It's a pretty simple recipe for success: Talk to Charles Barkley, present him with a topic, ask him to say the first thing that pops into his head, be tickled/astonished/upset/happy at whatever tumbles out of his mouth, season to taste. Pretty much every time someone sticks a microphone, camera or pen-and-pad in the face of America's favorite irascible so-and-so, he says something that's sure to evoke a reaction, so it makes sense that GQ would want to play word association with the Chuckster. (Even if you figure it was hoping his answers wouldn't be all that gentlemanly.)
Published in the November issue of the men's magazine, Devin Gordon's rapid-fire interview features Barkley's immediate reactions to an array of names and notions that have made news in the run-up to the NBA season. As literally everyone who knows anything about Charles Barkley could have predicted, he offered some sharp comments on topics ranging from LeBron James'(notes) move to the Miami Heat ("If they don't win, he is going to get crucified") to the looming specter of a 2011 lockout ("Any professional league that goes on strike right now — that's just suicide") to Gilbert Arenas(notes) bringing handguns into the Washington Wizards locker room ("I don't know what the hell that was").
But the most eye-popping comment — the signature pull quote that Barkley seems to drop in every interview, without fail — came in response to a one-word prompt that had nothing to do with the hardwood.
[In 2006, Barkley said his lifetime gambling losses were "probably $10 million."] Yeah, I like to gamble. And I'm going to keep gambling. And I just have to tell people, if they don't like it, they can kiss my ass. [Expletive] 'em. You know, I quit gambling for a while. But then I was like, "Why am I quitting gambling? I don't have a problem."
Sure, that collection of words will make readers take notice, but to be honest, the thing that's scraping hardest against the inside of my skull is the amount of trouble I'm having getting riled up over it at all. What about any of that is different from anything we've heard from Charles Barkley a million times over?
We know he likes gambling. We know he likes saying "ass." We know he never really planned to stop gambling. (I'm guessing he's never planned to stop the other thing, either.) You might take issue with the "[Expletive] 'em" statement; I'm Brooklyn Irish Catholic, so that doesn't really offend my sensibilities. If anything about the comments is worth getting upset about, it might be the relative lack of progress laid bare in the lines, but be honest — are you really bothered by that?
Think about how willingly you clicked "Read More." Think about how eager you are, every single time, to hear what Charles has to say about X, Y or Z. (If you're not, you're a better man than I am — if I heard his voice in the middle of a test of the Emergency Broadcast System, I'd stop scanning channels and stay put until he was done.) We're that eager because we want this thing, exactly.
That comment is Charles Barkley being the personality we've all spent years telling him that we want him to be — a self-destructive demigod who overindulges in nearly all things, positive and negative, and in doing so makes us laugh, even when he's walking on the razor's edge and telling us to screw off. This is the business we've chosen, the script we've written, and Charles continues to chew the scenery, persistently knocking the role he was born to play out of the park. For better or for worse.
Really, for me, the only emotion the comments are evoking right now are concern and hope. I'm concerned that Barkley said he doesn't have a problem, because even when he was trying to weather the storm, even when he was sloughing off the unpaid debts, even when he was talking about how nobody ever seems to think gambling's so bad when they're winning, he'd at least cop to having some degree of a problem. (He's always been more reticent to use the term "addict," although during a halftime interview with TNT colleague Ernie Johnson after the 2006 ESPN interview broke, Barkley referred to golfer Jon Daly's struggles by saying, "And I wish him luck with our gambling addiction" [emphasis mine].)
I'm also hopeful that he's right, that he knows what he's dealing with better than I do, that we've all always been blowing everything out of proportion, and that he stays viable, relevant, safe and present for as long as is humanly possible. Because even though I'm at least a little ashamed of whatever part I've played in writing Barkley's script, God help me, I love to watch him take the stage.
- Charles Barkley