PHILADELPHIA — Charles Barkley is chucking that Round Mound of Rebound tag.
He is 40 to 50 pounds lighter than the 6-foot-5, 300-pound muffin man who once played at Auburn, but that's not the reason he is mentioned among the elite of the NBA.
Four years after being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers, Barkley is often dominating, and occasionally terrorizing, his opponents.
When the Most Valuable Player award is announced in June, Barkley could be the Crowned Mound of Rebound.
Like the players he is being compared to this season--Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and 1987 MVP Magic Johnson--Barkley's value can only partially be measured in statistics, although he has the numbers.
He is averaging nearly 29 points and more than 11 rebounds per game, both near the top of the league, and a complicated computer formula named him the NBA's "most pivotal player" in both November and December.
As former teammate Julius Erving said of Barkley, "He's able to do things that guards do, that forwards do, that centers do, that coaches do, and even things that popcorn vendors do."
While Barkley surpasses or compares favorably with Jordan, Bird and Johnson in size, strength, quickness and athletic skill, he also has a child-like quality that can be endearing or troublesome.
Few in the NBA would stop and admire a replay of a dunk attempt at the same time it was being shown to fans, as Barkley did this week against New Jersey.
But it's his outspokenness that tends to raise eyebrows.
"He's made me wince so many times, I'm winced out," 76ers Coach Matty Guokas said.
"He barks, he points . . . I wouldn't want to be playing against him, have him dunking on me," said Maurice Cheeks, co-captain of the 76ers with Barkley. "But his personality makes his game even better. And he's real cocky about it, too."
Twice, at the end of last season and early in this one, Barkley has lashed out against his teammates as the 76ers continued a steady slip from an NBA title in 1983 to today's .500 level.
Last year, he called his teammates "wimps and complainers," and he recently called the 76ers "a bad team that has to play perfect to win."
"I was telling the truth, I don't lie," Barkley said. "But I never say guys' names. When I criticize, I leave it up to the individual to clean up his own house."
"His ability to lift the team makes him a natural leader," Guokas said. "What he says about the team and his teammates is 99% positive. It's the other 1% that makes headlines.
"But I don't think he's ever intentionally tried to hurt anybody with what he says. But he tries to have the last word and get a zinger in."
After the 76ers won five of six games following his latest outburst, Barkley back-pedaled only slightly in his assessment of the team, saying, "We still have to get better. Personal awards are great, but I don't want to get below .500."
"I think I would go crazy if we ever got as far under .500 as the Nets. It's bad enough being a .500 team."
Barkley finds comparisons of NBA players distasteful and wants to put the retirement of Erving behind him and the team.
"How can anyone say Magic, Michael or Larry is better than the others," he said. "I feel I can play as well as anybody, and the guys in the NBA know it. Accolades don't make it so.
"People talk about me being a leader, but I don't feel like I'm filling a void left by Dr. J. The team's in this together. I try to lead by example. You can't ever let yourself be content."
Guokas said the assumption that the additional five points on Barkley's scoring average is a result of Erving's absence is not entirely valid.
"His offensive output really came up after injuries to Roy Hinson and Tim McCormick," Guokas said. "We needed something special from him then and he gave it to us. When they came back, he didn't have to score 30-35 points anymore. Consequently, he isn't scoring quite as much as he was for awhile."
Barkley said the increased scoring load has taken away from his rebounding, which he takes the most pride in. His rebounding totals are down about three a game from his league-best average of 14 last season.
"I didn't realize how much energy it took to score and rebound," Barkley said. "When I go to the basket, guys are making sure I know that they've been there."
As Barkley's offensive game blossomed this season, Sixers General Manager John Nash and Guokas have criticized his defense.
"I'm not really satisfied with his defense," Guokas said. "He's capable of playing good defense, but he tends to pace himself on defense and work hard on offense, which is the opposite of what he should do.
"It's interesting that he loves to play the marquee names defensively--the Jordans and the Birds. We want him to play that way against the lesser names."
Responding to the criticism, Barkley got in the last word:
"You can't please everybody and you can't do everything. When you get 30 points a night, they want 20 rebounds a night."