Sir Charles Holds Court
It’s his voice that you hear first, the warm, loud voice that has made him famous, and occasionally gotten him in trouble. “Hello everybody,” he says. Soon, you see him as he climbs the stairs, a big man with a bald head, his lips curled in a comfortable smile. Charles Barkley has entered the Ashton Cigar Bar.
Despite all his accomplishments—11 times an All-Star, the 1993 MVP, a member of the Dream Team—the man who would grab 12,546 rebounds (19th all time) and score more than 23,000 points in the NBA wasn’t a star in his youth. At first, Barkley couldn’t even cut it on his high school team. “I always wanted to be a basketball player, but I just wasn’t good enough,” he says. “I had to play at the rec league where you had to pay to play.” He was originally a point guard, moving the ball up the court and feeding it to the bigger men, but a six-inch growth spurt in one year changed all that, and soon Barkley was starting as a power forward.
Barkley never lost his instincts as a small man, and he moved around the court in a way that defied his new size—dribbling coast-to-coast and jumping sky high. His little man skills in a big man’s body led one scout to call him “a fat guy who can play like the wind.”
He’s sitting back on a leather couch at the cigar bar, near the window overlooking Walnut Street in Philadelphia, the city where he first played pro ball. He spends part of the year here, the rest in Arizona. Barkley was drafted by the 76ers, going number five in the legendary 1984 draft that would deliver four Hall of Famers, including himself. He’s smoking an H. Upmann Sir Winston—the perfect cigar for the man who was dubbed Sir Charles. It’s a pretty big cigar, a Cuban Churchill, but he smokes a variety of shapes and sizes. When he lights up, he’ll smoke four cigars in a day, typically while on the golf course.
Barkley’s playing days are over (he retired after the 2000 season) and for the past 20 years he has made his living with his voice as an analyst for TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” covering pro basketball and March Madness. People watch him for his frank, no-nonsense insights and his frequent forays into the silly. There are plenty of times when the other hosts are reduced to tears of laughter, heads down on the desks, processing the latest from Barkley.
“Lonzo Ball had a triple-single,” Barkley said one night, after the Lakers player posted an unimpressive two points, eight rebounds and four assists. “I left two [Knicks] tickets at the hotel for one of my family members, and when I got back to the hotel there were four tickets there. That’s how bad the Knicks have been lately.” Even the Phoenix Suns, for whom he played for four seasons, aren’t spared the Barkley treatment. “Oh, there’s plenty of parking,” he said, a jab at poor attendance. “And you can buy one of those seats at the top and walk right down and sit at center court.”
Barkley also goes after his fellow host Shaquille O’Neal. The two competed on the court (Barkley once famously threw a basketball at the seven-footer’s head, a prelude to a brawl) and today they zing each other mercilessly on TV. “I love Shaq, and he’s a great guy, but he gets mad.” Barkley smiles. “I love egging him on.”
Long before he took to the mic, Barkley was known for his mouth. Early in his playing career, he realized that it made no sense to bite his tongue. “It doesn’t matter what you say—half the people are going to like it and half the people are going to dislike it. So, then you have to make a decision: are you going to pander to a side or are you just going to look yourself in the mirror and be honest with your opinion? You got to realize when you’re being honest with yourself, some people aren’t going to like that.” He takes a long puff of the cigar. “I said, I can live with that.”
Charles Wade Barkley was born in Leeds, Alabama, on February 20, 1963. He was one of 6,000 residents in a town that was previously best known for (perhaps) being the place where folk legend John Henry pounded railroad track faster than a man with a steam hammer. “We were poor,” says Barkley, who has spoken of eating mayonnaise sandwiches and government cheese as a child. His father divorced his mother when he was a baby, and his stepfather died when he was in grammar school. He was raised by his mother, Charcey Glenn, and his grandmother, Johnnie Mae Edwards, a tough woman who carried a gun and turned her home into a makeshift casino and bar on weekends.
