PHILADELPHIA -- Whether he grabs a rebound and makes like a migrating wildebeest downcourt, or bursts into the locker room to dress up himself and dress down anyone he chooses, it's all the same with Charles Barkley.
Because, in any situation, Barkley is like Christmas. You know he's coming.
You know he's coming because Barkley's arrivals are not trumpeted. They are bullhorned.
On this day, the Philadelphia 76ers' forward, a four-time All-Star who is on another MVP pace, opens the locker-room door and the fun begins. Barkley insults teammate Rick Mahorn; threatens to huff and puff and blow reedy 7-6 center Manute Bol away; and is playfully challenged by a local sports writer.
"You'll kick my butt?" a startled Barkley asks. "Only if you have your little own fraternity."
Suddenly, his antenna detect a queasy, weasly sound. That's adult contemporary music wailing from the locker-room boom box! Barkley's musical tastes include Kenny Rogers, but he isn't in the mood to be lullabied right now. In 30 minutes, he will be chasing Houston Rockets center Akeem Olajuwon. Get pumped up to Harry Connick Jr.? No. In seconds, the street noise of Public Enemy shakes the woofers.
Barkley's attention then turns to a luscious-looking box of chocolate chip cookies, obviously sent by admirers. An attendant asks if he should put them away for later.
"Naw, give it away, just in case it's got poison or something in it," Barkley says. "Might be from a Pistons fan."
Barkley stuffs the senders' address in his pocket. He will thank them later. No time now. He does a 360 and rips someone about their puny golf game, their clothes, and so forth.
Watching this, Bol grins. "Charles is a good player," he says. "The only thing Charles needs is to zipper his mouth."
Barkley called the NFL's rule against end-zone celebrations "the most asinine thing in history of sports." Asked what he would do if the NBA revoked his right to party, Barkley said: "I'd sue the bleep out of them."
In terms of the complete package -- athlete, personality, showman -- there is none quite like the 6-4 3/4 , 250-pound enigma that is respectfully labeled Sir Charles Barkley. Whenever Barkley's in the public eye, the public doesn't blink.
There is so much to see: A crowd-pleasing/inciting exhibitionist whose body language is deafening, a robust man who lifts his frame to incredible heights and brushes off defenders like dandruff.
He is a creature of impulse, so overcome by the competitive spirit that he becomes a marionette to his emotions. That propels him to a 38-point, 16-rebound blockbuster that is typically garnished with physical and verbal obscenities.
There's nothing contrived about Barkley. Refreshingly candid, he says and does what he wants. He doesn't consider the consequences until it is too late, and even then, so what?
"I got a reputation for being controversial," Barkley said. "I resent that. I am one of the few athletes in the world who is for real. I'm not phony. Fans respect me for giving my all and showing emotion. You will know if I'm happy or sad. What you see is what you get."
No one is immune from Barkley's barbs -- not his teammates, not even himself -- if they have it coming.
"When somebody asks me a question, I tell them the truth and not necessarily what people want to hear," Barkley said.
He is toughest on the refs and the opposition, and absorbing those confrontations has cost him considerably. No one knows the amount of Barkley's career fines; it probably equals the gross national product of Namibia. Last year's transgressions alone, including a friendly wager with the Knicks' Mark Jackson and his part in a melee in Detroit, cost Barkley $64,950. His ejections total 14; his technicals 130 and counting.
These are the byproducts of a sore loser, not a jerk. You hit Barkley, Barkley hits back. Only harder.
Barkley once slapped the Nets' Jack Haley after being provoked. Barkley's fist print is probably still on the face of Detroit center Bill Laimbeer, whom Barkley respects as a player but dismisses as a cheap-shot artist.
A courtside fan once tried to impress his friends by bad-mouthing Barkley. After the game, Barkley extended his hand in a no-hard-feelings gesture. When the guy extended his, Barkley pulled his own hand back and spit in the guy's palm.
But Barkley would not be a four-time All-Star and the game's most ferocious rebounder and inside scorer without this emotion.
It juices him to grab the extra offensive rebound. To anticipate the steal. To throw down the vicious, momentum-turning dunk. To celebrate a dramatic victory by leaping joyously or hoisting two teammates through the air, as he did last month after sinking the winning free throws against Milwaukee.
"There's no such thing as being too emotional if it makes you better," Barkley said. "Emotion makes you better than you're capable of doing yourself. I don't think emotion distracts me."
And you know what? Barkley's emotion is catching.
"You feed off him, and he makes you want to play hard," Mahorn said. "He's the player I'd like to be like if I had to do it all over again."
A woman reporter greets Barkley in the locker room. In a sly stab at New England Patriots' owner Victor Kiam and his bungling of the Lisa Olson fiasco, Barkley asks her: "Do you shave your legs with Remington products? No? I don't blame you. I hate Remington products, too."
Barkley is angry with the media. He's not talking much after games, which is similar to Paula Abdul announcing that she is no longer dancing, just singing. Barkley makes about $3 million a year to play, but if he was paid by the word he could have retired long ago.
Until now. Barkley feels he was burned when a recent off-the-cuff remark about wife-beating -- a joke, but an ill-advised one nonetheless -- made its way into a Los Angeles newspaper. Women's groups demanded and received an apology. But Barkley thought reporters should have shown more restraint.
Therefore, until the end of the month, Barkley will offer nothing more than a short, bland statement after games.
Not convinced, the media crammed his locker last week after a Philadelphia loss to Houston. This amused Mahorn as he emerged from a shower. "They're out here waiting for you, Charles," Mahorn bellowed. "Why don't you stay away and bleep them all off."
