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September 13, 2019

35 years later, Charles Barkley still epitomizes Philadelphia

Everyone in Philadelphia has a Charles Barkley story. That, according to Sixers president Chris Heck, includes the local artist who crafted the statue of Barkley unveiled at the Sixers' practice facility on Friday. 

On a random night decades ago now, his family ran into Barkley at an Italian restaurant in the Philadelphia area, and Sir Charles took the time not just to meet the family, but approached and embraced their niece, a child with special needs, who was too shy to leave their table on her own accord.

Barkley, as he tends to do, shrugged the story off with a joke. "That Italian restaurant couldn't have been that good, it's a KFC now," he said with a smile. 

Anecdotes and Barkley's subsequent downplaying of their significance kept coming. Former Sixers great Billy Cunningham relayed a story about Barkley visiting a local hospital to cheer up a young man with leukemia, lingering there for over an hour greeting people who recognized him. Brett Brown noted Barkley came to his house before training camp two years ago and had a room full of Sixers players and staffers "spellbound," looking to gain some wisdom from one of the franchise's all-time greats.

And as Barkley pointed out, there was an opportunity to become a godfather to the child of Dave Coskey, the former director of public relations for the Sixers. But it was an honor he didn't particularly understand at the time.

"He asked me to be the godfather to his son, and I said, what the hell is that?" Barkley said. "I said Dave, we don't have that in the hood."

When you strip away all of Barkley's accomplishments as a player, of which there are many, this is why he is ultimately still beloved in Philadelphia (and most other major cities) no matter how many times he rips the Sixers on Inside the NBA. He is happy to talk about the Dream Team and his place in basketball history and where he wishes his career could have gone differently, but when it's time to play up who Barkley is outside of basketball, he can't help but deflect.

This may be the most interesting thing about him. For three-plus decades, he has been a household name because he is a truth-teller, America's outspoken basketball uncle, liable to say whatever pops into his mind. But he is still the same guy who grew up, as he puts it, in the projects in Leeds, Alabama, who has had to learn the same lessons and build the same defensive mechanisms as the average guy walking down Broad Street.

Barkley recognizes just how fortunate he has been to make it that far. Labeled fat and lazy during his rookie year by Hall of Fame teammate Moses Malone, his older teammate nonetheless worked with him to shed 50 pounds and become the force of nature the Sixers drafted him to be. Without Malone, who Barkley still calls "Dad," there is no Barkley as we know him today.

But Barkley says there is a difference between him and many other talented players who have been in the same position and failed. To achieve what he did, Barkley believes, is a testament to his ability to self-reflect and respond to criticism, rather than shut down when things got uncomfortable.

"Thank goodness I was smart enough to take the criticism. A lot of these guys don't know how to take criticism," Barkley said. "There's probably been 100 guys in my career as a player or a TV guy where I've said when that guy gets it, there's going to be hell to pay for the rest of the NBA. But they never get it."

There were times when people probably believed it was Barkley who was never going to get it. The low point of his career, a suspension for accidentally spitting on an eight-year-old girl in 1991, is a moment he believes changed his life. As he sat in a hotel room and reflected on how he arrived there, Barkley says he was forced to confront demons away from the game that threatened to consume him.

Even in these moments, though, Barkley can't help himself from making light of his struggles. When discussing his mid-career frustration with reporters on Friday, he was honest about the personal frustrations that bled onto the court. Barkley said there were times in his career where pressure from the media and the absence of his father — the latter a significant factor in his life's story and upbringing — were hard to reconcile as he adjusted from being the young man on a loaded Sixers team to a star with little help in the late '80s.

But in the same breath, Barkley named another person as a source of his issues — a woman named Ms. Gomez, who he jokingly resents for failing him in Spanish class many moons ago. Something tells me she's not truthfully up high up on his beef list.

The best thing you can say about Charles Barkley is also true of the city of Philadelphia: even their contradictions are authentic. Only in Philadelphia can a parade of millions sing, "No one likes us, we don't care!" in unison and then spend a month straight booing a player as insignificant and unimportant as Sean Rodriguez for slighting them. Only Barkley can turn "I am not a role model" into a marketing campaign while creating an ironclad legacy as one of the good guys away from the game, a man willing to give extra time to just about anyone who asks.

And so after all these years and accolades and all the money earned, Barkley still lives in Philadelphia during the offseason, which he says confuses a lot of his friends and family because of all the options at his disposal. In very succinct fashion, Barkley summed up why the city means so much to so many people, and why it turned him into who he is today, a man now honored in the form of a bronze statue.

"When you come here, you know."

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