In the wake of Michael Jordan’s 50th celebration that coincided with this past weekend’s NBA All-Star Game, a friend and contemporary of Jordan’s just turned 50 today.

The “Round Mound of Rebound”, as was his nickname while in college at Auburn — Charles Barkley — turns 50 today!

Happy Birthday Chuck and thanks.  Thanks for coming to a dusty and sleepy western town in 1992 and shaking it up and getting to within a hair’s breath of winning the NBA Finals (why no one stopped Jordan in the fourth quarter as he drove coast to coast in the waning moments of Game Six is beyond me). And thanks for making that 92-93 season the most fun I ever had while working in journalism – without a doubt. Coming to work during that season was a kick because you just knew you were going to be watching someone at the peak of his game and he loved every second of it too.

When word of the blockbuster trade with the 76ers broke on the news, there was an instant charge of excitement that pervaded not only the newsroom at The Arizona Republic (where I worked at the time) but also seemed to take a hold of Phoenix.  The feeling of excitement would only grow and magnify as this wildly outspoken black man would electrify the city and forge a bond of community pride that I saw peak during that season.

I was dispatched to SkyHarbor Airport and waited along with a throng of media types at the gate (back in the day when you could actually wait AT the gate even if you didn’t have a ticket).  Charles burst from the jetway door and was immediately mobbed by the Phoenix media.  The media followed him down the halls of the airport, backpedaling and trying not to get in each others’ shot or trip on the cords connecting tv cameras and mikes.  Barkley would be met by Cotton Fitzsimmons, the former Suns coach and then excecutive, who whisked Charles away in a convertible and headed for what was then called America West Arena — the new sterling showcase of the franchise — for a press conference.  The race for the NBA finals was officially on.

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This photograph of Charles hanging from the rim was made in the arena during a preseason game (wearing the old Suns’ jerseys which were replaced with the first game of the regular season in the new arena).  Charles was on fire this game and here he’s finishing off a slam dunk that he started with a steal on near center court.  It happened so quickly that I wasn’t able to fully change over from my one camera with a monopod and a long lens (a 400mm lens, as I recall), so I had to quickly grab my second camera for forecourt action (a camera with a 100mm lens).  The steal and slam happened so quickly that I didn’t even have time to change that camera to a vertical orientation (which is typically the way you shoot hoops).  In this case though, it was a bit of a happy accident, as Charles went almost parallel to the court for a split second as he avoided being undercut after the slam.

That team went on to lead the league in wins and Charles put Phoenix back on the map and made the team an elite NBA team.  It was a place for a restart for him as well.  Even though he was well known and respected while playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, he was considered trouble.  It seemed like Jerry Colangelo and the Suns took a bit of a risk in acquiring Barkley but it paid off.  Charles transformed in Phoenix from the troubled forward to the funny and charismatic player that is now cracking people up on TNT and on his various guest appearances on radio shows like The Dan Patrick Show.

I’ve never seen a player before or since who simply spoke his mind as freely as Charles did.  The paper wisely placed a person on the “Barkley Beat” and it was usually Norm Fraunheim, one of the best sports journalists I worked with.   Norm’s job would be to get to the game early, and stay late, specifically there to watch and listen to Charles, gathering quotes that would end up in a separate story in the paper.

Norm and I would sometimes just shake our heads and smile while back at the paper working after a game at the quotes Charles would let fly before, during and after the game.   Charles may not have had the talent of a Jordan, but I found him to be more fun to watch because he played hard and he spoke his mind.  I can still see that patented “spin move” he would do while backing someone down the lane, then quickly spin around and onto a full on sprint to the hoop, usually for two.

I was a bit sad that the Suns never won that Finals against the Bulls (the Triple Overtime Game 3 in Chicago is one of the most amazing games you’ll ever see and you can still catch it on ESPN Classic).  I thought they were going to take it to a 7th game but it just wasn’t to be.  Despite the loss though Charles impressed me at his ability to raise the game for the entire Phoenix Suns organization and how he literally raised the spirits of the city of Phoenix (and probably the state of Arizona).  For that brief moment, he united the city in a way that I had never seen before or after in my nearly 12 years there.

Happy Birthday!

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Charles, at right, on TNT at the Lakers/Suns playoff game in the spring of 2010 at The Staples Center.

 

 

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