In life's second act, Charles Barkley flips script

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In life's second act, Charles Barkley flips script

As during his playing days, Charles Barkley continues to thunder along, now with microphone in hand, as opposed to a basketball. He is paid to deliver opinions, and deliver them he does, even if on occasion he treats facts as he once did puny point guards, whenever they dared get in his way during one of his patented court-length rushes –- as something to be shunted aside, to be disregarded.

But nobody really seems to care, for it’s all part of the show, all part of his reinvention.

As great as his life’s first act was -- and let us never forget what a truly unique player he was -- there is much to like about his second act. We are reminded of that when he pops up on Turner Sports’ NBA coverage, whether in the studio each Thursday night, or, as was the case this past weekend, at the All-Star Game.

Other ways, too.

“Hey – Y’all still got them rats in here? Them rats as big as cats?”

That was Barkley a few weeks back, standing in the middle of a hallway in the bowels of the Wells Fargo Center and needling a nearby Sixers official at high volume, before he provided color commentary for TNT’s broadcast of that night’s game against the Spurs. He does such work on occasion these days; he said it is a welcome departure from his studio appearances. And on this occasion he had taken his act to an arena in which he had never actually performed as a home player (he was likely thinking of the Spectrum when he mentioned the rats), but where he had played his final road game, in December 1999, blowing out a quadriceps tendon as a bloated Houston Rocket.

In short order he visited Jeff Millman, the team’s longtime assistant equipment manager, in the laundry room; said hello to John Brong, who has guarded the door of the Sixers’ locker room, in one building or another, for 36 years (“Looking good, man,” Barkley said); huddled with Harvey Pollack, the ageless statistician (“You’ve done a lot of great things in your life.”); ribbed general manager Tony DiLeo while passing along best wishes to his wife (“Anna, right? How long she been stuck with you?”); posed for a photo with Ryan Lumpkin, a ballboy and the son of director of basketball administration Allen Lumpkin (“Stay in those books, man.”); and commiserated with Inquirer columnist Bob Ford (“I hope I don’t die. I can steal this money for a long time.”)

Again one was left to ponder the difference between the boorish Barkley of years past -- the one who infamously (and accidentally) spit on a little girl and was known for brawling with over-served barflies -– and this guy, who seemed so … so … likable. Again one was left to recall something his good friend Dave Coskey, the former Sixers publicist, always said about Barkley: While many athletes are bad guys who want the public to believe they are good guys, the Chuck Wagon is a good guy who wants everyone to believe he is a bad guy.

We see far more of the good guy than the bad boy these days. If his misdeeds once detracted from his accomplishments, the script has now flipped. Now people are more inclined, because of his essential decency, to cut him a break when he goes astray.

“There’s not a nicer person on this planet than Charles Barkley,” former Sixers president Pat Croce said one day last fall, as he sat in the office of his Villanova home. “He’s a special person.”

He turns 50 Wednesday, three days after his good friend Michael Jordan. TV specials have been scheduled to commemorate the occasion (see sidebar box for air times), but Barkley’s milestone has not quite inspired the lovefest heralding Jordan’s half-century. Sports Illustrated devoted most of its current issue to His Airness, and ESPN.com’s Wright Thompson –- as gifted a writer as you will find -– crafted a compelling profile, one that duly notes how restless Jordan has become since he retired for the third and (perhaps) final time, in 2003.

In the story there is the suggestion that Jordan, majority owner of the struggling Charlotte Bobcats, might want to play again -– yes, even at 50 -- for nothing else gives him quite so much fulfillment as being on the court. It is something he had also said during his Hall of Fame induction speech, in 2009. Clearly the itch is still there.

You will hear no such talk from Barkley, and not just because he was so terribly out of shape for so long; only recently has he lost 60 pounds, with the help of Weight Watchers (for which he has done some promotional work). There was some mention, a few years back, that he wouldn’t mind playing alongside Jordan when he made his ill-fated comeback with the Doug Collins-coached Washington Wizards, but that never materialized. These days Charles only talks about things like playing two-on-two with Kenny Smith, one of his studio partners at Turner, against the likes of Magic Johnson and Jalen Rose. Nothing came of that, either.

Barkley seems settled, content, aware of where he is in his life. It is in sharp contrast to Jordan, and perhaps the one and only time Barkley has gotten a leg up on him.

The court jester overshadowing the king. Imagine that.

Barkley, who maintains a summer home in Philadelphia (he winters in Arizona, the better to bludgeon golf courses in another state), was accorded a standing ovation during a first-quarter timeout of that Sixers-Spurs game, memories of his eight years with the Sixers having been refreshed by a highlight video. He played 16 seasons in all –- Phoenix and Houston were his other stops -- making 11 All-Star teams (not to mention the Hall of Fame) while becoming only the third man in NBA history to collect over 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4.000 assists. The others are Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, both of whom stood over 7 feet tall. Barkley was listed at a shade under 6-5.

