December 11, 2008
After I interviewed Charles Barkley last week in Atlanta, all my friends had the same question: What is the Chuckster like in person? The answer is simple; he is exactly the way you would think he would be. He is laid-back most of the time and joking around most of the time. For example, when a FrankTV ad popped onto the television inside the Turner Studios, Barkley playfully shouted out to no one in particular: "Will someone please tell Frank Caliendo that his impression of me is not funny."
The widely popular Hall of Famer also has a serious side. It may not come out as often, but when it does, you can be sure that Sir Charles will get his point across.
This is the first interview in a series of Q and A's I conducted with the Inside the NBA personalities during my behind the scenes look at the Inside set.
Ball Don't Lie: You can say whatever you want, whenever you want to. How did you get to that point?
Charles Barkley: (Smiles) Well, first of all I don't like when people say that. I'm trying to figure out what I say that nobody else has said. I'm not afraid, that's the first [reason]. What I try to do is, I just want the fans to enjoy the game. I try to make it as fun for them as possible. Like, when I'm looking at let's say a commercial, like when I'm doing my commercials, I'm like, "Ok, that's funny," or "That ain't funny." I want to keep some creative control. If I'm sitting at home watching the game, I don't a guy saying to me, "This [analyst] is X and O'ing me to death." What I want as a fan, when I watch sports, I want to watch the game and I want to laugh every now and then. That's what I try to [do]. We can sit here and X and O this thing all night, and that ain't no fun for me sitting at home. I just try to make it fun, sports are fun. It ain't like we're curing cancer or anything, we're watching basketball. So, I want the fan to say, "That guy is funny, he makes me laugh," that's what I really want more than anything.
BDL: But, if a guy stinks, you aren't afraid to say he stinks.
Barkley: I say a team; I don't ever say a player.
BDL: Ok, but most people in your role are too afraid to say that a team stinks.
Barkley: Well come on, man, our job on television is a very powerful thing. I think you have an obligation to be honest. I really believe that. Because unfortunately, in this world now, people hear stuff on the radio, and they see stuff on television ... they believe it. So, I think it's important to tell the truth, I really believe that. I'm very specific. I never would say a player stinks. Ever. I'll tell you their team stinks, and first of all, they know their team stinks. And the fans know their team stinks.
BDL: But you're the only guy who actually says that.
Barkley: We're supposed to be honest. Seriously, I don't think I'm right all the time. But, I think you have an obligation to be honest; I really believe that. Because television, radio and news is a really powerful thing, so you should tell the truth. To me, talk radio is a shtick. You just say crazy [stuff] to get people to call in. My problem is these people don't know you're doing shtick. They believe what you're saying. So, I really think it's important for me to say, "Hey, I'm going to honest, I'm going to be fair." I just think that's the right way to do it.
BDL: Are you surprised that the things you say, usually blow up quicker than the things other people say?
Barkley: Yes. I do. Every now and then you have a big fire.
BDL: Like the LeBron stuff.
Barkley: But I truly believe 100 percent I was right about what I said. But, you know, people left out the part where I said I think LeBron is a great kid. Clearly a great player. Then they went [straight to me] saying, "He should just shut the hell up." But I 100 percent believe that I was right in that [situation].
BDL: Have you reached out to LeBron since the story broke, just to try to clear the air?
Barkley: No. I don't reach out. See, I don't work for the Cavs. I don't work for LeBron. I work for TNT. Even a couple years ago when I criticized Kobe Bryant, when he wouldn't take any shots against the Suns, in that Game 7. I'd been saying all year that he was the best player in the NBA, but I think he tried to prove something, and wouldn't take a shot in the fourth quarter of that game, and it really disappointed me. There was nothing personal; I just thought it was [weird]. He wouldn't shoot it at all.
BDL: Do you think the NBA game has gotten stale?
Barkley: I don't think the game has gotten stale, but I think number one, there are not a lot of good teams. There are not a lot of good teams. And, our ticket prices are very expensive, and now unless you've got a really good team ... now, seriously, in this economic situation attendance is going to suffer across the board. But the truth of the matter is I came into the season with great expectations, thinking like, "Wow, we've got a lot of really good teams. After about a month, I can tell you there are about six teams that can win this thing, the rest are just wasting time. It's disappointing for me because I want to see great basketball, because I'm a fan. First of all, I have to watch all these games. (Smiles) I sit there and watch these games some nights and I'm like, "You're kidding me, right?" It's scary out there.
BDL: Ok, so let's say I said, "Charles, you're the commissioner." What changes would you make to get people excited about the game again?
