Tip-Off Timer: Barkley Made It Fun to Watch No. 34
He wasn't the best No. 34 who ever played the game -- that probably belongs to Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaquille O'Neal -- but he was the most controversial. And maybe the most contradictory.
Charles Barkley, who wore his 34 with both the Philadelphia 76ers and the Phoenix Suns, stood alone when it came to polarizing basketball fans.
Through his 16-year playing career, he had fans who absolutely adored him and the way he played the game. He had fans who absolutely hated him, for the way he played, the way he acted, and for the things he said.
It's the same path he travels today as a television analyst. For every fan who thinks he's hilarious, there is one who finds him tasteless. Some find him compelling to watch. Others can't stand the sight of him.
He can be insulting, yet comical, happy to make fun of himself, yet arrogant in his stance. He is confrontational yet compassionate. He would give you the shirt off his back, then knock you down to take it away when he changes his mind.
He did it as a player, and he does it today as an analyst. It's not easy to top a Hall of Fame playing career that included two Olympic Gold Medals and an NBA Most Valuable Player Award. But he has done it in television, becoming the biggest attraction on an Emmy Award-winning basketball show. He is unrefined, yet clearly defined in his style.
He was unique from the day he arrived in the NBA. He looked too short and too overweight to be the No. 5 pick in the 1984 Draft out of Auburn University. He didn't have the body for the things he could do, proving to be one of the most versatile players in basketball history, always too big for the little guys to guard and too quick for the big guys who tried to guard him.
He led the league in personal fouls, but he also led it in rebounding. He told jokes on the court, then got into fights, undeterred when it came to battling bigger guys like Shaquille O'Neal and Bill Laimbeer. He was praised for his honesty, often generous with his time to a fault, yet criticized for being so outspoken.
He loved to entertain the fans with his play, but he bristled at those who wanted him to be a role model for their kids. He loved mingling with fans who adored him, yet he often got out of hand. The fan who threw a cup of ice at him in Orlando once found himself being thrown through a plate-glass window.
He would smile and kiss babies in the stands, yet he was suspended by the league when he tried to spit on a heckler but hit a little girl instead.
There were those who still think of him as a racist, yet others who believed he helped break down racial barriers in society with his often humorous comments on the issues. His conversation is usually peppered with political incorrectness, yet he expects soon to be involved in politics, eventually running for governor of Alabama.
He was once criticized for a tasteless remark when Magic Johnson retired because of contracting the AIDS virus, yet it was Barkley who changed his number in Philadelphia to 32 for one season to honor Johnson.
As a player he never won a championship, yet he won the hearts and the attention of many along the way, and he continues to leave an indelible impression on the game.