of the country to discuss racial and cultural controversies. The hour-long shows aired May 11 and 12.
Now 54, Barkley lives in Phoenix with his wife of nearly 30 years, Maureen. Their daughter, Christiana, is 28. He was generous enough to take a break from preparation from Friday's Game 4 of the NBA Finals to conduct an interview with the Portland Tribune.
Tribune: How is life treating you these days?
Barkley: Life is good. I've got no complaints. I get paid to watch basketball, so it can't be that bad.
Tribune: Can it really be that your little girl is 28 years old? How is she doing?
Barkley: She's doing wonderful — thanks for asking. She got her undergrad degree from Villanova and just got her masters in journalism at Columbia. She wants to write for a fashion magazine. She's looking for a job right now. She's out there trying. I'm really excited for her.
Tribune: You've become one of the country's most visible hockey fans. You attended Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Nashville, and reports were you were headed to Game 5 in Pittsburgh.
Barkley: I decided not to go. Would have been too hectic on the schedule. I was totally surprised by the domination of the Penguins (in a 6-0, Game 5 win). But the hockey playoffs have been great. When I'm in the (TNT) studio, we have about 20 TVs going, and the (NHL and NBA playoff games) are on at about the same time, so I've always got hockey on. Even if you are an avid basketball fan, you have to realize the NBA playoffs have been awful. Thank goodness for the hockey playoffs.
Tribune: Are you still enjoying your studio work? You're working some long hours, especially in the playoffs.
Barkley: I love my hours. I love my job. But I have to say, the NBA is different today with the "super teams." I feel bad for the fans. There's not a lot of fun or intrigue to it anymore. That's the toughest thing about my job right now.
Tribune: Is there a team capable of playing on the level of Golden State in the near future?
Barkley: Doesn't look like it at all. With the advent of the "super teams" and all the salary cap money available, you can't do anything about it right now. And that's awful for the game. Think about it, If I'm a fan, why would I buy season tickets? My team is not going to be any good. We're going to be drafting an 18-year-old kid who can't help us any time soon. That's frustrating. I really feel bad for the fans. They're paying ridiculous prices for tickets, and we know who's going to win. It's going to come down to the Cavaliers and the Warriors.
Tribune: How much longer does your contract with TNT run?
Barkley: Six more years. My original goal was to work until I'm 60. But to be honest, I'm not sure I'm going to make it. If it continues to be fun, maybe. But really, anybody who works past 60, they probably needed a better job.
Tribune: You really put yourself out there beyond your comfort zone in your docu-series, "American Race." That was some serious stuff being discussed. How was that for you?
Barkley: It was awesome. The feedback has been amazing. I have taken some heat in the black community for supporting the cops at times, but saying I don't want unarmed blacked men shot and support the police are two separate things.
We're going to have to have a dialogue with the cops, but we as black people have to do better. If blacks keep killing each other at the rate we're on, it's ridiculous. I don't mind taking the heat for my comments on that. I never want to see an unarmed black man killed, and I'm against police brutality. But we need the cops, especially in the black community, because of some of the stupid stuff we do. But (in Baltimore), I didn't mind getting yelled at a bit by mothers of young blacks who were killed by police. It was important for those ladies to be heard.
Tribune: Will there be more episodes? Or another project down the line?
Barkley: We're going to expand this thing. I want to work on some different topics and keep it going. When we started, I wanted to start a dialogue, and I want to continue to get people's opinions on what they want to talk about. All I'm trying to do is positive stuff. I learned a lot through our episode on the Muslims, and also on undocumented immigrants. Some of it shocked me. I'd like to help make a difference in any way I can.
Tribune: Switching gears just a tad, what do you really think of Shaquille O'Neal?
Barkley: We get along great, man, but I love messing with him. He's very sensitive. If I get a chance to dig him, I feel like I'm back in the locker room with him. When I find out something annoys the guy, I'm going to beat it to death.
Tribune: What are your thoughts on the Trail Blazers' last season, and their prospects for next season?
Barkley: I would have loved to see them with a full team in the playoff series against the Warriors. The midseason trade (for Jusuf Nurkic) turned that team around. They relied too much on their guards. When they got the big guy, it made a huge difference. It's unfortunate he got hurt. But I like where they're going. They have a chance to make a big jump with the three No. 1 picks in the draft. There are a lot of teams out there that need No. 1 picks. Instead of getting an 18-year-old kid who ain't going to be able to play for a while, they might be able to flip those draft picks for quality players. You might be able to pry a really good player from someone. So this is a big summer coming up for the Blazers.
Tribune: During your playing career, who was the player you most despised?
Barkley: I'd say Bill Laimbeer. Those (Detroit) "Bad Boys" were trying to hurt you. I'm for physical play, but when you're trying to hurt people, that's where you're crossing the line.
Tribune: Who is your favorite player to watch in the NBA now?
Barkley: Russell Westbrook. As a fan, I know he's never going to cheat me. He never rests. The guy gives maximum effort all the time. In this day and age, in which guys are sitting out games to rest — which is disrespectful to the game and the fans as far as I'm concerned — that carries a lot of weight with me. Sitting out games when you're wearing the best shoes in the world, flying private planes, eating the best meals and making more money than ever? It just doesn't sit well with me. If they keep disrespecting the game by creating "super teams" and resting all the time, it will probably be time for me to give it up.
Tribune: Are you ever concerned that your frankness and criticism of the NBA could cost you your job?
Barkley: They've paid me all these years to be honest and straightforward, and I'm not going to change now. That's what made me the voice I am today. People love my honesty. I'm not going to change just because these guys are screwing around with the NBA.
Tribune: What will you do with your life after broadcasting?
Barkley: Play golf and fish every day. That's all I do during the summer. When this thing is over, I'm going to get my fishing rods and reels out, find me some lakes and ponds, fish in the morning and play golf every afternoon. That's a pretty good life, too.