This originally appeared in the December 20, 1999 issue of The Sporting News, immediately after Charles Barkley sustained a major knee injury that effectively ended his NBA career.
When people think of Charles Barkley 10 or 15 years from now, they will forget all the negative things that surrounded his career off the court and remember him with admiration for the way he played on it.
He was always seen as the underdog, being so small and playing with so much passion and fire. Barkley’s heart was always bigger than the rest of his body, and people loved it and will never forget it.
Presumably ending your career without winning an NBA title will likely leave a hole inside you because you never experienced the incredible sense of satisfaction and accomplishment of having something (a championship) in a particular year that the rest of the league didn’t. had. But Barkley has given the NBA 16 years of his best effort and has used his career as much as anyone could have hoped for. You said it even exceeded your expectations.
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Barkley spent a career in league stadiums trying to get booed by fans. He tried to focus directly on himself in hostile arenas to allow his teammates to play smoothly, and he thrived on that. All Barkley wanted to do was win and put on a show. If that required yelling at the fans or umpires or hitting a ball on the floor, I would do it.
I played against Barkley at the end of my career and it was always difficult but fun. At 6-4, Barkley always surprised me with the things he could do. He played incredibly hard and liked the hard game.
He was a lot like Dave Cowens, just tough. If you licked yourself first, he never complained. He never said a word other than “Oh, this is how we’re going to play.” Then it usually ended up putting you on the floor. But he always came to pick you up like he was your best friend. His game was more a reflection of his personality than his personality was a reflection of his game. Part of that was his willingness to seek an advantage, to get into his opponent’s psyche.
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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 out of the game last season, as it did with Barkley, it is even more painful than the injury itself. I know because it happened to me.
Over the course of my 14-year NBA career, I missed a total of eight seasons due to injuries. My last season turned out to be 1987-88 with the Celtics. I spent it doing two ankle surgeries and watching the season from the bench in street clothes. Although I always thought I could play again, it never happened.
Barkley entered the league when he was entering player specialties, but he never settled. Barkley was not a position player. He was not a small or powerful forward. He was neither a shipowner nor was he unprepared. And it certainly wasn’t a center. Yet often in the same game, often in the same game, he was all of the above. He was not a player who expected action to come his way. He’s always been the guy who forced action.