Sports Illustrated recently called Charles Barkley, the power-forward-turned-TV-host, “Alan Keyes with monster ups.” This gets him exactly wrong. Barkley’s monster ups deserted him years ago: He now weighs 300 pounds. And Barkley in no way resembles Alan Keyes. Where Keyes is confrontational and humorless, Barkley is the NBA’s reassuring rebel, the candid huggy-bear, a weird admixture of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
Barkley’s new book, I May Be Wrong, but I Doubt It, has just been published by Random House, whose press release compares him to Bill O’Reilly and Molly Ivins. Barkley has nothing in common with such ideologues, but it’s instructive that the press release would compare him to someone on the right and someone on the left, since Barkley’s appeal is, precisely, that he transcends political labels, that for all his storm and noise he’s resolutely middle-of-the-road. When pressed on matters of politics or race, he inevitably settles for the medium-range jumper. On CNN’s Talkback Live, asked for his response to Harry Belafonte calling Colin Powell, in effect, a house nigger, Barkley said, “Well, it’s unfortunate, because I love Colin Powell. He’s one of my heroes. He’s somebody I really admire. I honestly have great respect for Mr. Belafonte also.” Asked about characters in the film Barbershop making fun of Rosa Parks, Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King, Barkley said, “I had no problem with the movie. I wish they hadn’t said the thing about Dr. King or Rosa Parks. But I’m smart enough to know that it’s just comedy.” Asked whether women deserve to be members at Augusta National Golf Course, Barkley said, “No, because it’s a private club. It’s not a public place. Most of the golf courses I play have no black members, a lot of them don’t have Jewish members, and some of them don’t have women. They don’t want them. I mean, that is the ultimate good-old-boy network.” Not exactly The Fire Next Time.
If Barkley were ever to run for political office—he’s repeatedly threatened to run for governor of his native Alabama as a Republican—he’d be constrained by certain ideologies. But now he can contradict himself every other day or every other game or every other sentence, can recharge the moment with meaning, whether it’s a pick-and-roll or a racial incident.
Quizzed by Robert Novak on CNN’s Crossfire as to whether he was a Republican or a Democrat, Barkley said, “I’m not either, to be honest with you. I made a joke with my grandmother one time. I was asking her, ‘Why are we Democrats?’ She said, ‘Republicans are only for rich people.’ And I said, ‘I’m rich.’ And she hasn’t given me a viable answer.” The person he’d most like to meet is Colin Powell. After spending four hours with Clarence Thomas, he said, “I think I’m smart, but I was learning on the go talking with him. He’s achieved true greatness.” Many years ago he said, “I look at all my old friends in the ‘hood, and they’re in the same place they’ve always been. On welfare, mostly. All the liberals have done is give the black man an inferiority complex. They gave us a little fish, instead of teaching us how to fish.”
And yet, asked what Republicans might do differently, he said, “I don’t know. Actually, to tell you the truth, I have no idea.” Explaining why he’s never voted in his life, he said, “My one vote isn’t going to mean much.” He’s political without being politicized. He’s a bull in a china shop who respects the china shop. Here’s really why Barkley doesn’t vote: “You’re voting for who’ll do the best for you, and I don’t like that system. You should vote to help everybody.” In other words: People are good; the system is fucked.
When he speaks about race, the media cast Barkley as the articulator of dangerous, difficult truths, as white America’s nightmare in high tops. This, too, is exactly wrong. Barkley is a race-man of nearly 19th-century vintage. He believes in everybody pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Barkley’s race-anger is exactly the amount of race-anger we can process, which is to say: not that much. White America needs to know that beneath all that black rage is, finally, forgiveness, even love. Barkley offers proof.
