Charles Barkley strides into an Atlanta studio. He takes his spot flanked by two other former players (Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith) and the ideal host/substitute teacher (Ernie Johnson). And then, Barkley spends hours letting loose on all manner of topics, from NBA players carrying guns, to his deep annoyance with the Lakers, to the curious disproportion between cute babies and ugly people. For 23 years now—far longer than his playing career and, he notes, far more remunerative—Barkley has been a sort of power forward on Inside the NBA.
The show is unscripted. It’s irreverent. It, reliably, careens off the rails, going to commercial with the panelists still arguing. And it ranks among television’s great watches. Not sports watches; watches watches. Barkley won’t cop to it, but he is the star, the guy who makes it work. Like basketball players who get airborne without knowing precisely what they will do with the ball before they land, Barkley often starts talking without a clear plan of where his sentences are heading. But then, he pulls off the rarest move in polarized modern-day America: He leaves audiences nodding in agreement, or smiling in disagreement.
Barkley’s talents have made him a coveted free agent beyond sports. Last year, he declined a pile of Saudi money to work as a LIV golf analyst. Lately, CNN has made it clear that it sees Barkley as a potential solution to its identity (and, ergo, ratings) crisis. Such is the power of Barkley’s appealing plain-speak.
Still, if you want to see and hear Barkley truly (and literally) unplugged, head two hours west from Atlanta and find him in Leeds, Ala. It was here, on the perimeter of Birmingham, he grew up, a portly, neighborhood kid. He was raised in what was, in effect, a two-parent home: his mother, Charcey, and grandmother Johnnie Mae. It was a childhood mostly filled with happy memories. An abundance of community; a scarcity of violence, gangs, or drugs. Barkley grew up in public housing—a small home with a yard, abutting a large park—but says he didn’t feel underprivileged. His great youthful indiscretion entailed stealing cakes from a local grocery store. Then he came to the realization that no one, not even a portly teenage boy, wants to eat 50 babkas.
When he made it to the NBA in 1984, he bought his mom and grandmother a new home, only a few hundred yards from the old one, a little bigger and a little closer to the Macedonia Baptist Church. (To his great embarrassment, the home sits astride what is now Charles Barkley Avenue.) Mom and grandma have since passed away, but Barkley still owns the property and returns often. When Barkley returns, he visits with cousins and friends and former teammates. Leeds is a force of grounding.
Walking around Leeds, Barkley still brings the funny and comes up with the one-liners. But Leeds brings out Barkley’s seriousness. A mailbox reminds him of the support checks his father promised to mail and never did. Barkley sees a fence and is reminded of the afternoons he spent vaulting himself over it, again and again, improving his leg strength, a nod to a work ethic that never got full due. (You don’t lead the NBA in rebounding at 6'5" by having charisma and telling jokes.) Oh, there’s the hill where his grandmother caught him stuffing beer bottles into his pockets. “Charles, you better enjoy those beers,” he recalls her saying, “’cause I’m gonna beat the hell outta you when you come back.”
Barkley is 60 now. And it’s in Leeds that the happy absurdity of his journey comes into focus. “All,” he says, “because of a ball. Can you imagine such a thing?” In February, 60 Minutes returned to Leeds with Barkley. The piece aired Sunday on CBS after the Elite Eight. To watch it, click for the full episode.
Some outtakes below, edited lightly for brevity and clarity.
On entering another decade, as Barkley did Feb. 20
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: Charles Barkley at 60. What’s that mean to you?
CHARLES BARKLEY: That I’ve had a great life. … My life has been amazin’. You know, the dude, Lou Gehrig, who said, “I feel like I’m the luckiest man alive?” He ain’t the only one. Between basketball and television, I’ve had the greatest life a person could have. Nobody would ever say I was humble. I’m just lucky and blessed. It’s been an honor and a privilege for me to be Charles Barkley. I mean, I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been.
On growing up in 1960s Alabama
SI: You describe yourself as child of the Civil Rights Movement. Born in ’63, big year for the Civil Rights Movement—
CB: What it really does for me is makes me want to make a difference in my community and in the world. Because I really wasn’t old enough to understand everything, but my grandmother made sure when I got old enough because—think about this: Where we’re sitting right now, we’re 30 minutes from Birmingham. The year I was born is—the church burning happened. We got the Montgomery boycott, bus boycott, and we got the Selma bridge massacre. So within an hour, we had three of the most important things ever happened in civil rights history.
So my grandmother, she made sure I learned about stuff like that. And the best way I can pay homage to the Civil Rights Movement is try to, number one, speak on things that should be spoken about. But I also try to give back and do some good things in the community.
SI: I gather not everyone was happy to see you on your first day of school.
CB: They were not. But not the kids. Some of the parents. I was too young and too stupid to know exactly what was goin’ on. But there was a gentleman named Mr. Allen. He took me and the two other kids to integrate the school. There was no buses. We had to get driven to the school. And the kids were fabulous. The teachers were fabulous. There were some parents who obviously didn’t want us to be there.
