In his hall of fame NBA career, Charles Barkley accumulated 12,546 rebounds, but he pulled the ultimate rebound when he finished playing, equaling—maybe even eclipsing—his considerable skills on a basketball court, with his singular talent in a TV studio. For the last 23 years, Barkley has been delivering witty, blunt, provocative opinions on every imaginable topic, often imparted with a smile; always imparted with i-don’t-give-a-damn-if-you-agree-with-me candor. Imagine Mark Twain with a low-post game.
Despite his lack of a tongue editor, maybe because of it, Barkley, now 60, seems cancel-proof, granted license to go right up to that midcourt line of acceptability, even to stomp over it sometimes. It’s made him more relevant than ever. it’s made him more money than he ever earned playing basketball. It’s made him—dare we say it?— an American treasure.
Jon Wertheim: Why do you suppose people wanna listen to you?
Charles Barkley: (laughs) I think they know that I’m gonna be honest, I’m gonna be fair, I don’t have a hidden agenda. Not many people on TV that you can say that about.
Sixty nights a year, Charles Barkley is the go-to guy on TNT’s “Inside the NBA”
A pathbreaking, Emmy-dominating show that makes for riveting, unscripted TV.
Jon Wertheim: You have fun up there?
Charles Barkley: It’s just basketball! (laugh) We’re not solvin’ inflation, we didn’t just get back from Afghanistan.
Jon Wertheim: But you’re not a used car salesman either. I mean, if a game’s no good, you’ll admit it, you’ll say it.
Charles Barkley: Oh yeah, because the fan, the fans ain’t stupid. They just saw it. If I tell them that was a good game, they’re gonna be like, ‘What the hell is Charles (laugh) talkin’ about?’
Jon Wertheim: You said sometimes you’ve even fallen asleep on the set
Charles Barkley: Oh, I fall asleep, like, just sittin’ there watchin’, like, ‘Yo, man, this is just bad basketball.’
This is what America has come to expect from Charles Barkley.
Ernie Johnson: For Chuck, it’s just, ‘I’m gonna let it fly. And if you don’t like it, tough.’
Ernie Johnson is the longtime host of “Inside the NBA.”
Jon Wertheim: How many times do you say, ‘Where- where’s this goin’?
Ernie Johnson: We’ll start a show and Charles will look at me and say, ‘I gotta get somethin’ off my chest (laugh.) It could be something that involves world peace, or the Brooklyn Nets or it could be somethin’– he could be upset that his plumber showed up late, (laugh) and he just has to get it off his chest.
But if Barkley brings levity, he also brings gravity.
Memphis Grizzlies star, Ja Morant, was suspended this month after this Instagram live video showed him flashing a gun at a strip club. Barkley used it to make a broader point.
Charles Barkley on TNT: Guns, especially in the Black community, the way we killing each other, is just really unfortunate and sad. And we got to – it’s always been a problem, but it seem like it’s gotten worse in the last few years – Black on Black crime and the way we’ve been killing each other.
Barkley may be at his most visible in the studio in Atlanta, but for a fuller sense of the man, head two hours west to his hometown of Leeds, Alabama.
Charles Barkley: I’m tellin’ y’all, I did not name the street after myself.
Jon Wertheim: You didn’t lobby for Charles Barkley Avenue?
Charles Barkley: I did not lobby for Charles Barkley Avenue.
We interviewed Barkley in the home he still keeps in town. It’s a few hundred yards from where he grew up.
Jon Wertheim: You were angry that your dad left the family when you were 1 years old.
Charles Barkley: I was very angry. And I was even angrier cause he kept sayin’ he was gonna send us money, and he didn’t do it. ‘Cause like, you know, my mom and grandma were workin’ their behinds off. And the thing that was really bad about it, I was standin’ by the mailbox, like, once every three or four months.
Jon Wertheim: Waitin’ for the checks.
Charles Barkley: Yes, but they never came.
His indomitable grandma, Johnnie Mae, who helped raise him, still inspires stories when Charles and his buddies get together in Leeds.