“Every weekend, to make ends meet, we’d have a bunch of gamblers over. We’d have a card game starting Friday late afternoon, and there’d be a card game going on at my grandmother’s house until Sunday night. And because there were no bars in my hometown, we made extra money selling alcohol.” Grandma’s gun came out when tempers flared, to keep the peace. “A fight would break out every weekend,” he says. “Guys would bring their paycheck trying to make extra money, but once they lost their money and they got drunk, it was 100 percent going to be a fight.”
Barkley was terribly sick as a baby, and needed a blood transfusion, which has led to a family saying about how that donated blood must have come from a large, powerful person, as he is the only member of his family who is big and athletic. “My mother and grandmother used to joke all the time,” he says. “We have no idea whose blood you got, but thank you.”
In high school, he didn’t dream about playing in the NBA. “I was just thinking about going to college for free,” he says with his trademark candor. The young Barkley took a practical look at his chances, and saw promise at Auburn University. “Auburn had lost 12 games when I went down for a visit,” he says. “I said, ‘These guys suck. That’s where I should go to college.’” He played three standout seasons for Auburn, setting records and awing crowds with his dunks, blocks and dribbling, leading Auburn to its first-ever NCAA tournament. They lost by one in the first round.
Barkley’s grandmother provided ample motivation during his college years.“My grandmother thought she was a coach. She would always say, ‘You’re embarrassing this family getting six or seven rebounds a night.’ Oh, she was so hard on us. She said, ‘Your talent is rebounding. You should never get less than 10 rebounds.’ ” Barkley welcomed the tough love. “My grandmother was the greatest influence in my life. My grandmother started as a nurse, became a cosmetologist, worked in a meatpacking factory—she was a hardworking lady,” he says.
Although he was listed as 6´6", Barkley is really only 6´4", making him relatively short for a power forward. It also makes his accomplishments on the court (often performed against much taller men) even more impressive. “I just remember seeing this basketball player who wasn’t the normal size of a basketball player, who had the ability to take over a game,” says longtime sports commentator Dan Patrick. “I think he’s one of the most fascinating players who ever played the game.”
Barkley was dubbed The Round Mound of Rebound, a name that reflected not only his skills at getting the ball but his battle with the scale. Barkley packed on pounds in college, nearing 300 by the time he headed to the NBA after his junior year. When he joined the Sixers, he found himself warming the bench. “I wasn’t getting to play,” he says. The rookie sought out advice from Moses Malone, one of the star veterans on the team. “Charles, you’re fat and you’re lazy,” Malone told him. “I was hurt. I was devastated,” says Barkley. “I had never got called fat and lazy before.” But Malone was being honest, rather than cruel, and he made it his mission to get Barkley in shape.
“Moses spent every morning, every night with me. He says, ‘Let’s lose 10 pounds.’ So, I go from 294 to 284, and now I’m starting to work a little bit harder. And then we go to 274. Now I’m starting to get to play.” Barkley slimmed all the way down to 240, but found himself too weak at that weight, and came back to 250, which Malone dubbed his playing weight. The change was huge to Barkley, who is humbled by the gift to this day. “To lose 50 pounds, man, it was daunting. If I didn’t have a mentor like Moses...”
NBA legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving also was an early teammate of Barkley’s. “He had the ability to grab the rebound, handle the ball, and break and press by himself, and go down and get a layup,” Erving said once on ESPN, describing Barkley. “And then there’s this string of bodies lying in his wake.” Erving and Malone also helped give Barkley financial advice, asking the rookie some pointed questions when he began buying one car after another.
“I was an idiot,” Barkley says. “They told me: ‘Charles, it’s not the fact that you can’t afford five cars, it’s the fact that the money you make has to last you your entire lifetime. And that extra $400,000, if you would put it in the bank somewhere, it’s going to be worth millions of dollars down the line.’ They said, ‘We don’t want you be a statistic.’ And that was some of the best advice I ever got.”