SI: You didn’t feel the racism from your classmates?
CB: No, at all. Kids aren’t racist; adults are racist. And nobody’s born racist. I make sure I clarify that all the time. There’s no such thing as a racist kid. No kid. When you see kids, when you visit schools or you pass by a school, you see white and Black kids playing together. They’re not racist. You learn racism—
SI: This is learned behavior.
CB: This is a learned behavior. You put two kids together; they gonna play and live happily ever after. Only adults. For some reason adults always screw up everything. How ironic is that?
SI: You’re in high school, and there’s still separate Black and white prom kings.
SI: In the ’80s.
CB: And didn’t even know it. We didn’t even know it, notice it.
SI: Didn’t seem weird to you?
CB: It did not. It did not seem weird to me. ’Cause it had been that way my entire life.
On today’s NBA
SI: LeBron’s now the all-time NBA scoring leader. Conversation over? Is he the best player ever now?
CB: I don’t like that question because I think the best way to answer that question is to say, “Is he the greatest player of this generation?” Because I don't think it’s fair to Michael. ’Cause he was the greatest player of my generation. Kareem was the greatest player of his generation. I mean, you look at Magic and Bird. So, I don't know; it’s all perspective. I will say this about LeBron. I think his story is the greatest story in sports history.
SI: Why do you say that?
CB: What I mean by that is, you look at other great players who went directly from high school to the pros. Kobe Bryant struggled, Kevin Garnett struggled, Tracy McGrady struggled, Dwight Howard struggled. LeBron is the only one who had success from Day One. He was really good Day One. He’s obviously up here now. But the most amazing thing about him, in this 24-hour news cycle, cellphones, internet, he’s never gotten in trouble.
SI: No scandal.
CB: No scandal. To be, number one, ready at 18, to where he is 20 years later, the greatest scorer in NBA history. I think it’s the greatest story in sports history. For a guy to be that good from Day One and never screw up is amazing.
SI: Came in with crazy hype, exceeded that—
CB: Yes. And lived up to it. Exceeded it. And, like I say, in our 24-hour news cycle where people out here tryin’ to get you, people are tryin’ to get you today. They got cellphones everywhere; they got the internet everywhere. I tell people, his story is the greatest story in sports history.
SI: You said, he’s nice.
CB: He’s a really nice man.
SI: I’ll give you somethin’ else. His guys from Akron that came with him—
CB: Yes. He gave them jobs. Well, that’s the difference with LeBron to pretty much everybody else. He didn’t just give them money to hang around with him. He gave them all jobs, which they have exceeded. They have exceeded. In my generation, we just got the money and just started passin’ it out to friends. He gave them jobs. And like I say, they have exceeded all those jobs and expectations. So, he deserves some kudos for that.
SI: If you had to do it again, would you have brought guys with you like that?
CB: I would, [but] you have to factor in, like, the money’s different. My first contract was four years, $2 million. Can’t bring many people with you for that.
SI: Five hundred grand a year?
CB: Yeah. And I was the number-five pick in the draft. I mean, when I—when I got to the NBA, the average salary was only $200,000.
SI: You said you were flyin’ commercial.
CB: Yes. Got some old lady leanin’ on my shoulder back in coach. So, it was killin’ me when I got to the arena. I always tell the trainer, I said, “Man, my shoulder’s killing me.” He says, “What did you do?” I said, “I had this old lady sleepin’ on me in coach.”
SI: You distinguish between cheap shots, pot shots and legitimate criticism.
CB: Yes. And I challenge—I can guarantee this in my 23 years on television, I’ve never taken a shot at a player or said somethin’ about a player to get clicks. That doesn’t mean I’ve always been right. But I pride myself, because like I say, there’s somebody in Montana, Maine, South Dakota, whatever city you want—state you want to name. They’re not gonna meet these guys. But if I get on TV and say, “Well, Charles Barkley said he’s an ass,” they’re gonna go repeat that somewhere.
SI: You’re the vessel of truth for these people—
CB: Yeah, yeah, they’re the vessel of truth. And I was, like, “No, I want to be the vessel of fairness, I do.”
SI: Kevin Durant.
SI: Two years ago, he said, “I don’t know why they still ask for this idiot’s opinion.”
CB: He’s very sensitive. Great player. He’s part of that generation who thinks he can’t be criticized. But he’s a great player. I think he’s a great person. But he thinks he can’t be criticized. He’s never looked in the mirror and said, “Man, was that a fair criticism?”… And I don’t get mad, but the one thing I don’t do is go back and forth. ’Cause I don't feed the machine. Because—the way talk radio and these mornin’ talk shows, they love gasoline on a fire. I said what I said. I’m good. Now if you want to take shots at me, that’s fine, but I’m not gonna go back and forth.
SI: Charlie Baker, the former Massachusetts governor is head of the NCAA. If it wasn’t Charlie Baker, but Charles Barkley, what would you do?