Kenneth Venue: Shoot, Granny was the real deal (laughs)
Male voice: Actually, Charles is the spittin’ image of Granny, really.
Kenneth Venue: Yeah, he got that mouth…
Male voice: He got that mouth like Granny. Yes.
Kenneth Venue: …and she had one too.
Charles Barkley: So, we were really poor. We didn’t know at the time. So to make ends meet, she sold alcohol (laughter).
Jon Wertheim: Where? (laugh)
Charles Barkley: In, in, in the house.
Male voice: Called the shot house.
Jon Wertheim: Out of your house?
Charles Barkley: Yeah. So people would come over Friday and Saturday and play cards. Everybody starts drinkin’. Once somebody lose their money, there’s gonna be a fight. (LAUGH) So my grandmother, this little old lady, she’s walkin’ around with a six-shooter. (LAUGH) And she’s keepin’ the peace. I didn’t even know any better, Jon. I thought this was normal stuff.
Jon Wertheim: Woah…
Charles Barkley: Yeah. Think it’s time for a new floor (laughs)
Barkley also took us to his old junior high gym. It stands (barely) as a symbol of how far he’s come.
Jon Wertheim: 14, 15-year-old Charles Barkley walking in here. Who’s that kid?
Charles Barkley: He’s a 5’9″, 5’10”, big boned, not fat, big boned, chubby, whatever word you wanna use. I’m a 5’10” backup point guard.
Jon Wertheim: You remember s– specific plays and shots from playin’ here? Tie game. We got you on the wing.
Charles Barkley: No. Well, first of all, if it was tie game, I’m not gonna be in the game. Let’s (laugh) get that out– let’s get that out the way.
A six-inch growth spurt helped turn Barkley into a high school basketball star, but his formative teenage experience came at the school football stadium.
Charles Barkley: Wow.
This is where he stood along, at a distance, watching his classmates graduate.
Charles Barkley: I flunked Spanish, so I didn’t graduate. I was at home all by myself, devastated. And I drove around the backside here, and I stood here for two hours and watched the graduation. And I cried the whole time. Even now, it’s kinda hittin’ me in a, in the heart a little bit. Man, what a traumatic night that was.
Jon Wertheim: You remember the name of the teacher?
Charles Barkley: Ms. Gomez. I’ll never forget that. And Ms. Gomez, when I go back and think, was one of the sweetest, kindest people I’d ever met in my life. But in that moment, I was so mad ’cause, you know, (LAUGH) I wanted to throw my hat in the air too.
He graduated, thanks to summer school.
At Auburn, he was a star, yes, for his skills, but also for his heroic appetite. He embraced his nickname: the Round Mound of Rebound.
Drafted in 1984, he became a charismatic NBA star, for the Philadelphia 76ers.
He’s the shortest man ever to lead the NBA in rebounding, proof that— for all Barkley’s yuks—he played with fury.
Charles Barkley: I was playing to stick it to my dad, Miss Gomez, and some of the kids who had made fun of me, instead of just wantin’ to be great at basketball.
Jon Wertheim: What’s firing up this furnace is the anger you have for your Spanish teacher that flunked you.
Charles Barkley: Yes.
Jon Wertheim: And your dad.
Charles Barkley: Yes, 100 percent.
Jon Wertheim: What caused you to flush out this anger and get motivated for a different reason?
Charles Barkley: The spittin’ incident in New Jersey.
In 1991, he spat at a heckler and inadvertently hit a young girl. He calls it the low point of his career.
Charles Barkley: I got suspended, rightfully so. I was sittin’ in my hotel room, and I was like, ‘You are the biggest loser in the world.’ I, I remember saying ‘This is it tonight.’
Jon Wertheim: Meaning what?
Charles Barkley: I am only gonna play basketball ’cause I’m great at it, and I love to play. I’m getting’ all the dirt off my shoulders. Ms. Gomez, bye! Dad, BYE! That was really the turning point for me.
Barkley was the NBA’s MVP in 1993 for the Phoenix Suns. And then, months after retiring in 2000, he embarked on a broadcasting career.
Full disclosure, you may have just seen him on this network working March Madness.