When Barkley joined the 76ers, Dr. J was 34. The increasing number of younger players—and the subsequent lack of older mentors—in today’s NBA is one of many things Barkley finds wrong with the modern-day game. “We’re drafting kids out of high school to one year of college. All those guys who are in their late thirties getting ready to retire, they had been through the wars and knew about life. You go to the NBA today, you take the Sixers for example, the oldest guy on their team is probably going to be Tobias Harris and he’s, like, 28. I’m not asking a 28-year-old for lifetime advice... We need some older guys on these teams.”
He also takes umbrage at the super team trend in which megastars gather together to create nigh-unbeatable franchises.
“When all these guys want to play together, I don’t think it’s good for the league. I don’t think it’s good for small-market teams. And I think it’s going to be very interesting the next time we have a strike or a lockout because we need competitive balance. But if all the stars want to play in major markets and want to play together, it’s not a good business model. Guys started listening to the press saying you got to win a championship. Well, first of all, we all want to win a championship. Then all these guys start partnering up to win a championship and it’s really starting to hurt the small markets."
Barkley doesn’t have a ring of his own. He came close, leading the Phoenix Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals, a season where he was named MVP. He played against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, and Chicago won in six (taking the last game 99-98 and completing their first “three-peat”). “I don’t judge myself by basketball,” Barkley says. “It’d have been great to win a championship—bu I’m not sure, other than being able to say I won a championship—that my life would have been any different.”
He and Jordan were opponents on the court, but they struck up a friendship on the golf course, which ultimately led to Barkley taking up cigars. Back in the mid-1980s, he was golfing with Jordan and Ahmad Rashad, who were always puffing on cigars, and he finally went for one. “I watched them smoke for a couple of years, and I was like, ‘Maybe I should try this.’ And I liked it.”
Jordan “smokes the good stuff, and he gave me the most valuable lesson ever with cigars: have two humidors. One for people who know what they’re doing, and one for people who don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. I’ve got some good cigars, and I hate it when I give someone a good cigar, they don’t enjoy it, and they leave half of it.”
Barkley learned that lesson the hard way. The first cigar Jordan gave him was a top-tier smoke from Cuba. “It was from the good humidor. And I got yelled at,” he says. “I took a couple of hits and then I was done with it. He was like, ‘Yo man, that was a really good cigar.’” Jordan became a cigar mentor to Barkley, moving him to “training wheels, lower-level stuff. And then as I got better at it, I started smoking the good stuff.”
The cigar is a regular thing for him, something he puffs when he plays golf. “Ninety-nine percent of the time when I smoke cigars, I’m playing golf, and I play golf a lot.” He’s out there three to four days a week, and when he plays he fires up multiple times. “I smoke four when I play golf, two per nine,” he says. In addition to smoking many Cubans, he admires the cigars from Padrón.
He holds the Sir Winston with a practiced hand, puffing slowly and enjoying the cigar. Back home in Arizona, where he spends three quarters of the year, he has four humidors—and like many cigar aficionados, he’s run out of space. “I underestimated how many cigars I have,” he says. He’s in the process of upgrading to a far larger unit that he hopes will hold everything.
“I treat my cigars better than people,” he jokes. “You gotta treat ’em good.”
He built a reputation as a tough, sometimes surly guy during his playing days. He elbowed a skinny player from Angola during the Olympics, had more than his share of fines for fights and other transgressions. He famously declared “I am not a role model” in a standout Nike commercial. (My friends would always joke, “You’re the only person in the history of the world that ever got in trouble for telling kids to listen to their parents,” he says.)
When he was a younger man, Barkley felt he didn’t have the luxury of showing vulnerability. “I’ve been the man of my house since I was 15, 16,” he says. “I couldn’t cry then.” But the tears came on January 26. Barkley was at the movies, and when the film ended and he looked at his phone, he saw dozens of missed calls and even more text messages. Kobe Bryant, one of the most talented players ever to play in the NBA, had been killed in a helicopter crash, along with his daughter Gianna and seven others.