CB: I don’t know if people gonna wanna make less money, but you gotta put a cap so it’s even close to a level playin’ field. ’Cause I want some of the smaller schools to be able to compete.
SI: You’re talking about capping the NIL payment—
CB: I want them to cap NIL because you can’t pay everybody. I mean, you’re gonna pay the good-looking quarterback, the running back, the wide receiver. You’re not payin’ the big, ugly offensive lineman. And they the hardest-working guys on the team, the offensive linemen.
But the offensive lineman who’s not makin’ anything, the quarterback who’s a pretty boy, he comes in in a Beemer, and he’s makin’ another $1 million NIL. And you’re sayin’ to yourself, Wait a minute; this ain’t fair. I think there’s gonna be tremendous resentment on every team. I also have a problem with payin’ a kid to come to my college who’s never done anything.
SI: I’m surprised to hear you say this.
CB: I actually am a big-picture guy. How can we educate the most kids and keep it competitive? And the way it is now, it’s the wild, Wild West.
SI: You’re at Auburn.
SI: You’re the star of the basketball team; their whole media campaign’s around this—
CB: Yeah, I’m gonna make a lotta money.
SI: You’d be really well paid.
CB: Yeah. But what about my guys? See, that actually helps my argument. What about my guys? And let me tell you somethin’; it’d be—it’s great if you’re a star. NIL is great if you’re a star.
SI: But they’re sellin’ your jersey in the concession stand—
CB: And I’m makin’ a lotta money. And my teammates ain’t makin’ a dime. … I’m pullin’ in in my nice Range Rover, and I’m getting all this money off jerseys. I got all type of money comin’ in. They’re like, “Charles Barkley made $2 million this year.” You don’t think my teammates gonna be pissed? And that’s what concerns me. That really concerns me.
SI: And all the coaches are makin’ millions. And the money, instead of goin’ to Charles Barkley is goin’ to the coaching staff and the facilities.
CB: Yeah. Hey, listen, it wasn’t a fair system, but I don’t know if this system is fair.
CB: It’s not a difficult job, but it’s an interestin’ job, because fans only want two things: “Tell me my favorite player is great. And tell me my team is great.” If you deviate either way, you’re hated.
SI: Do you care?
CB: Do I care? Everybody wants to be liked. But this is not a like job. I don’t care who wins, but Ernie’s gonna ask me. And—[laughs] see, that’s the thing. When we travel, half the fan bases love me, and other ones hate me. But everybody wants to be liked.
On becoming a grandfather
SI: You have a new role in your life. How’s grandfatherhood treating you?
CB: It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I don’t even know what I’m more excited about, spending time with him or seeing my daughter become a mom.
SI: What are your skills as a diaper changer?
CB: I’m not a good diaper changer. I think they should make a rule that you get to dictate what diaper you wanna change.
SI: What do you mean?
CB: ‘Cause all craps are not created equal. So I think we need to have selective choices when it comes to diaper changin’.
SI: It’s like a draft …
CB: Yeah, the, no, like, ‘Nah, that’s a little too dirty for me. You take that one.’ [Laughs.]
On how far he’s come
SI: You’re in high school. You said you had one pair of shoes.
CB: Well, so we had to pool our money, so I got one pair of shoes. So my mom brought ’em to the game, and right after the game she knocked on the door and took ’em home. I could only wear ’em durin’ the season, ’cause they had to last me.
SI: You had to keep these shoes a whole season.
CB: Yes, ’cause I wasn’t gonna get but one pair. So yeah, it was kinda weird and embarrassin’ in the beginnin’, when your mom’s knockin’ on the door like, “Hey, who’s knockin’ on the door? Oh, it’s your mom with your shoes.” [Laughs.] And then after the game, “Who’s knockin’ on the door? It’s your mom to get the shoes.” I was only gonna get one pair a year; that’s all we could afford.
SI: So you got one pair of shoes a year. Your mom’s comin’ to the locker room, takin’ ’em as soon as the game’s over. And a few years later, Nike’s callin’ you sayin’—
CB: When I was sittin’ down with Nike, they’re like, “Well, you’re probably gonna get—we’ll send you enough pair of shoes—probably last about a week.” And I’m like, “What?” I’m like, “Are y’all serious right now?” They’re like, “Yeah, pair of shoes’ll probably last you a week.” I was like, “This is amazing.” And then I told ya, I was like, “Wait, y’all gonna pay me, too?” I said, “This is the greatest job in the world. Y’all gonna give me a pair of sneakers a week—and y’all gonna pay me?”
SI: On top of that?
CB: On top of that. I said, “This is the greatest job ever.” Like, “Yo, man, they gonna give me free sneakers and they’re payin’ me. This is the greatest job in the world.”
SI: You remember what they paid you?
CB: $75,000. … Like I say, I’m the luckiest person in the world to get to play a silly sport for a living.