Jon Wertheim: What do you make of the college game today?
Charles Barkley: It’s a travesty and a disgrace. I’m so mad now how we can mess up somethin’ that’s so beautiful.
Jon Wertheim: How’d we mess it up?
Charles Barkley: We can’t pay all these players.
Barkley hates the new, wild west of college sports where players go to the schools that can bid the highest.
Charles Barkley: In the next three to five years, we’re gonna have 25 schools that’s gonna dominate the sports ’cause they can afford players, and these schools who can’t afford or won’t pay players are gonna be irrelevant.
Almost a quarter century since Barkley last played, his opinions, free of varnish, still matter.
His takes don’t always go over well. Kevin Durant, a perennial all-star, once said of Barkley, ‘I don’t know why they still ask for this idiot’s opinion.’
Jon Wertheim: Kevin Durant.
Charles Barkley: He’s very sensitive. Great player. He’s part of that generation who think he can’t be criticized. He’s never looked in the mirror and said, ‘Man, was that a fair criticism?’
Jon Wertheim: We’re in agreement today’s players are a little more sensitive to criticism than your generation
Charles Barkley: That would be a understatement.
Jon Wertheim: Today’s players take offense, but so have players from your generation. It’s been, been a while since you and Michael Jordan spoke.
Charles Barkley: Michael disagreed with somethin’ I said, and he broke off the friendship.
Born three days apart, Barkley and Jordan were once the best of friends, but as Jordan struggled as owner of the Charlotte Hornets, Barkley minced no words.
Charles Barkley: And what I said, I think that he don’t have enough people around him that are gonna tell him, ‘No.’ And he got really offended, and we haven’t spoken. But, Jon, I really, I’m gonna do my job. Because, I have zero credibility if I criticize other people in the same boat and not criticize my best friend.
Jon Wertheim: Even if you have nothing to apologize for, you think of just pickin’ up the phone and tryin’ to repair this thing with Michael?
Charles Barkley: I got a ego too, Jon. (laugh) You can’t be great at something, like, y– that doesn’t give you the right to be a jerk.
Jon Wertheim: You think you’ll resolve this eventually?
Charles Barkley: He got my number.
If you really want to get Barkley going on disappointment, ask him about his daughter Christiana’s basketball skills.
Jon Wertheim: Your daughter’s not a basketball player.
Charles Barkley: That was, that was brutal. She was 6 feet tall from, from birth (laughter). I’m gonna have the best female basketball player in the world. I can’t wait till she’s old enough. I’m gonna teach her everything. And then we start playin’ and I’m sittin’ in the stands, and I’m sayin’ to myself, ‘Oh, man. She is not aggressive at all’ (laughter). So I ask her one day, I says, ‘you don’t like basketball, do you?’ She says, ‘Oh, Dad, I hate basketball.’ And I said, ‘Oh, okay (laugh).’ And it took me a little while to get over that, cause like I said…
Jon Wertheim:…you’re being serious now?
Charles Barkley: Yeah. But she’s a great person and a straight A student. So I have to brag about that.
Jon Wertheim: I guarantee that makes you feel every bit as good as her hittin’ a game-winning jumper.
Charles Barkley: Not quite. But (laughter) it is close enough.
Christiana, now 33, recently had a son, Henry. The new grandpa says he’s never felt joy like this. When we arrived, he broke out this video.
Charles Barkley: It is by far and away the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me in my life.
Jon Wertheim: Lives up to the hype?
Charles Barkley: It lives up to the hype. I want to spend time with him, because I’m not morbid, I’m not upset, I’m on the back nine. I hope I’m on hole ten or 11, but you never know. I could be on 17 and 18. So I wanna spend as much time with him as possible. And then when he gets older, I want him to Google me.
Jon Wertheim: Google me kid…
Charles Barkley: Yeah, hey, yeah…
Jon Wertheim: Do you know who I am?
Charles Barkley: I hope he does some research on me. I’ll be long gone, but I would like him to know that I accomplished some things in my life.
Produced by Draggan Mihailovich. Associate producer, Emily Cameron. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Sean Kelly.