“He’s a Hall of Fame player, so people have to appreciate it, but he’s special among that group,” said Jim Lynam, who coached Barkley for part of his Sixers' tenure. “That’s how talented he was. And the word right there along with it is ‘unique.’ On Noah’s Ark, two of everything. Well, I’ve got news for you -- that partner fell off the edge of the boat. There’s one of him. One.”

Lynam was always in Barkley’s corner, defending him when he veered off the tracks (“Charles is Charles,” the coach would say, as a way of sidestepping particularly thorny questions) and building his offense around him. The joke among veteran beat writers is that those Sixers ran one play: “Turn Cholly.” But Lynam also challenged him, stoked his competitive fire. Mike Gminski, who played center for Lynam and with Barkley from 1988-91, recalled recently that the team was in San Antonio, and at the end of a game-day shootaround Lynam bet Barkley $100 he could score on him.

According to Gminski, Barkley took that action in a nanosecond. Lynam, talking smack, took the ball at the top of the circle.

“And Charlie’s all worked up,” said Gminski, who now lives in Charlotte and broadcasts ACC games.  “Jimmy throws him a little head fake, and Charlie goes flying up in the air, trying to block it. Jimmy takes a couple dribbles, lays the ball in, starts laughing and walks off the floor.”

Lynam, who now does TV work for Comcast SportsNet, would not confirm this story, though he did add, with the smallest of grins, “That I could get a basket without a great deal of difficulty on Barkley, I can confirm that.” Barkley did confirm it in a recent telephone interview with CSNPhilly.com, but quickly changed the subject, saying how much he enjoyed playing for Lynam.

They won an Atlantic Division title together in 1989-90, but things quickly went south. And in July 1992 Lynam, by then the Sixers’ general manager (and working at the behest of owner Harold Katz), sent Barkley to Phoenix for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry.

That came after Barkley, in his final season with the Sixers, was brought up on an assault charge after striking a man outside a tavern in Milwaukee –- a charge for which he was later acquitted.

Among other things.

And it came well after he accidentally spit on 8-year-old Lauren Conrad while aiming at a heckler during a game in the New Jersey Meadowlands, in March 1991. He paid the $10,000 fine, apologized to the girl and befriended her and her family –- the worst and best of Barkley, side by side.

Looking back, he has one overriding regret about his time in Philadelphia: “I should have got out of there two years sooner, because the seventh and eighth years were a waste of my time. … The Sixers were not a good organization at that time.”

But he stopped short of saying he was trying to orchestrate a trade.

“No, I didn’t try to get out,” he said. “It was frustrating, just hearing the rumors. My last three years, all I heard was [trade] rumors, every single day. … We went to the Sixers at the end of the (’91-92) season and said, ‘I like Philadelphia; it’s a great city. The fans treated me great. I’m not coming back here, ever, to play.’ Thank goodness they traded me over that summer. It would have gotten ugly, because I wasn’t coming back there.”

There are those close to the organization who remember it quite differently, those who say he frequently made it known he wanted out. (There are also those who remember that he wasn’t always the best teammate, as when he called the late Armen Gilliam “Charmin,” because he was so soft. But Barkley wouldn’t cop to that, either. “I never called Armen ‘Charmin,’ ” he said. “Never.”)

What he does know is that he was “a much better player” with the Sixers than he was in Phoenix, even though he was named NBA MVP in ’92-93, his first year with the Suns, while leading them to the Finals. There they lost, naturally, to Jordan’s Bulls.

“When I was MVP, I probably had five better years in Philadelphia than I did in Phoenix,” Barkley said. “I just had more help in Phoenix.”

Even now he wonders how his career might have played out had the Sixers stood pat in the 1986 draft and used the first overall pick on North Carolina center Brad Daugherty, rather than trading that choice to Cleveland while at the same time shipping Moses Malone to Washington. Those deals brought Roy Hinson, Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson in return, none of whom made a significant impact.

Even now Barkley has been known to joke about the time he was told the Sixers acquired Shaq, only to learn to his chagrin that it was Charles Shackleford, not Shaquille O’Neal.

Coskey is certain that the team’s struggles fueled Barkley’s discontent and led to some of his escapades. The Sixers’ chief publicist from 1986-88 and an executive from 1996-2001, he now serves as president of Longport Media in South Jersey. He and Barkley grew close during Coskey’s first stint with the team, and remain so; Charles even serves as godfather to the youngest of Coskey’s three sons.

