- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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Twenty ... 30 ... 40 years from now -- whenever they spin in -- you're going to be surprised by how we remember Michael Jordan and the friend he playfully mocks, Charles Barkley.
Jordan is easy. I could write Jordan's obituary today and know that little will change between now and then. That's because Jordan is defined by four things: (1) greatest NBA player of all time, (2) greatest shoe salesman of all time, (3) greatest divorce settlement of all time, (4) front-office failure.
That's it. It is a legacy that doesn't seem to have much wiggle room.
And then there is Barkley, whose career and life arc continue to evolve, just like his waistline. Barkley is becoming what Jordan could have been, perhaps should have been. He is becoming a voice and, as it turns out, the very thing Barkley resisted years ago: a role model.
Jordan is defined by basketball and a corporate brand. There can be no debate about his place in those two worlds. He is the best who ever played either of those games.
Of course, there's nothing necessarily wrong with that kind of legacy, but it has a finite life. Play. Make money. Croak.
Barkley likes money. He also adores gambling, golf, his mother, his grandmother, his daughter, his beer and his Krispy Kreme donuts, especially when the store's Hot sign is lit. But unlike Jordan, he also has a crush on politics.
About two weeks ago, completely out of the blue, he called the newly named editor of his hometown newspaper in Leeds, Ala., and offered his congratulations. They started talking. That's when Barkley asked Jennifer Brady what she thought of his chances if he decided to run for mayor of Leeds.
At last check, Leeds, which is located about 18 miles east of Birmingham, had about 11,000 residents. The median income is $37,420. James "Tac" Whitfield is the two-term mayor trying for the three-peat.
Jordan would never run for mayor. Jordan would never run for anything. I'm not sure he could handle losing an election. He'd probably blame it on Jerry Krause.
But the beauty of Barkley is that he isn't afraid to fail. He isn't afraid of anything.
Jordan wants to sell the world another pair of XX3s. Barkley wants to change the world, even if it means maybe starting in little Leeds, Ala.
"It'd be a shoo-in," Brady told me.
The election is Aug. 26. Barkley has to declare his candidacy by July 15. If there's a mayoral debate between Whitfield (whose office didn't return several interview requests Thursday), city council member Carol Phillips and Barkley, I'm there.
There is a difference between believing in something and saying what you believe. Barkley says what he believes. Interrogators would never have to waste a drop of truth serum on him.
He told Jay Leno on Wednesday night that the Leeds city council has too many "crooks." He has accused the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton of race-baiting and hypocrisy. He has said that America suffers from an economic and racial divide, but added that black America has to address its own demons.
And he said it on TV. Or on the record. Or both.
Barkley is a much wider version of Chris Rock. He is Warren Beatty in "Bulworth." Robert Redford in "The Candidate." But much funnier, and more poignant.
"I don't create controversies," he has said. "They're there long before I open my mouth. I just bring them to your attention."
Or ... "You only get in trouble when you say what people don't want you to say."
Why should you care what a basketball TV analyst and one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history has to say about politics? Because what he says often makes sense. And because he has the nerve to say it.
"Poor people cannot rely on government to come to help you in times of need," he once said. "You have to get your education. Then nobody can control your destiny."
Barkley speaks the truth. Or at least he speaks his version of the truth, which is more than you can say for most athletes.
I think Isiah Thomas has a high creep factor, but Barkley was absolutely right when he recently accused the media and fans of ripping the soon-to-be ex-New York Knicks coach, but giving Miami Heat coach Pat Riley a "Get Out Of Criticism" pass. He was right about the Washington Wizards' being "the dumbest team in the history of civilization." And he was right when, after seeing a photo of the E.T.-ish Sam Cassell, he simply said, "Phone home."
Barkley is 45. Old for a player, but young for a politician. If he runs for mayor in Leeds and wins, his term would end in 2012. He already has said he'll run for governor of Alabama in 2014.
"Alabama needs my help," he told Leno. "It's like 1977 there."
Barkley is going to scare some voters. Who's afraid of a large black man? Plenty of people.
But before it's over, before Barkley is done with politics, he'll have made more of a difference than his famous, richer friend Jordan. He'll have done it because he wasn't afraid to speak up or speak out.
I see Montgomery in Barkley's future. I see a Presidential Medal of Freedom in his future. I see activism and change. And, yeah, I see more Krispy Kremes.
I'd vote for Barkley. Not because of who he is now. But because of who he might become.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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