In I Might Be Wrong, Barkley says, “The hardest but most important thing is to get a dialogue going on racial issues. I think people want to do better, I really do. I just think they’re afraid. They don’t know exactly what to do. Nobody wants to make the first move. We can’t get past worrying about disagreement, so we don’t have meaningful conversations to make a difference. Damn, to me there’s a lot worse than disagreeing with each other. What’s worse, people hating and acting on that hate, or disagreeing?” Regarding the South Carolina flag flap, he says, “I’m not saying I don’t understand why people are upset with state flags that include the Confederate flag. It’s just that those people are not going to change what they feel in their hearts because they take the flag down. I understand the power of symbols, and if I had anything on my house that seriously offended someone, I’d take it down if for no other reason than common courtesy.” Barkley’s likable impulse is to find common ground, then to wonder ingenuously why we can’t all just get along.
He’s a brilliant extemporizer, satyr-like, actively searching for the jugular of truth, and—this is key to presenting moderation in an immoderate appetite—nearly always finding it in humor. Barkley improvises in ways that leave most white people flat-footed and half-witted. What do you say to a racial barb that’s half-joke, half-truth? Most white boys can’t joke back. Asked many years ago if he would ever play again for the 76ers, he said, “I can be bought. If they paid me enough, I’d work for the Klan.” In Australia, Barkley, watching someone put $1 million worth of rubies on a table, said, “Damn, must not be any black folks in Australia. You can’t just leave $1 million worth of jewelry lying around the ‘hood.” When he got in trouble with the NAACP for saying this, he explained that he sometimes says to whites getting their groove on: “Man, there’s nothing in the world that makes me as nervous as seeing white people dance.” When he injured himself in his last season, cutting short his career, he said, “Just what America needs—another unemployed black man.” Asked why blacks excel at basketball, he said, “It doesn’t cost anything to play.” Are these comments meant to reinforce stereotypes white people have of black people or to mock these stereotypes? It’s impossible to tell, which is their genius. He’s mastered the televisual style of controversy sans consequence, of playing both ends against the middle, of the cult of personality.
If Barkley’s not full of hypocrisies, he’s full of at least fairly extreme contradictions. He’s a social conservative who throughout his playing career was a devotee of strip clubs, an anti-authority authoritarian, a rebel reactionary, both truth-teller and scam artist. After a difficult loss, he once said he felt like going home and beating his wife—the same woman who he said made him cry with joy every time they made love. He’s a relentless capitalist whose principal shtick is sticking up for the poor and downtrodden. In the notorious Sports Illustrated cover article last year, for which he posed breaking out of slave’s chains, he said, “Sports are a detriment to blacks, not a positive. You have a society now where every black kid in the country thinks the only way he can be successful is through athletics.” Yet he, of course, is one of the very most omnipresent commercials for this idea of success-through-sports. He’s perhaps most famous for saying, “I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I can dunk a basketball, that doesn’t mean I should raise your kids”; it’s difficult to think of a recent athlete who is actually more of a role model. Although he was named one of the 50 greatest players in the history of the NBA, his appeal is heavily dependent upon people understanding him to be a gallant loser who could never quite win the big game; he never got the brass ring of which Michael Jordan has six and Magic Johnson, five.
The biggest contradiction: In God-haunted, godless America, he’s both. He’s frequently said, “I think God is in my body”—according to his mother, the result of a blood transfusion to his foot when he was 3 months old. But he once asked the devout, poor-shooting A.C. Green, “If God’s so good, how come he didn’t give you a jump shot?” And, even more ambiguously, he says, toward the end of I May Be Wrong: “It’s not like religion isn’t part of my life, because it is. I grew up going to church. I believe in prayer and treating people the way you would want to be treated. Religion, to me, is your individual relationship with God, or whatever you call your Supreme Being. That’s it, plain and simple.” This sounds as if he’s talking, or trying to talk, himself into the theological position, especially when he then quotes an agnostic friend, who asked him, “How is it then when something bad happens you never acknowledge God?” Barkley’s response: “That really made me think. I said, ‘That’s fair. I don’t know the answer, but that’s fair.’ “
His contradictions don’t mean he’s dishonest. His contradictions are ours as well. We want to tell ourselves we’re grappling with racial history and reality when we’re really not, and Barkley wittily keeps the issues afloat without ever making them unduly burdensome. He gets what he wants—a raison d’ être—and we get what we need—our guilt assuaged. No one ever got rich truly discomfiting the American public.