“Charles,” Coskey said, “hit me as a person who would do anything in the world for you. He’s still that way. It’s a shame not everybody gets to see that side of him.”

Certainly Coskey has seen it often enough. There was the time a 76-year-old Trenton woman, Mary Walsh, called a Philadelphia radio station and ripped Barkley. He responded by inviting her to a game –- the Sixers sent a car for her and everything –- and presenting her with a dozen roses as she sat courtside.

And there was the time, much more recently, when Coskey asked Barkley to do the introduction for the highlight video of his middle son’s high school basketball team. Coskey gave him some of the players’ names, figuring Charles’ commentary would spice up the year-end banquet.

Barkley went the extra mile, though, recruiting his fellow studio hosts at TNT to record a full-fledged video about a team they had never seen.

“You had adults [at the banquet] falling on the floor, laughing,” Coskey said. “It was Charles being Charles. It did not take a great amount of time, but it took some time to do that. I’m not sure he realizes the lasting impression he has. There were 200 people at a banquet, and they all walked out Charles Barkley fans.”

That’s the guy Coskey has always known. And it’s the one the rest of us are seeing more and more often these days.

Best of NBA: Lakers suffer worst loss in team history

Best of NBA: Lakers suffer worst loss in team history

DALLAS -- Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks had something to prove on Sunday following two straight tough losses.

Coming off a three-point effort in an overtime loss on Friday, Nowitzki scored all 13 of his points in the first half and Dallas gave the Los Angeles Lakers the worst loss in their history, 122-73.

"We didn't show up to play," Lakers coach Luke Walton said. "It's embarrassing for us as a team and for us as an organization. The effort just wasn't there tonight, which I don't understand."

The 49-point defeat just edged Los Angeles' two previous worst losses at 48 points, most recently 123-75 at Utah on March 28, 2016.

The Mavericks' winning margin was the third-largest in their history.

It was Dallas' 13th straight win over the Lakers, who have lost six of their last seven games overall (see full recap).

Curry, Thompson each hit 7 3s, Warriors pull away from Magic
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson each hit seven 3-pointers and the Golden State Warriors won their seventh straight game, beating the Orlando Magic 118-98 on Sunday.

Tied at the half, the Warriors woke up from West Coast time in the second half to pull away. This was the first Eastern time zone noon tip for them since 1995, when they lost by 34 points in Orlando.

Curry went 7 for 13 on 3s and scored 27 points while Thompson as 7 for 9 from behind the arc and had 21 points. The Warriors shot 19 of 42 overall from 3-point range while the Magic went 7 for 28.

After trailing by 11 in the first half and committing a dozen turnovers, the Warriors went into the break even at 50. Curry hit four 3s and had 14 points in the third quarter as the Warriors outscored the Magic 42-24 (see full recap).

Bledsoe's career day leads Suns over Raptors 115-103
TORONTO -- Eric Bledsoe scored a career-high 40 points and had 13 assists and the Phoenix Suns handed the Toronto Raptors their third straight loss, 115-103 on Sunday night.

Bledsoe was 11 of 17 from the floor, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, and Devin Booker added 20 points as the Suns won their second straight road game following Saturday's win at New York. The victory also completed a season sweep of the Raptors for the first time since 2013-14 and improved Phoenix to 11-6 against Eastern Conference teams this season.

DeMar DeRozan had 22 points for Toronto and Jonas Valanciunas added 16 points and 12 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season. It's the first time the Raptors have lost three straight since Nov. 6-10, 2015.

Kyle Lowry was ejected with 1:30 left after a flagrant-two foul following contact with the head of Brandon Knight. It capped a night to forget for Lowry, who had 15 points but shot just 5 of 17, including 1 of 9 from 3-point range (see full recap).

Towns carries Wolves past Nuggets, 111-108
MINNEAPOLIS -- Karl-Anthony Towns had 32 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists and hit the go-ahead shot with 42.5 seconds to play to lead the Minnesota Timberwolves to a 111-108 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday night.

Towns hit 13 of 19 shots and also had four blocks and Andrew Wiggins scored 24 points in Minnesota's fourth straight home win. Shabazz Muhammad scored 20 points off the bench and the Wolves rallied from nine points down midway through the fourth quarter for the win.

Gary Harris scored 22 points and Nikola Jokic had 18 points and eight rebounds for the Nuggets on the second night of a back-to-back. Wilson Chandler and Jamal Murray added 17 points each for Denver, which played without Emmanuel Mudiay because of a sore back.

Kris Dunn had 10 points and nine assists for the Wolves while starting for Ricky Rubio, who missed the game to attend his grandmother's funeral (see full recap).

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jonathan Isaac has a banner week

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jonathan Isaac has a banner week

Two of the country's top prospects faced off in the Pac-12 this week while a top 10 forward saw his season come to a premature close. However, we begin this week with the breakout performance by Jonathan Isaac.

