Charles Barkley sat at a training table in the visitors’ locker room, his left knee wrapped in ice, and began to cry as he spoke to his wife on the phone.
“It’s over,” he said.
But first, the farewell in Philadelphia, on December 8, 1999.
Barkley, 36, had already announced that the 1999-2000 NBA season, his fourth with the Rockets, would be his last. This Wednesday night in Philadelphia would be a celebration in the city where his career began, part of a swan song of the entire season.
The Sixers, who flew in their mother, Charcey Glenn, and grandmother Johnnie Mickens from their hometown of Leeds, Alabama, for the celebration, honored Barkley before the game.
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At the scoreboard, high above the First Union Center floor, a video played. In it, a youthful Barkley laughs and cuts, dives, gapes and bounces, always bounces, during his glory days with the 76ers.
But 10 minutes, 51 seconds into the game itself, Tyrone Hill, working 3 feet from the basket, gets up for a shot and Barkley jumps to defend.
Take a beat and reflect on this: In an NBA career spanning 16 seasons and 1,072 games, how many times could you guess that Charles Barkley jumped? To be more precise, how many times did Barkley execute exactly this type of defense? Wouldn’t it have been easier to give in to the taller enemy?
Those questions, phrased in one more way: How can you ask Chuck not to be Chuck? He didn’t want to contest Hill’s shot, he HAD to.
“Barkley’s heart was always bigger than the rest of his body,” wrote Bill Walton in The Sporting News shortly thereafter.
Barkley’s left knee buckled as he came up. He collapsed to the ground, grabbing his knee that was bulging out curiously because that’s what knees do when a quadriceps tendon ruptures. After the play, Barkley called for help from the Rockets’ bench, but not before calmly putting his mouth guard on his sock. They helped him up off the ground.
The irrelevant details: Hill missed the 3-pointer, but scored on a follow-up shot. The 76ers won, 83-73.
“God makes no mistakes,” said Barkley’s grandmother Mickens later.
“I guess Big Fella in the Sky wanted me to end where I started,” Barkley would say in his own way.
In fact, after surgery, he returned to play one last game in April.
But a Hall of Fame career as a rebounder and hulking character effectively ended on December 8, 1999 in Philadelphia. The effort play, one that Barkley had made thousands of times in 16 seasons, was Chuck’s trademark, facing a player, at Hill, nearly half a foot taller.
Only the inflated part of the knee was different.
“I knew it was over when I saw it, I knew it was over when it first happened,” Barkley told reporters. “The way my kneecap bulged through my leg, I said, ‘Well, that was fun.’ I knew immediately that it was all over. “
The Sporting News recognized him and covered Barkley’s injury with a mixture of appreciation and empathy, sarcasm and humor, kind of like Chuck.
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Walton opined on the bittersweet end of a race:
“Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving announced their retirement before their final seasons and reaped the rewards of winning tours of the league. Bill Russell won his 11th NBA championship in the spring of 1969 and then announced that it was over. Everyone has a different way of saying goodbye. But when an injury forces you not to play the entire season, as Barkley did, that’s even more painful than the injury itself. I know because it happened to me. “
TSN’s Caught on the Fly column referred to “the round mound or bounce.” On the same page, The Starting Five (“What the sports world is talking about this week”), approached Barkley’s career in a unique way: “He averaged a double-double, even playing most games with one foot. in the mouth”.
Yes, before Chuck, the TNT analyst, there was Chuck the gamer, an equally entertaining talker even when his demeanor was, well, not that entertaining.
“When he wasn’t throwing a belligerent out of a window or spitting on a fan, he provided enough insults, ideas, and nonsense to keep a group of sports journalists laughing all the way to the typewriter, where it was almost impossible to decide whether the quotes were born from. ignorance, genius, or both, “Kindred wrote of a collection of his favorite Barkley bites (ex:” Any Idiot Can Score “).
Even just a quarter of the 1999-2000 season, The Sporting News NBA Insider member Dave D’Alessandro had no trouble accounting for the biggest loss of the year.
The coda, courtesy of Dave D:
“Karl Malone is the best power forward I’ve ever seen and Maurice Stokes was the best I’ve ever seen, but Barkley was the best inch by inch. No 6-4, 250-pound man could do what he did, play as big as he, dominate as easily as he.
“But for all her unique physical characteristics, I still appreciate her language the most, even if I didn’t always like the way she used it. Barkley was the only true iconoclast left, the pebble in his shoe (NBA commissioner) David Stern. He never played it safe, but he didn’t seem very dangerous either, unless you dared him to jump out of a window.
“I already miss him.”
Senior Editorial Consultant Bob Hille has worked for or with The Sporting News for more than 25 years.