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Sunday, April 9, 2006

Remembering Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley was elected to the basketball Hall of Fame last week. It may have been the only clear-cut thing to happen in the career of the former Sixer.

Barkley was a walking and certainly talking contradiction. He was too short to rebound the way he did, too big to run the break the way he did, and took too much punishment to last as long as he did. Then, of course, there were the post-game interviews.

Barkley could contradict himself in the same sentence. A long answer from the power forward could leave you scratching your head for weeks. He was often funny, infuriating, enlightening, and able to offer insights . . . all in the same interview.

He would rip Philly one week, only to proclaim himself a Sixer for life the next week despite having finished his career elsewhere. He could throw an obnoxious fan through a window, and still be swarmed by fans for all his warmth. He could try to spit on a fan throwing racist remarks at him, and reportedly shower gifts on the family of the little girl who was hit by his errant saliva.

There were times Barkley played so hard in losing seasons that fans almost felt sorry for him. There were other times his ill-timed three-point attempts from a guy who had no reason to be shooting a “three” made you wonder how badly he really wanted to win. (Unless, of course, it was the final seconds of a game, at which point Barkley was surprisingly good behind the arc.) The wonder never lasted long, though, erased by a length-of-the-court rumble to the hoop, triple-double, or a game where he hoisted the team on his back for a win.

As a kid, I could’ve covered at least one bedroom wall with the cocktail napkins friends of the family gave me with Barkley’s name scrawled across them. I was a die-hard Sixer fan, and Barkley was the Sixers in those days.

Yet, none of that is what I’ll always remember about Charles Barkley. Instead, the thing that will come to mind the fastest when his name comes up is the day I met him.

Dad and I were out for a weekend drive just to get out of the house, when he suddenly asked if I wanted to go to the Sixers’ practice. It was closed even to the press, I said, egging him on. We had been to the one win the 76ers managed against the Chicago Bulls in the 1990 playoffs the night before. Of course I wanted to go, and I knew that on rare occasions dad could be an impulsive guy who liked to do things he was told he couldn’t.

So, when we pulled up at the St. Joseph’s University field house, where the Sixers practiced, I asked dad where we were headed after they tossed us out. He laughed, and headed in. Ten minutes later, he ran out to grab my wheelchair from the trunk and get me. We were in.

Watching guys like Mike Gminsky, Johnny Dawkins, and Hersey Hawkins, warm-up just feet from me was amazing enough. Then Barkley came in . . . loudly.

Entering the field house on the opposite end, Barkley was yelling, “Front runner!” It turned out he was teasing the son of SJU’s Athletic Director Don DiJulia and nephew of Jim Lynam. (Coincidentally, Chris was a former schoolmate of mine, and, apparently, often attended practice.) Without any prompting, Barkley spoke to me and my father, and even thanked me for wearing a shirt with his likeness. Then he posed for a picture with me.

Watching Lynam run practice was a treat for a high school junior who loved the Sixers. He didn’t mince words—or spare his players’ ribs—as he demonstrated how to split defenders when caught by the Bulls’ trap. At one point, I had to stifle a laugh as Barkley’s slap of a teammate’s head echoed through the gym, reminiscent of a high school kid caught horsing around during class. True to his frequent refrain, “That’s Charles being Charles,” Lynam just kept going.

Later, Lynam talked hoops with my dad. (They had gone to the same high school.) Rick Mahorn and Hawkins posed for pictures with me after practice. Assistant coach Fred Carter, the man who gave dad permission for us to watch practice without any knowledge of my disability (dad swore), shook my hand and playfully asked if I had picked up anything they should know. And “Charles being Charles,” he made a point to say goodbye, remembering my name.

I never did write the thank you note mom rightfully said I should to Fred Carter. There’s no excuse, but the way things turned out, a prompt thank you may not have gotten the job done.

The day’s significance has changed for me over the years. It turned out to be one of, if not the, last great memory I had with my dad. Not long after, Alzheimer’s disease began taking him from us at an all too young age. In fact, I believe the previous night’s game was the last sporting event I ever got to attend with my dad.

Remembering Sir Charles, for me, means remembering a day in May 1990, a day when he met some kid he never thought about again and owed nothing to. It was also a day that kid will never forget.

So, 16 years later, all I can do is say thanks to Fred Carter for making that day possible. Thanks also to Barkley for his years as a Sixer and for showing a teenager his favorite player was a good guy. Thanks go to Jim Lynam, Hersey Hawkins, and Rick Mahorn, and all the Sixers of 1990, too.

And, of course, thanks to dad. For everything.

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