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.

Bryan Colangelo: 'Never a period of discomfort' with Sixers' bigs

Bryan Colangelo: 'Never a period of discomfort' with Sixers' bigs

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers on Friday unveiled their brand new, state-of-the-art practice facility in Camden, New Jersey (see story).

Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo, while speaking to media members at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, touched on a variety of topics. That included the team's surplus of big men, an issue that has been years in the making.  

One of the major questions surrounding the Sixers this offseason is how the team plans to utilize all three of its talented young big men in Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid. With Embiid finally healthy and on track to play this season, the Sixers have some tough decisions when it comes to balancing playing time as well as maximizing each player's potential.  

There have been rumors throughout the summer that Colangelo has been actively trying to shop either Noel or Okafor because of his discomfort with having three big men on the roster. His comments on Friday cleared up the situation. 

"We're excited for the season. We’re excited to have three, talented young players that can play that position," Colangelo said. "I said something this summer that was somewhat tongue and cheek that was taken so seriously and everybody hung on that one word that I would be uncomfortable going into the season or absolutely uncomfortable, it was literally overstated so many different times. It was never a period of discomfort, in fact, it's actually comfortable knowing we have that much talent there.

"The discomfort comes in trying to manage and maintain the happiness of three talented young players and that’s something that I think will work itself out."

This offseason has been one of transition for the Sixers. The days of "The Process" are long gone, and the Sixers seem poised to finally become a competitive franchise again after years of tanking.

During their summer overhaul, the Sixers brought in nine new players in hopes of forming a roster that features actual NBA-caliber players that could compete on a nightly basis. 

The team now not only features a surplus of bigs, but for the first time in a long time, a healthy balance of talent at each position. 

"The availability of those players is going to be an experiment all season long, not just with the bigs but with this entire team," Colangelo said. "We’ve got a good mix of talent and there's going to be a lot of competition at every position."

Colagelo expressed that under the former regime ran by Sam Hinkie, the Sixers lacked any sort of competitive drive and identity, something that he emphasized greatly when first put in charge. 

"We really have brought some things to this team that I think was sorely lacking," Colangelo said. "One was veteran leadership, whether it's Gerald Henderson, Jerryd Bayless or bringing Elton Brand back. Playmaking ability between Jerryd Bayless, Sergio Rodriquez, Dario Saric coming into the mix, Ben Simmons — these are playmakers as much as they are good basketball players and scorers.

"So we’ve got a good mix of talent, but what we actually have will play itself out on the court in the coming months."

Sixers unveil new state-of-the-art practice facility in Camden

Sixers unveil new state-of-the-art practice facility in Camden

CAMDEN, N.J. — The doors to the Sixers' new training complex are officially opened, welcoming players into the 125,000-square-foot facility designed to be a one-stop basketball shop.
 
On Friday, the Sixers held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to unveil the sprawling building on South Front Street. After years of sharing space at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) on City Avenue, the organization now has its own dedicated facility. 
 
The complex was built with the intention of becoming a “year-round destination." The team has taken each aspect of daily life into consideration to provide players and staff with the resources they need on-hand in Camden.
 
“We’re trying to create a culture of not only excellence, but of maximum performance and trying to give them as many things that can help enhance that and get us there quicker,” president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said, also noting, “We’re not trying to trap them, but we’ve literally given them so many things that they may not want to leave.”
 
Players arrived at the complex ahead of the official opening, and many were there on Friday as tour groups circled through. Ben Simmons and Dario Saric were among those taking shots on the expansive courts, which account for 20,480 square feet. There are two full-size NBA courts and six additional baskets, comprised of over 16,000 pieces of maple wood athletic flooring.
 
With an extra emphasis on health and fitness, the weight room and training room are located next to each other right off the court. Their proximity fosters communication between the training staff with strength and conditioning coaches to easily discuss medical situations, whereas they were separated on different floors at the previous facility.
 
“It makes for a great place of what we call ‘continuity of care,’” head athletic trainer Kevin Johnson said on a tour of the building.
 
The Sixers now have increased medical resources available, including a dedicated physician’s room. They are implementing a videolink system which allows them to videoconference with players offsite and with other medical professionals. The team is also moving into ultrasound diagnostics to assess tendon health.
 
Right off the weight room are four hydrotherapy pools — cold water immersion, hot tub, warm lap pool/plunge pool and underwater treadmill that can go eight feet deep. The team took the height of the players into consideration when installing the pools. The jets on the hot tub, for example, were placed strategically for their wingspans. A video system in room allows the team to monitor pool work.
 
Following the goal of keeping resources in one place, a video room includes a dual-sided projection screen that enables players to review film directly from the court through glass walls.
 
The Sixers are honing in on nutrition and diet this season. They installed a full-service kitchen with customizable options based on the players’ needs versus a buffet meal. The organization found its head chef in an unconventional way — impressed by the food at the popular Philadelphia restaurant Parc, Colangelo inquired about its chefs and hired Jae Hee Cho.
 
And if the Sixers want to get some rest after a full day’s work, the team also may look into sleeping pods.
 
“I learned years ago they come here and it’s sort of the field of dreams. If you build it, they will come,” Brett Brown said. “You learn that they spend more time here because it’s convenient and they feel like they’re getting better. It’s a chance to bring families together. It’s a chance to bump into a teammate and go up and have lunch … get some shots together. The opportunity to have and form greater relationships exists here. I saw that in 2002 [with the Spurs] and I believe we’re going to see it again in 2016.”
 
The Sixers believe the new complex will set them apart from other teams around the NBA. Players consider more than just wins and losses when choosing teams in free agency, and this facility could give the Sixers an edge.
 
“In the business today, there’s so many things that you’re competing with with other franchises,” Colangelo said. “It’s become a little bit of an arm’s race, if you will, with respect to what player amenities you have, how you travel, what the practice facility is, what kind of creature comforts you give them. ... We’re doing everything possible to maximize performance not only of the players and the athletes, but also of the organization.”
 
The team incorporated aspects of its history in the complex. The reception desks at the main and player entrances are made of the wood from the basketball court of Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game.
 
The Sixers will hold training camp in Stockton University next week and then will begin practicing at the complex for the rest of the season.
 
“Part of building a winning team, an elite team is culture,” managing general partner Josh Harris said. “Certainly you need talent, but how everyone works together and how people enjoy themselves, that’s one element. The second element is having them available to experience all of the capabilities we can bring, whether it be training, massage, health, wellness, diet, sleep, there’s a lot of things we can put in their hands.”