Barkley: Well, the first thing you gotta do is make these kids stay in college for at least two years. You've got to make these kids stay in college for at least two years. Because so many players who come to the NBA after one year, can't play. It hurts the game. The reason it hurts the game is [because] the draft is designed for bad teams to get help. But, if you're taking an 18 year old kid, even if he turns into Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant or LeBron, he can't really help your team for two or three years. So you're not getting immediate help. And that's if they turn into those guys. But what's happened is, these guys ain't been turning into those guys, and that hurts your team. That ain't fun for fans to watch. That's just frustrating. Come on, you've got expensive tickets; you've got 41 home games. It's very difficult for [teams] to try and say, "We've got a good team." No, you don't have a good team. Come on, you don't have a good team.
BDL: Do you feel your career would have played out differently had you played during the Internet era, with camera phones, YouTube, etc.?
Barkley: No, because my personality is not going to change. I understand that I can't make everybody happy. And I'm not trying to. I feel good when I say I can be honest and fair in my opinions. Whether I'm right or wrong, I think I'm going to be honest, and I think I'm going to be fair. That was probably the hardest thing for me to learn when I got to the NBA, because I can't make everybody happy.
BDL: Is it hard for you to say no to people sometimes?
Barkley: Oh no, I can say no easily. Let's say I get 100 requests a week. If I do 20, 80 people are still [upset]. Like sometimes when I played for the Sixers, we had to walk through the crowd after the game. I'm tired, I'm hungry, I signed 10- 15 autographs, there's still 50 people calling me all types of names as I'm driving away. I'm like, "Wow, I can't make everybody happy." Like if I get 100 requests a week, if you do 10, 90 people are still [upset] at you. They're like, "I wrote you a letter to do my event." I'm like, "I can't do every event." It's nothing personal.
BDL: That kind of sounds like that Eminem song.
Barkley: Yeah. It is. I probably get a hundred requests a week. And I'm probably going to do 10-15, but I can't do a hundred. That's just the way it is. I'd be on the radio and TV all the time.
BDL: Some people might say you already are.
Barkley: No, but the one thing I'm very good at, I'm very limited ... Like during the season, I'm on TV a lot because I want to promote the show. But, like, you never see me on TV during my off-season. I don't want to see myself on television all the time. I'm very particular, about what I call the "Barkley Brand." Everything I do is to promote this show. Like, I don't randomly go on television. Like when I do Leno or Letterman, it's for something that's coming up on TNT.
BDL: That makes you a little different in that you aren't trying to have the "Barkley Blog," or the "Barkley Show" like many other celebrities have these days.
Barkley: I do not [want those things]. It ain't about me grabbing every dime available. I limit myself to one commercial a year. I just don't want to be a greedy pig. I don't have to do every commercial. I tell my guys, "We're going to do one commercial for the year. That's it." I say, "We're going to do T-Mobile, that's the one we're going to do this year." No disrespect to Peyton Manning, but every time they go to commercial, it's a Peyton Manning commercial, and I love Peyton Manning. But I just think for me personally, the way I look at it, I don't want to over-expose myself. They say you're on Letterman, Conan and Jay Leno, but if you check the season we'll be starting, the All-Star game will be [coming].
(We are briefly interrupted so that Charles can donate some more money to a food bank in Phoenix.)
Barkley: We have fun around here. (Smiles)
BDL: It's never boring around here, is it?
Barkley: You know what's so weird about this job? I wasn't even going to come [to TNT]. I was gonna go to NBC. I had already [talked to them]. Dick Ebersol was the first person to [suggest] I go into television. He's been great for me and helped me a lot. I was like "Ok," [I'll go to NBC]. And then a friend of mine says, "Just do me a favor, I'm friends with the TNT people, just go have dinner with them." And I came down here man, and had just a really wonderful time. And one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life was to call NBC and say, "Dick, I know it was your idea that I get into television, [but] I felt something with the TNT people." It's fun around here. I like working here.
BDL: Getting back to the T-Mobile stuff for one second, I read recently where Yao said that you might be a better actor than you were a player. Has he completely lost his mind?
Barkley: (Smiles) But I'm so old, ya'll probably don't remember what a player I was.
BDL: No, I remember.
Barkley: For me when I'm doing the commercials, I just want to make them fun. What intrigues me about commercials is when they make me laugh. So when I'm sitting down looking at commercials and things like that, when I first look at the script, I say, "That's funny, That's not funny, That's funny ..." And that's the way I just try to do it. I think it's important to just make people laugh. For me, I think it's really important.
BDL: Well, speaking of funny things, what about the TNT commercial when you're on trial?
Barkley: I didn't really want to do that.
BDL: But the question is, can your mom really score 45 on the Mavs' D?
Barkley: The way they play defense, yeah. Ya know, I really didn't want to do that commercial. ... TNT, sometimes they don't understand, I really hate when people say I can say stuff that other people can't say. I say, "What do you mean?" I will say this, I will say things, but they will be in gest, and I trust that people at home are like, "Oh, he's just joking." But I don't think I've ever said anything, that nobody hasn't said on the same subject ... First of all, I haven't seen one single person disagree with me, they're trying to make it a war of words between me and LeBron. I have not heard one sports guy say I was wrong. I don't mind if they say I was wrong. [The LeBron story] became controversial, but clearly other people have been thinking it, they just didn't have the guts to say it.
