Barkley now Profound Mound of Rebound


SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- We forget that Charley Barkley was despicable.

His terrifying scowl only hinted that playing against him wouldn't be much fun. He once elbowed a hapless Angolan while on the Dream Team. And if you got on his bad side, you might have a one-way ticket toward defenestration. (That's fancy talk for getting chucked through a window, courtesy of Sir Chuck.)

He was a ba-a-a-d man, and he had his bad fans. Overall, Barkley was not somebody to cheer for if your team was not located in Philadelphia, and later Phoenix and Houston.

So while watching another excellent 76ers team in a NBA on CBS classic 1980s battle with my beloved Celtics, his physical play was as welcome as glass shards in my Jell-O pudding.

Jump to Friday. All is clear on this day. As Barkley and five other basketball notables prepared to join the Basketball Hall of Fame on a sunny Friday in the shiny silver shrine by the Connecticut River, the slimmer, older, perhaps wiser version of CB sat in his chair holding forth with the media, dropping his unvarnished truths, ready opinions and a few well-chosen cusses.

Barkley was joined by a stellar class of Dominique Wilkins, Joe Dumars, Dave Gavitt, Geno Auriemma and Sandro Gamba in a weekend of festivities here.

I've driven by this newest HOF on my daily commute when it was just a hole in the ground, watching it rise in stunning fashion from the benighted Springfield waterfront. I enjoyed getting construction updates from a sheet-metal guy who worked on it before its completion in 2002. Its distinguishing feature is a giant orb that defines its front.

And now we have inside an (increasingly less) giant orb, Barkley, defining the day. His playing prime is long over, but his talking days are in full swing.

He's now the Profound Mound of Rebound. He's done a rare thing -- he has gone from someone you love to hate to someone you respect and admire for his honesty and candor, even when you disagree, which, honestly, doesn't seem to happen too often from his bully pulpit on TNT.

He's like John McEnroe, a talented and outstanding player, but also a rogue elephant on the court. On the tube, he's a beacon of candor and insight.

From the beginning, Wilkins remembers Barkley wasn't all he seemed. The Hawks' great recalls the first time the two met, when Wilkins was at Georgia and Barkley at Auburn.

"Who in the hell is this fat kid?"

Several dunkings later, Wilkins knew.

When Barkley joined the Sixers, Moses Malone let him know that he was lazy and out of shape. That inspired him. And he credits Julius Erving for giving him sound advice on the importance of not blowing your money on a fleet of fancy cars.

Gavitt knew that Barkley would be a force on the '92 Dream Team. As one of the architects of that team, he remembers having breakfast with Barkley as the staff drove home the point that team did not need repeat elbowing of a rival (poor Angolan) as the team prepared to play the home team, Spain.

Gavitt said Barkley got the message. Then, the game. He went up for a thunderous dunk, knocking two tall Spaniards to the floor. Barkley then placed the ball on a fallen rival's chest, and made a sign of the cross.

The home crowd took no offense, Gavitt said, and seemed to like it.

Barkley definitely can win people over.

He says he's supposed to do great things with his fame. His ideal position would be president, but his first notable political aim is to be the governor of Alabama some day. Helping the poor elevate themselves is one mission. "American discriminates against poor people," he says.

Candidate Barkley has said he would run as an independent, since political parties are part of the problem. Another notable politician, George Washington, said just as much in his farewell speech.

For now, Barkley's saying hello to Fame. This weekend, he has asked that people not to steal all the stuff from the biggest house in Leeds, Ala., built for his mother and grandmother, since his kin will be up north.

We owe him that. We like him now.

Andrew Ayres is an NBA editor at ESPN.com.