“I just started crying,” Barkley said on TNT. “And I don’t even have that type of relationship with Kobe. But he was part of the basketball fabric of my 16 years in the NBA, my 19 years at TNT, he was like one of my kids. And I just felt pain.”
A surprising, friendlier side of Barkley made news years ago. He was at a bar in Sacramento when a man named Lin Wang walked up to him and started chatting. Lin was, of all things, a cat litter scientist, an immigrant from China who moved to Iowa in the 1990s. “The conversation goes on for like an hour,” says Barkley. “We became friends.”
The two met up on occasion and texted often, even though few of Lin’s friends believed he was truly a pal of a famous sports star. Years after their first meeting, Lin developed cancer, and died in June 2018, during the NBA Finals, a busy time for Barkley. “I never cared who wins basketball games,” says Barkley. He cared that time, hoping the series would end in time to allow him to make a trip. “It was the Cavs against the Warriors, and I’m pulling for the Warriors this night. The end of series, and I’m hoping they win—and they won. I caught like a 6:00 flight to Chicago, caught a connection to Iowa.” Barkley eulogized Lin that night, surprising many in the room when he arrived.
“He was one of the coolest people I ever met,” Barkley says, high praise from a man who has met a president, kings and a Beatle.
The story about his unlikely friendship got traction in the media. When asked why it garnered such attention, Barkley answers in his typical, no-holds-barred fashion. “I think they’re just used to celebrities being dicks,” he says. “They don’t want to be bothered: They don’t sign autographs, they don’t take pictures.”
Barkley thinks that engaging with the fans is part and parcel of the game. “They don’t pay us all this money just to play basketball,” he says. “I never understand celebrities who stay in their house, travel with security guards all the time. . . Because most of the people you meet are fantastic.”
He watches hockey for fun (“There’s a purity about that sport,” he says), but golf is his true passion. He is an inveterate viewer of the Golf Channel—the day of the interview, he was up until 1:00 in the morning watching the network. “I can tell who’s swinging before they put their name on there. I watch the Golf Channel religiously.” [He’s not alone; read the story 'Golf's TV Heart.]
His own swing is easily recognized—as one of the most criticized swings in golf. It has a strange dip and pause that robs him of his power and often sends his golf ball on improbable flight paths. The hitch—which he blames on “a lot of cobwebs in my brain”—has been improving. “I played better this week than I played in like 20 years. I got a new teacher named Stan Utley who’s really helping me.”
He may be playing even more golf soon. Barkley, who turned 57 in February, plans on cutting back on his duties soon, and only plans on doing the TV gig for another three years. So what’s left on his bucket list? He pauses for several seconds before answering, thinking about what he has yet to do.
“I think probably walk my daughter down the aisle, that’d probably be the highlight of my life.” He married Maureen Blumhardt in 1989, and Christiana, 30, is their only child. “Hopefully be a grandfather—that’d probably be the icing on the cake.” He says most of his earnings will go to charity, and he’s already started giving back, focusing on Alabama, starting a program to recruit black professors.
“I just know it’s just not always just about you. It ain’t about how many points or rebounds and things like that you get. There’s a little bit more to this life,” he says. “I really think it’s important for you to bring in as many people along on this journey as possible. I do, I really believe that. You wake up one day and you’re like, damn, I’m rich and I’m famous there’s got to be more to life than this... I mean you can only have so many houses, you only have so much money. And if you don’t help a lot of people, I feel like you’ve missed the boat.”
Another puff. The bar is about to get busy, but Barkley isn’t going anywhere. He’s content, ready to mingle with the crowd that will come through the doors and up those stairs. “It’s been amazing,” he says. “I think I did pretty good for a fat kid from Leeds, Alabama.”