BDL: People who have criticized you say that you could have gotten your point across differently.
Barkley: I probably shouldn't have said shut up. But it didn't matter, [LeBron] was going to get mad either way. But the thing is, I don't understand why people say that's controversial, because I go around and look, just to see what everybody else is saying. I have not heard one single person say I was wrong. But why is it that, "Charles can say anything he wants to." Clearly they were thinking it; they just didn't have the guts to say it.
BDL: But that goes back to what we were talking about earlier, you have the guts to say that kind of stuff. You're the person who people expect to hear stuff like that from.
Barkley: But I think I have an obligation. I'm not supposed to just come here and make a [lot] of money, watch basketball and never talk about anything that's important or significant. Like I say, I just thought [LeBron's words] were disrespectful to the game. What I was trying to get across to all these guys is that the game is the most important thing. Second, is the city you play for. The third thing is your teammates. That's the way it should work. Realistically, [the order] should be the game, your teammates and the city you play for.
BDL: Do you ever get tired of talking about basketball?
Barkley: I'd rather talk about more important things.
BDL: Like politics.
Barkley: I love [politics]. Like, I'm really disturbed about the gay marriage thing. Because I think gay people should get married, cause it's their own business. I was disturbed at the amount of black people who voted for that [amendment that would limit their rights]. Because as a black man, I think you've got to be against any form of discrimination. I do. I'm against any form of discrimination, and I think especially as a black person, who has seen a lot of racial [stuff] in my day, for us to jump on the bandwagon in some form of discrimination, it bothers me.
BDL: You were a big supporter of Obama's. If he called you up and said, "Charles I need your help," in some role ...
Barkley: I'd be there tomorrow.
BDL: You'd drop all of this?
Barkley: When he said, "I need you to come campaign with me," I said I'll be there tomorrow. It was great to introduce him in Alabama for the first time ... We put a feeler to him to have him to do a sit-down [interview] with me for MLK day. That's right around the inauguration. His people got back and said they're going to do everything in their power to set it up. I said, "All I need is a couple hours notice." I don't give a [crap] what I'm doing. That [interview] would be great for TNT. It would just be great for us to get a sit-down interview right before the [inauguration]. That would be so cool for us. And being fortunate to have him for a friend, because I interviewed him for my book, it's cool.
BDL: It's obvious that you have passion for a lot of topics ... you really don't have any desire to host a show that's about more than just basketball?
Barkley: They keep offering for me to do radio shows. I don't want to argue with people, I want to reach [them]. You know, God gave me a gift, and I don't want to just be famous and make a lot of money, that's important to me. Not bragging it is, but it is: I wrote my high school a check for a million dollars to send poor kids to college. I gave Auburn a million dollars to attract poor kids. There's another school in Alabama, I gave them [money]. I wrote a check for Hurricane Katrina - a million dollars. That stuff is more important to me. But, unless I do this, I'm not going to have all those other opportunities.
BDL: You don't have the platform.
Barkley: I do not. So, I need both. But, I don't want to diminish it by doing a talk show or interviewing celebrities, just trying to make [stuff] up. I think that [would] delude my message.
BDL: Let me ask you this then. I know you're serious about becoming the Governor in Alabama. What else do you want to do?
Barkley: Well, I think [the Inside the NBA job] is probably going to be it for me as far as TV, because I love my job, I love the people I work with, but I'm going to need another challenge for myself, and I don't know what it is yet.
BDL: The Governorship.
Barkley: But, that's not 'til 2014. I got to figure out a way to challenge myself next. To be honest with you, I did this job longer than I thought I would do it. I only did it because the people are great here. But after my contract's up in the next four years, I think that I'm going to need to challenge myself in another way, and like I said, I haven't figured out what it is yet, but I want [a new challenge] for myself as a person. I get paid to watch basketball. That's fine, that's something I would do anyway. But like I said, I don't know the answer to the question yet, but I got time to learn it, because I just signed [with TNT] for four more years. But I do want to [figure out] what I can do to grow as a person.
BDL: As a person who graduated from school a few years ago, you sound like someone who could become a professor ... Professor Barkley - does that have a ring to it?