Jonathan Isaac, forward, Florida State, 6-11/205
Isaac's potential had everyone in the basketball world's curiosity. Now his play on the court has their attention. The Seminoles hosted No. 15 Notre Dame, which had yet to lose in ACC play before the Wednesday game. 

The freshman forward dominated in the 83-80 win. He had 23 points on 7 for 9 shooting from the field. He made both his threes, all seven of his free throws and also had one assist. His other stats were also otherworldly. He picked up 10 rebounds and had seven(!) blocks, including one on a late Notre Dame shot to get back into the game after he'd put the Seminoles ahead with a three. All this was in just 25 minutes

He followed it up with a similar game against Louisville. In 28 minutes, he had 16 points on 4 for 7 shooting, making one three and, again, all seven free throws. Add in two assists and two blocks to aid in the 73-68 win. Isaac has shown himself to be an athletic freak, a potential stretch-four at the next level and one with tremendous defensive potential, displayed with his nine blocks this week.

OG Anunoby, forward, Indiana, 6-8/235
Anunoby has had an uneven season, but he, at the very least, showed flashes of the ability that make him a top player for this year's draft class. However, a knee injury suffered on Wednesday finished off Anunoby's season, forcing him to undergo surgery that will keep him off the court for the rest of Indiana's schedule.

This may knock him out of the 2017 draft entirely. As a freshman last year, his NCAA Tournament performance was enough to make him a lottery pick in an even weaker draft field than the upcoming one. He chose to remain in school and it isn't farfetched to believe he will return to Indiana for his junior year to get more seasoning, a better draft field and another year of education.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA, 6-6/190
There are going to be quite a few marquee matchups in the Pac-12. One of the first this year came in the form of UCLA-Arizona in Los Angeles on Saturday. The No. 3 Bruins lost, 96-85, but that had nothing to do with Ball's standout performance (more on the Wildcats below). He pushed the ball in transition, drove to the hole with ease and made 4 of 8 threes with his quirky shot. 

He had 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting and had eight assists, six rebounds, two steals and a block. When you watch Ball score so naturally, it's easy to forget his potential as a point guard, but then he whips up beautiful assists as he did many times on Saturday. The freshman has everything you want in a point guard.

Lauri Markkanen, forward, Arizona, 7-0/225
The No. 14 Wildcats picked up their biggest win of the year, moving to 7-0 in conference play. As you can expect, Markkanen had a big game to push Arizona past UCLA. He had 18 points on 6 for 10 shooting, was 3 for 3 from three and made three free throws, all which grabbing seven boards. Like Isaac, he is a tantalizing talent as a stretch-four, hanging out around the perimeter and spotting up for threes well.

He now has 16 made threes in his last four games and has averaged over seven boards in that stretch. He's not unbelievably thin like many fours his age. The freshman really can battle down low and get his shot, and he justifies his prospect status on a game-by-game basis with his ability.

Markelle Fultz, guard, Washington, 6-4/195
Washington lost on Saturday, moving to 9-10 and 2-5 in conference. But it's worth talking about Fultz's standout Wednesday night. The freshman willed his team back from 17 points down with a 37-point performance en route to an 85-83 OT win over Colorado. In 43 minutes, he was 13 for 24 from the field and 11 for 15 from the free throw line.

Don't think he's just a scorer, though. He had eight assists, five rebounds, three steals and three blocks, doing it all for the Huskies as he usually does. The freshman sensation was 0 for 2 from three, but he is normally efficient from beyond the arc. He alone is the reason to watch the under .500 Huskies.

While the 9-10 Huskies are unlikely to make a late run towards March Madness, the strong Pac-12 should provide many marquee matchups for Fultz. He faces off vs. a stout Arizona team next Sunday afternoon. Six days later, the long awaited matchup between Fultz and Ball up in Seattle goes down with presumably many scouts in attendance.

Quick Hits

Malik Monk, guard, Kentucky, 6-4/185
Twenty-seven points on 9 for 14 shooting, 4 for 7 from three, 5 for 6 on free throws, three rebounds, one assist, two steals and four turnovers in an 85-69 win over No. 24 South Carolina.

Josh Jackson, guard/forward, Kansas, 6-8/203
Fifteen points on 6 for 14 shooting, 2 for 5 from three, 1 for 3 on free throws, five rebounds, two assists, four steals and six turnovers in a 79-67 win over Texas.

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke, 6-8/204
Fourteen points on 4 for 9 shooting, 1 for 4 from three, 5 for 6 on free throws, three rebounds, one assist, three turnovers and five fouls in a 70-58 win over Miami.