There are four players in NBA history who have compiled at least 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. But when the conversation turns to the exploits of Barkley, many people think first of the always entertaining, sometimes outrageous running commentary on basketball and life he provided throughout his celebrated 16-year NBA career.
However, as a player he was the greatest anomaly in basketball history. Listed at 6-6, but probably actually closer to 6-4, he played power forward as well as anyone, often dominating players half a foot taller.
Charles Barkley led the Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals and won MVP in 1993.
Ken Levine/NBAE/Getty Images
Barkley brought vitality, attitude and a host of skills to professional basketball. He was viewed as an oddity -- an undersized power forward with rebounding as his only discernible basketball skill -- when he entered the league with the nickname "Round Mound of Rebound."
Undeterred, Barkley quickly buried that backhanded compliment once he began playing for the Philadelphia 76ers. It was not rare to see the neophyte Barkley grab a rebound among a crowd, then rumble downcourt with the ball and finish with a monster slam. In a half-court offense, he could fill the basket from the paint or the perimeter. And on the defensive end, he would play the passing lane for a steal or block a center's shot.
His awe-inspiring play demanded full respect and earned him a new nickname: Sir Charles.
"Barkley is like Magic [Johnson] and Larry [Bird] in that they don't really play a position," Bill Walton said in a SLAM magazine issue ranking NBA greats. "He plays everything; he plays basketball. There is nobody who does what Barkley does. He's a dominant rebounder, a dominant defensive player, a three-point shooter, a dribbler, a playmaker."
A perennial All-Star and All-NBA selection during his career, his pinnacle may have been winning the NBA Most Valuable Player award in 1993, his first season with the Phoenix Suns. Although he made a career of outmaneuvering and outsmarting bigger players while also overpowering smaller opponents, few expected anything close to that of the chubby player from Auburn.
In his three-year college career, Barkley averaged a not-so-spectacular 14.1 points per game. However, he had averaged 9.6 rebounds per game and thus was known for his heft and his hunger for caroms. He was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 1984 but didn’t make the U.S. Olympic basketball team that summer.
He entered the 1984 NBA Draft as a junior and was taken by the 76ers with the fifth overall pick. Barkley joined a veteran-laden team with stars such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Maurice Cheeks -- players who took Philadelphia to the 1983 NBA championship. Yet, Barkley averaged 14.0 ppg and 8.6 rpg and earned a berth on the NBA All-Rookie Team.
Barkley spent eight seasons in Philadelphia, but the team's best showing during his tenure was in his first year, when the Sixers went 58-24 in the regular season and advanced all the way to the 1985 Eastern Conference Finals, where they lost to the Boston Celtics in five games. After several disappointing early-round playoff defeats, the Sixers failed to make the postseason in 1991–92 and Barkley wanted out of the City of Brotherly Love.
Barkley's time in Philly brought headlines and headaches. The incidents were many, such as the infamous spitting incident during a game against the New Jersey Nets where Barkley's expectorant, aimed at a heckler, landed on a young girl at the Meadowlands Arena.
But Barkley, consistent with his paradoxical nature, developed a friendship with the girl and her family. Similarly, he revealed that kinder side of his personality when he offered room and board to Scott Brooks, a young rookie whom had just made the team. But never shy of telling the world how he saw it, Barkley was seemingly always in the eye of a storm of controversy. Barkley -- whose words were sometimes satirically searing, at other times superfluous -- stirred a mini-firestorm when ads began airing in which he rejected the pro athlete as a role model paradigm.
"I don't create controversies. They're there long before I open my mouth. I just bring them to your attention," Barkley once stated. Nonetheless, Sixers ownership got off the Barkley roller coaster by accommodating his desires for a trade when he was sent to Phoenix for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang.
Like the mythical bird for which the city is named, Barkley found new life in Phoenix. In his magical first season with the Suns, he won the NBA MVP while leading Phoenix to the league’s best record of 62-20 and a berth in the 1993 NBA Finals. The Suns lost to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in a memorable six-game series.
Although over the next two seasons Barkley struggled with nagging injuries, he maintained a high level of play. The Suns reached the conference semifinals in 1994 and 1995, but lost to the Houston Rockets, the eventual NBA champs. And after four seasons in the Valley of the Sun, Barkley's time had set in Phoenix and he was traded to the Rockets.