Barkley: The only thing I rail against the NCAA about is not graduating players. You know, it's a travesty that their making billions and billions of dollars on these players and they're not graduating. You know, [Texas Tech coach] Mike Leach said something very interesting the other day, how they should settle the Big 12 three-way tie. He said we should do it by graduation rates. Clearly, he knew Texas Tech had the number one [graduation rate] but what disturbed me was Oklahoma and Texas were 11 and 12 [in the graduation rankings] and that bothered me, that these schools would make all this money ... these guys are out there killing themselves and their bodies and they're not graduating and that bothers me a tremendous amount. Because I know how the system works, it's become so huge now that these colleges have an obligation to graduate these players, and I have a problem because they're only graduating 30 percent of these players, and that ain't cool with me.
BDL: What would you do to try and change it?
Barkley: Well, I don't have all the answers. But, there's a way you can help these players graduate. You can make sure they go to class, make sure they're going towards graduation. There is a responsibility to the college, instead of just making [a lot] of money.
BDL: It sounds like, in just talking to you for a few minutes, that you feel like you have a responsibility to people.
Barkley: I do. Because God gave me a basketball gift. And at the end of the day, [people] sit and say, "I'm rich and famous, that's all to life." But I don't think God gave me that gift [to do just that]. Now, I'm not a religious fanatic either. But, like, I don't think He said, "You're going to be rich and famous, and be a great basketball player, and you've got a gift." And then all you do is get a big house, a lot of cars and have a lot of money. I think you have an obligation [to people]. I really believe that.
BDL: Why is it that some people still don't think you're serious about becoming governor?
Barkley: Well, you know, it's interesting.
BDL: Do you feel like that? Do you feel like some people are just brushing you aside right now?
Barkley: I think when I keep talking about it; they'll take it more seriously. My big question is, to be honest with you, is very simple: Can I make a difference? If I'm gonna go [to Alabama] and they're gonna worry about ... I'm a drinker, I'm gonna gamble again at some point. If I'm gonna go there and they're gonna worry all the time about that instead of [more important issues] ... see, I think politicians, they only have three jobs. Make sure we got a great public school system, make sure we have economic opportunity and make sure we're safe. That's all I want from any politician. If they give me those three things, then the person's responsibility has got to take over. But I do, I think they have that obligation.
BDL: You think the rest is just hot air with a lot of these politicians?
Barkley: Yes. Like, they want you [to discuss issues like] are we going to stop these gays from getting married? We gotta worry about abortion. I'm like, "Who gives a [crap]?" That's the only three jobs I think they have.
BDL: Do you already have a campaign slogan picked out?
Barkley: That's what I'm talking about, I don't give a [crap] about [most of the issues besides the ones discussed]. If gay people want to get married, God bless them. I'm pro-choice; I'm not going to talk about that. We're going to have great schools. We're gonna make sure everybody have economic opportunity, and we're going to make sure, you're safe in the neighborhood. Now, if you get your education, you've got a chance to get a good job. I can't do any more for you than that, what more do you want? Politicians want you walking over [stuff] that's not important and insignificant so they can divide and conquer. Like, if a politician looked me in the face and said, I'm going to give you these three things, hey, that should be heaven.
BDL: You said one time that, "You can talk without saying a thing, and I don't want to be that person." Why not?
Barkley: Well because sometimes when you see politicians or athletes, they say something and you're like, "You didn't say anything, you didn't even answer the question."
BDL: Or he didn't mean what he said.
Barkley: Yeah. He's just avoiding it. I just tell you it's important. You know I've been involved in writing five books and I'm on TV, like, all the time. I want to have fun, but when there's a serious subject that comes up, I say, "Ok, let's be serious now." Like later on tonight [ed note: last Thursday] I'm gonna ask Auburn if it's time for Auburn to hire a black coach? You know a couple years ago, when Alabama had a chance to hire Sylvester Croom, I said, "It's time," because none of the schools in Alabama have black head coaches, which is a travesty. And you would have thought I was talking about people's money. They're like, "We're not gonna have black coaches here." ... so Alabama had the chance, Sylvester Croom wanted the job, he was up against Mike Shula, and their resumes were like night and day. And I went on television and said, "It's time for these schools to hire a black coach." You would think I started World War III ... It's time for Auburn to hire a black coach.
BDL: What do you think the reaction will be when you say this?
Barkley: Well, it's gonna be negative, but I can [handle it] because that's important. You can't just pick subjects [to talk about] that make you laugh ... it's important to me for colleges to hire black coaches. That's a really important thing, and I don't mind taking heat if the subject is really [controversial].
BDL: We'll wrap it up on this one. You, Ernie and Kenny are so linked ...
Barkley: You know, it's funny. No matter where I'm at in the country, people want to know where Ernie and Kenny are at. Like I was in Kansas City [last week] and [people] are like, "Where are Kenny and Ernie?" And I'm like, "They're at home, bro, they're not [here]." [People] say it in fun and in gest, but it's really cool.
BDL: Will Ernie and Kenny have a place on your staff if you win the governor's race?
Barkley: (Smiles) Well, I'm definitely gonna call them for money. I'm definitely gonna to call them for money.