The best characters in movies, books and in all storytelling are the ones who are unique, flawed, funny and overall entertaining because you’re never quite sure exactly what they’ll do at any given moment. That perfect combination of entertainment and suspense is what keeps us all coming back for more from characters like Don Draper, Michael Corleone, James Bond and The Joker.
The most memorable characters live on the edge of appropriate and inappropriate. They succeed in their given fields, while battling things in their personal life or within themselves. They represent the things we want to be and the things we don’t want to admit we are.
Professional sports has had its fair share of these kind of characters. Guys who are amazing athletes on the playing surface and completely entertaining and borderline erratic off of it. Individuals like Joe Namath, Dennis Rodman, Muhammad Ali, Terry Bradshaw, Babe Ruth and Tiger Woods, to name a few.
While all of those athletes are entertaining and worthy of being in the discussion, Charles Barkley is the best character in professional sports history.
During his career his on the court play mesmerized fans. His athletic ability and tenacity – despite his smaller stature for a power forward – wowed fans. Something the people in Phoenix had the pleasure of experiencing first-hand for five of the most entertaining seasons in franchise history.
Off the court, Barkley’s nonchalant attitude, off-the-cuff remarks and fearless attitude made him a cultural icon beyond basketball. He has hosted Saturday Night Live in two different decades, has been a guest on numerous late night talk shows, appeared in four movies and a handful of television series.
Unlike any athlete before or after him, Barkley is the definition of a wild card. You don’t know what he’ll do, why he’ll do it or how he’ll do it. Sure, not everything has always been positive or perfect from a public relations standpoint, but that is part of what makes him so interesting. What sets him apart from most athletes and celebrities is that he embraces who he is and has never apologized. Rather he’s faced it head on with a smile and a humorous attitude.
Since his “I am not a role model” NIKE commercials he’s unabashedly been himself. It’s refreshing and entertaining in a professional sports scene that has become as much about public relations as it is about entertainment.
Even at the age of 50 years old, which he turned Wednesday, Barkley is culturally relevant. His work has helped steal the “Must See TV” moniker on Thursday nights from NBC and delivered it to TNT. Just like when he played, fans hang on his every word and debate his every opinion.
The best part is, it is not an act. When Barkley was at US Airways Center in January to cover a game for TNT I had the privilege of meeting him. Despite being one of the biggest stars in the game, he was still funny and personal. He took the time to shake everyone’s hands and have genuine conversations with them.
As someone who grew up idolizing the forward and wearing his No. 34 purple and orange Suns jersey, I was nervous to meet him. Not because I was intimidated or scared, but rather because I was worried that, like so many other celebrities, he wouldn’t live up to the hype. He did that and more spending 10 minutes talking with me about the 1992-93 season and sharing a few laughs. He treated everyone like they were on his level and had the same unrelenting and jovial attitude with them that he displays when he’s talking to a national audience on Inside the NBA.
Sure, Michael Jordan may be the best athlete of all-time, Muhammad Ali might be the self-proclaimed greatest and Babe Ruth may have been the “Sultan of Swat” and debauchery, but without a doubt, Charles Barkley is the most entertaining of all-time.
So happy 50th birthday Sir Charles. You’re certainly royalty when it comes to the best characters of our generation in sports and beyond.