LeBron James might still be in Cleveland, star players could have their salaries trimmed by several million dollars, role players could not come close to making the current $5 million salary average among all NBA players and referees would get a 'T' for calling too many technical fouls. All this and more in a one-of-a kind Q&A with Sir Charles Barkley.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted Nov. 4, 2010)
Charles Barkley has been been at the center of controversies of varying degrees almost from the time he entered the national social consciousness as a student-athlete at Auburn. Considered by some to be too heavy to become a star athlete, he turned the derogatory nickname 'Round Mound of Rebound" into a mantra. He excelled on offense and defense in college; in the NBA from 1984-2000 with the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets; and for two gold medal Olympic Teams: the 1992 "Dream Team" in Barcelona and then again in 1996 in Atlanta. Barkley's career stats are exceptional even when compared to his contemporaries, including NBA legends Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson: 23,757 points, 12,546 rebounds, 4,215 assists. For his efforts, he earned a new nickname, Sir Charles, was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame career in 2006 and was among the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History as named in 1996 to commemorate the league's 50th anniversary.
Barkley has also garnered attention for his remarks and actions both on and off the basketball court. In 1991, he tried to spit at a fan who had been heckling him, but missed and instead hit a young girl, an incident that earned him a suspension and a $10,000 league fine. In 1993, he created waves when he said during a Nike commercial, "I am not a role model" and encouraged parents not to encourage their kids to consider athletes role models. He reiterated and expanded upon that position on March 11, 2002 when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated breaking out of chains and shackles with the text, "Charles Unchained." The accompanying story inside included such quotes as, "Every black kid thinks the only way he can be successful is through athletics. That is a terrible thing."
Charles Barkley the author has written several books, perhaps none with a more profound and accurate title than, I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It (Random House, 2002). That title was a 180-degree turn from events in 1991 when Barkley claimed he was "misquoted" in his own autobiography, Outrageous (Simon & Schuster).
In 2006, Barkley announced on national TV that he was considering running for governor of his home state of Alabama, a desire he continued to express until earlier this year when he said he would not be running for the office. Interspersed among all of this has been a self-admitted gambling compulsion and an arrest for DUI on New Year's Eve of 2008. That led to a temporary suspension from his job as an NBA commentator/analyst for TNT and saw T-Mobile pull its TV spots with Barkley (where he has starred alongside Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard) for a short time.
Barkley was in top form during a recent invitation-only Turner Sports media event in New York to support TNT's coverage of the 2010-11 NBA season, where the "dais" also included Turner President of Sales, Distribution & Sports David Levy; announcers/color commentators/analysts Marv Albert, Steve Kerr and Mike Fratello; and Kenny Smith, who along with Ernie Johnson Jr. form the triumvirate on Inside the NBA during NBA TNT telecasts. Topics included LeBron James' move from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat, James' rebuttal in a new Nike commercial, "Rise," a possible lockout associated to the current CBA negotiations and which teams have a shot at outpacing the Heat.
• Let's take on the hot topic of the season: LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat.
Charles Barkley: I think this is bad for the NBA. My concern is that, like in baseball [with the New York Yankees], if you are Toronto, Cleveland, New Orleans — the one star they have has no chance of winning. And others are left with no stars. Look at the NBA over the last 30 years: the Bulls, Spurs, Rockets, Lakers. There have always been good teams, but there have also been other goods. You don't want five good teams and 25 bad teams.
• Could there have been a team, other than at the All-Star Game, with you, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson?
CB: This notion of putting [several] superstars on one team . . . When I played, we wanted to beat those other guys. Michael, Larry, Magic — you didn't want to play on the same team with those guys, you wanted to beat them.
• How do you convince players not to join forces?
CB: It's up to the players. Everybody wants to help [their situation]. When you look at Denver, New Orleans, all these teams have a good player. But they can't all be on the same team. You can't have a situation like in New York where the Yankees [stockpile] the top [free agents]. But then you look at their payroll and this year they didn't get to the World Series, so all those players in one place doesn't guarantee anything. It wasn't like LeBron was on a bad team. The Cavaliers, they won [61 games in 2009-10, 66 games in 2008-08]. They were among the five or six best teams in the league. So if he stayed, they would still be right up there.