Paying homage to that maxim, "If you can beat 'em, join 'em," Barkley was rejuvenated again when he joined the Rockets. But the chance to grab that elusive championship ring never materialized with the similarly aging superstars Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. After announcing that his fourth season in Houston would be his last in the NBA, his time on the hardwood ended sooner than expected ... and ring-less.
On Dec. 8, 1999, he suffered a ruptured quadriceps tendon in his left knee, which sidelined him until the final game of the season. Ironically, this injury occurred against his former team, the 76ers, in Philadelphia, the town where years earlier he had entered the collective basketball consciousness of NBA fans.
"He plays everything; he plays basketball. There is nobody who does what Barkley does. He's a dominant rebounder, a dominant defensive player, a three-point shooter, a dribbler, a playmaker."
-- Bill Walton
But back in 1984-85, that career-ending injury was far away. Barkley was the only Sixers player to appear in all 95 regular and postseason games that season. The Sixers cruised through the first two rounds, beating the Washington Bullets 3-1 and sweeping the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals before losing to Boston. Barkley averaged 14.9 points and 11.1 rebounds during the postseason run.
In his second season, he dispelled the notion of a sophomore jinx with another impressive NBA campaign. Despite the presence of Malone, a man who had won six of the previous seven rebounding titles, Barkley finished the season not only as the Sixers’ best rebounder, but also as the second-best in the league, averaging 12.8 boards. He also finished as the team’s second-leading scorer with 20.0 ppg. For his efforts, he was named to the All-NBA Second Team.
Charles was definitely in charge in the 1986 playoffs. He averaged 25.0 points on .578 shooting from the field and 15.8 rebounds in the Sixers’ 12 playoff games. However, Philadelphia was eliminated by Milwaukee 4-3 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Despite being just 23 years old at the start of the 1986-87 season, Barkley was thrust into a leadership role when Malone was dealt to Washington and Erving retired at the end of that season. Although he missed 14 games during the year with spleen and ankle injuries, Barkley earned his first NBA rebounding title with an average of 14.6 boards per game. He was also tops in offensive rebounds (5.7 per game), third in field-goal percentage (.594), and 15th in scoring (23.0 ppg).
Barkley was selected to play in his first NBA All-Star Game and was named to the All-NBA Second Team for the second straight season. The team finished in second place in the Atlantic Division, 14 games behind Boston. The 76ers lost to Milwaukee 3-2 in a first-round playoff series where Barkley averaged 24.6 points and 12.6 rebounds.
Barkley’s fourth year, his first as co-captain of the Sixers, proved to be one of his most productive seasons. He finished fourth in the NBA in scoring (28.3 ppg), sixth in rebounding (11.9 rpg), third in field-goal percentage (.587) and was named to the All-NBA First Team for the first time in his career. It was a bittersweet season, however as he also missed the playoffs for the first time.
Barkley was a true superstar by the end of the 1988-89 season. He was named to the All-NBA First Team for the second consecutive season and made his third straight All-Star Game appearance. Starting at one forward spot for the East squad, Barkley scored 17 points in the midseason classic. During the regular season he averaged 25.8 points and 12.5 rebounds, good for eighth and second, respectively, in the NBA. But the New York Knicks swept Philadelphia in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite the team's sagging prospects of winning a NBA title, Barkley's individual recognition rose. In 1990, he finished second in MVP voting behind Magic Johnson, was The Sporting News and Basketball Weekly Player of the Year as well as being named to the All-NBA First Team for the third straight year.
He posted numbers befitting a MVP: 25.2 points and 11.5 rebounds per game and a .600 field-goal percentage, to rank sixth, third and second, respectively. Philadelphia won 53 regular-season games but lost to the Chicago Bulls 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals although Barkley averaged 24.7 points and 15.5 rebounds during the playoffs.
The following season, Barkley garnered MVP honors at the 1991 NBA All-Star Game in Charlotte as he led the East to a 116-114 win over the West. He scored 17 points and hauled in 22 rebounds, the most rebounds in an All-Star Game since Wilt Chamberlain’s 22 in 1967. Barkley was also named to the All-NBA First Team for a fourth straight year. But again, the 76ers lost 4-1 to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals with Barkley contributing 24.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in eight postseason contests.