Barkley appears. "You-all ready for the statement? Here goes: We didn't play well. They played well, and I give them credit. We did the best we could. That's it. Happy holidays."
Latecomers are given the same treatment: Barkley repeats his statement, verbatim. One reporter, in a last-ditch try, asks another set of questions as Barkley grabs some deodorant.
"We didn't play well. [He sprays under the left arm.] They played well, and I give them credit. [Sprays under the right.] We did the best we could [He fans the foggy mist.]"
Sure, some of Barkley's troubles are caused by his own doing. But there's more balance to the man off the court. There, Barkley is repetitiously polite and has the warmth of a wool sweater. He is engaging with strangers and takes as much interest in them as they do in him.
Barkley signs each and every autograph before and after games, free of charge. Sell his signature? Barkley says that's selling out.
"I think anybody who charges for their autograph is a bleep," said Barkley, who has spurned about $500,000 over five years of trade show offers. "I don't know who's the bigger bleep -- the guy who pays for it, or the one who sells it."
Barkley is especially drawn to children and their innocence. "Kids are the best part of this business. Grown-ups are bad because they're the ones calling you names."
He has contributed thousands of dollars and devotes countless hours to charities, all with only one stipulation -- that none of his generosity is publicized. Barkley thinks that is a cheap way for an athlete to boost his public image.
Two years ago, Dave Coskey, then the Sixers' publicity director, got a call from a basketball coach at a West Palm Beach high school. The coach was exasperated; one of his players wanted to quit school. The coach thought a few words from Barkley, the kid's hero, would change the kid's mind.
"As soon as I heard it, I knew Charles would do it," Coskey said. "A no-brainer."
Barkley wholeheartedly agreed, but Coskey arranged for a local television crew to film the call. When Barkley saw the cameras, he took the phone number, turned and left. He made the call from home.
Another time, Barkley received a letter from a man in Phoenix. Guy named Charles Barkley. "Every time you do something bad or get thrown out of a game," wrote the Arizona Barkley, "I have trouble when I try to write a check."
Barkley tracked down the man, called and began his conversation like this: "Hello? Charles Barkley? Well, every time you screw up on the job in Phoenix, I have trouble in Philadelphia when I try to write a check." Barkley treated Barkley to tickets to the next game.
Only once did Barkley reluctantly agree to enlist the media's help. Mary Walsh, a 76-year-old woman from Trenton, N.J., called a radio talk show in Philadelphia last year to complain about Barkley. Said he was too aggressive and hogged the ball. She added that she could straighten him out if she could get ahold of him.
Barkley happened to be listening, and immediately called the station to talk to the woman. However, she apparently had turned off her radio. For the next few days, a Barkley audio tape asking "Mary from Trenton, please call WCAU" ran on the air until he made contact with her. Barkley arranged for a limousine to drive her and her family to the next game, where they had courtside seats. It was Valentine's Day. She gave him a paper heart.
Mary from Trenton now sings a different tune.
"He's such a nice chap," she said last week. "I felt very guilty. I said, 'Charles, you're not a bit like you are on the court.'"
Coskey said humanitarian episodes such as those are commonplace.
"The list goes on and on," Coskey said. "But he'd kill me if I publicized it. Whether he admits it or not, Charles is a good person."
Barkley is the godfather of Coskey's first child. "My late grandmother, bless her heart, questioned why I would let a black man be my son's godfather," said Coskey, who is white. "But if there's anybody who I want my child to emulate, it's Charles Barkley.
"But that's with an asterisk: Charles Barkley off the court."
Barkley poses with two men for a picture. When the third man fumbles with the camera, Barkley is quick to quip: "I guess that's not an idiot-proof camera."
Barkley has pushed himself out of the steamy whirlpool and now walks carefully into the training room. Therapy time. He plops himself on the training table.
First, Tony Harris, the Sixers' trainer, shaves off layers of dead skin from Barkley's soles. There is enough residue to build a new foot. Harris then digs his fingertips into the crevices of Barkley's shoulder and back muscles. Barkley lets out an "Ooooooh!" and wrinkles his nose.
This scene is more and more commonplace. Barkley is almost 28, and, after six years in the league, his body aches often. He's thick, but doesn't have the muscular definition of, say, Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz. Sadly, when he plays with Christiana, his baby girl, her innocent kicks and squirms often draw a wince.
"I'm in pain all the time," Barkley said. "But it could be worse. I could be poor, working 9-to-5 and in pain."
Barkley has made his career in the paint. Since he entered the National Basketball Association, only Akeem Olajuwon has claimed more rebounds. No one has had more offensive rebounds, a testament to Barkley's persistence. Other than an occasional ill-timed three-point try, Barkley's game is played close to the hoop.
"I'm proud of the fact that I work hard," Barkley said. "I go by one motto: Nothing's easy and nothing's free. Only 1 percent of the people in this world strive to be great. Not good -- great. It's tough to get into that 1 percent, but once you're there, it's worth it."
Although he is leading the league in scoring and ranks among rebound and percentage leaders, Barkley says he doesn't care much about MVP honors.
"They don't give it to guys like me," Barkley said. "They give it to guys who never speak their minds and go with the flow."
Like Michael Jordan?
"Michael's probably my best friend," Barkley said. "I don't have anything bad to say about him. He and Magic and David Robinson. . . ."
Are low-key and non-threatening?
Barkley climbs off the table. He's gotta go. Yeah, he may not win the MVP. He may not win an NBA title. He says that after he calls it quits in three or four years, people quickly will forget him.
Not likely. There is one thing about noticing when Charles Barkley's around. You notice when he's gone, too.