• You have been criticized by some for how you reacted to what LeBron did, and even LeBron took a poke at you in his "Rise" Nike commercial, even evoking your 'I am not a role model' line, then eating a donut. How do you feel about that?
CB: LeBron is trying too hard, Nike is trying too hard. It probably took three days to shoot that commercial, which is too much.
• You were pretty verbal regarding James' move to Miami and "The Decision" on ESPN.
CB: I don't think LeBron did anything wrong. And I never said he did anything wrong, or that he wasn't allowed to decide where he wanted to play. What Magic, Larry and I all said is that we wouldn't have gotten together like that on the same team. We wanted to beat each other. Players can change teams if that's what they want to do. But how they do it sometimes, and things they don't do, that's what can cause a problem.
• Do you still feel that James going on ESPN to share his decision was the wrong decision?
CB: LeBron doing 'The Decision' on [ESPN], not talking to Dan Gilbert [owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers], the way he handled it is what I criticized. He should have told them in advance. LeBron should have just come out and said, ‘I had a lot of great years in Cleveland but I'm going to Miami.' What would that take, a minute? It was silly to sit there and torture us for an hour. That hour — that was torture. I want to have that hour back in my life.
• Was this just based on 'The Decision' or other factors?
CB: One of our TV people interviewed for the Cavaliers position [to replace Mike Brown as head coach]. This is two months after the season has ended. And the guy [asks the Cavaliers], 'What’s going on with LeBron?' And the Cavaliers say, “Uh, we haven’t talked with LeBron in two months.” He should have given them more respect.
"'I'm going to Miami.' What would that take, a minute? That hour — that was torture. I want to have that hour back in my life."
• You called his move 'punk.' So would you also, looking back do things differently?
CB: First of all he was a free agent so he could have done anything that he wanted. It was the way he handled that situation. 'The Decision' on TV was ridiculous. I said 'punk' and I was wrong to say that and I apologized to LeBron.
• What is your reaction to the post-Decision events such as James, Bosh and Wade being introduced in Miami in a Broadway-Hollywood style event in South Beach and James calling race a factor in the way in which people reacted?
CB: It was like watching a [bad] movie. When you think it can't get any stupider, it gets more stupid. He had those kids on stage [during 'The Decision'] from the youth program [Boys & Girls Clubs of America]. That was a nice touch, but it was BS. He had to know there would be consequences in Cleveland. You don't break up that way. When [James, Wade and Bosh] came out dancing on stage [when they were introduced in Miami], that was silly. [Then] LeBron wanted to make it about race and other stuff. Let me tell you, I joke about it: All white people and black people think 'The Decision' was silly. [Laughs.]
• What is your take on the current CBA situation between the NBA and the Players Union and the possibility of a lockout?
BC: Fans have been getting screwed for a long time. It's nothing new. It would be catastrophic to have a lockout in the middle of this recession. This is going to be a big year in sports. We have the best commissioner [David Stern] in sports. He has to find a way not to have a lockout. The average NBA salary is $5 million. You can't sell that to people, saying that guys who are making $10 million, $15 million are going to get locked out or go on strike. In the NBA, the same as the NFL [also dealing with a CBA and potential lockout in 2011], that would be the tipping point. I truly believe that. What we have to do is, instead of making $17 million, we would make $14 million. It's out of whack right now. Lockout? Come on, man. We can't look fans in the eye and say we are going out on strike. [Barkley then asks Turner president David Levy], During the lockout, do we still get paid? [Laughs].
• Do players in general have that attitude?
CB: We have it better than anyone else in the world. We all make a lot of money. A guy who is working at Levi's, anyplace where they are working [9 to 5], they look at what we do and what we make and it's out of whack.