His eighth season in Philly was his last, and it didn't include a trip to the postseason. But Barkley finished his 76ers career ranked fourth in team history in total points (14,184), third in scoring average (23.3 ppg), third in rebounds (7,079), eighth in assists (2,276) and second in field-goal percentage (.576). He led the club in rebounding and field-goal percentage for seven consecutive seasons each and paced Philadelphia in scoring for six straight years.
The summer of 1992 was a memorable one for Barkley. On June 17, almost immediately after being legally cleared of criminal charges resulting from an earlier barroom brawl, Barkley was traded to Phoenix, renewing his hope for an NBA title. Later that summer, he was the leading scorer with 18.0 ppg for the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
In Barkley's first season with the Suns, the team had the NBA's best record and he became only the third player to win league MVP honors in the season after being traded. For the year, Barkley averaged 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds to rank fifth and sixth, respectively. The nine-year veteran then carried Phoenix all the way to the NBA Finals. Chicago defeated Phoenix 4-2, but Barkley was brilliant, averaging 26.6 points and 13.6 rebounds in 42.8 minutes per game in the postseason. He also scored 44 points and hauled down 24 rebounds in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Seattle SuperSonics.
Injuries would befall Barkley for the remainder of his career. Because of an aching back, Barkley vowed that the 1993–94 season would be his last. Despite suffering through the worst injury problems of his career to date, he still managed 21.6 points and 11.2 rebounds per game and shot .495 from the floor. He was selected to play in his eighth consecutive NBA All-Star Game (which he opted out of because of a torn quadriceps tendon in his right leg).
Barkley appeared in only 65 games and the Suns bowed out in the Western Conference Semifinals, losing to the Rockets in seven games. In July, perhaps feeling that he still had things to accomplish in his pro career, Barkley announced that he would fight through his chronic back pain and play the following season.
Barkley showed that he was still one of the NBA’s best in 1994–95. He began the season on the injured list but returned to lead the Suns to a Pacific Division title with a 59-23 record. In demolishing the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs, Barkley averaged 33.7 points and 13.7 rebounds in a three-game sweep.
In the conference semifinals, the Suns jumped to a 3-1 lead over the defending NBA champion Rockets but lost in seven games. It was the second time in as many years that the Suns bowed to the Rockets after going up 3-1. Barkley averaged 22.3 points and 13.3 rebounds in the series, but a leg injury hampered his performance in Game 7.
After one more season in Phoenix, which ended with Barkley averaging 23.2 ppg and 11.6 rpg but a 41-41 team record and a first-round playoff loss, he was traded to Houston.
Barkley was the Rockets' second-leading scorer that first season behind Olajuwon, with a 19.2 ppg and a resurgent 13.5 rpg, the second best of his career. Injuries limited him to just 53 games, but the team had a 57-25 record and made it to the Western Conference Finals, where it fell to the Utah Jazz in six games.
The trio of Olajuwon, Drexler and Barkley would play together one more season in 1997-98 -- but at diminishing returns. Barkley's production slipped to 15.2 ppg and 11.7 rpg and the team played to a mediocre 41-41 record. This rare constellation of superstars had a short two-year life span as, after losing in five games to Utah in the first-round, Drexler walked away into retirement.
One last gasp for that ring was breathed into Barkley when, before the 1998-99 season, the Rockets acquired Scottie Pippen, the owner of six rings earned with Chicago. Barkley played 42 games in the lockout-shortened season and the Rockets went out in the first round of the playoffs to the Los Angeles Lakers. The mixture of Barkley and Pippen proved to be oil and water. In the offseason, the two exchanged harsh words through the media and Pippen was dealt to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Barkley returned for his announced farewell season, but it ended prematurely because of a ruptured quadriceps tendon in his left knee. For the next two years, speculation continued that Barkley would return to the court. However, he remained on the sidelines for good.
Barkley remains an integral part of the game as a critically acclaimed and popular studio commentator on TNT's coverage of the NBA.