"Fans have been getting screwed for a long time. It's nothing new. It would be catastrophic to have a lockout in the middle of this recession."
• Is it players like James, Wade and Bosh who are getting so much money that is aggravating the situation?
CB: That's not why it's out of whack. LeBron James deserves whatever he can make. The stiffs should not make $7 million, $9 million. The problem with the NBA is that guys who can't play make too much money. The way the salaries are structured, it's not the stars throwing it out, it's the guys who can't play.
• Does management need to take more responsibility to get the salary structure to a more workable system for everyone?
CB: The bad thing about bad teams is that those salaries are not going down. The bottom line is that GMs have not done a good job. Some get it. The draft works if you draft right. Tony Parker [for example] lasted until late in the draft [No. 28 in the first round in 2001 by the San Antonio Spurs, went on to be key part of three NBA championships and has been a three-time All-Star]. Sports is the only place in the world where you are told, you suck, you get to pick the best [in the draft].
• Doesn't it work, where good, young talent can turn a bad team into a winning team?
CB: When you are talking about Kevin Durant [the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft] ,if you get a guy like that, you're team is going to improve. I have to apologize to Kenny [Smith]. He said Durant would be good and I [questioned that]. He called it a couple of years ago [when Durant was a rookie]. He is fantastic. Unstoppable. Do you guard him with a little guy? A big guy? He's a nightmare.
• The NBA said that it would be enforcing stricter guidelines this season regarding the way players react to calls made by referees, including actions that previously had been ignored such as "punching" the air with your fist and even re-enacting what might have been a missed call by hitting yourself on the arm. What do you think about that?
CB: The NBA went overboard with the changes they made this season for calling technical fouls. When we sat down with the NBA about a month ago, maybe two or three of the technical fouls they showed us deserved a 'T'. In the heat of the moment, you are not going to think, 'I better not do this. I might get a 'T.' It's a joke. There is going to be a great deal of energy and emotion during a game — you can't control that.
• What teams do you see as having improved or as having a chance to improve?
CB: I like New Jersey, the [Los Angeles] Clippers. They have improved. The [New York] Knicks, they have Amar'e [Stoudemire]. They will be better, but who else do they have? I don't see them making the playoffs. I like New Jersey. They will be better [than the Knicks]. They have some good players, a good coach [Avery Johnson]. Avery will do a good job. He gets a lot of respect. Some guys command respect.
• The Nets have a new coach, a new owner, a new GM and are playing in a new arena [Prudential Center] until their home in Brooklyn is built. How far can they come back from last season's record of 12-70?
CB: Last season [for the Nets] was . . . Kevin McHale and I were talking. [We agreed] if you go out and compete every night it's impossible to win only 12 NBA games. Some people said they tanked it [toward the end of the season]. I don't know if it's tanked or protecting yourself. [Players in that situation] don't want to get hurt. You build your numbers [to improve your situation for the future]. Their coaching situation [Lawrence Frank was fired when the team was 0-16, GM Kiki Vandeweghe took over for the rest of the season and is now gone, as well].
• Looking ahead, will Miami be able to withstand the heat other teams will bring?
CB: This is the first team that has to win. If they win two [NBA championships], maybe you say they were good. They have to win three in the next five years to be considered a success. But don't hand the [championship] to Miami. They've got three terrific players but it takes more than that. [Do they have] depth? There are four teams in the East: Miami, Boston, Chicago, Orlando. Derrick Rose [Chicago Bulls guard] is a stud. You can't hand the [championship] to the Lakers, either. Oklahoma [City Thunder] with Durant, Utah [Jazz] are going to be good in the West.
• We've talked a lot about players, but what do you predict this season for head coaches?
CB: [There are questions about Miami Heat head coach] Eric Spoelstra: Can he handle the situation? How will it turn out at the end of the year? There's no exact science as to who will be a great coach. It's a crap shoot . . . We all know when a coach is going to get fired. When the press starts to ask you if you are going to be fired, it's time to start packing your bags.