You want to run into Charles Barkley in a bar. Really, you do.
If you want an autograph, you'll get it. If you want your picture taken with him, that's no problem either. Stick around long enough and you'll probably get a free drink out of the transaction. Good times and laughs are guaranteed. He's a one-man carnival.
That's the Charles Barkley I know, not the one who shows up in the police reports. I've seen him entertain all over the country, from the lobby bar in a Greenbelt, Md., hotel to the hottest clubs in Phoenix during his four years with the Suns. I've seen him pick up the tab for everyone in the room. I've seen him sink pool shots that would make Minnesota Fats jealous.
There's nothing like hanging with the Chuckster.
In between jokes, someone's always coming up to him. I'm sure having drunk men pat him on the back and holler in his face gets old, even if they are telling him how great they think he is. But I've never seen him be rude to anyone. Not once. Every fan gets at least a handshake and a "good to meet you."
You have to be looking for trouble to get it from Barkley.
He was at a nightclub in Los Angeles on Wednesday night after the Houston Rockets waxed the Clippers in the Sports Arena, and it was nothing but fun. People were nice to him and--surprise, surprise--he was nice back.
Happy bettors thanked him because the Rockets covered the spread. A man with a thick accent said, "Charles, I am from France and I just wanted to say 'Yay' to you."
People lined up to buy drinks for Barkley and bartenders offered him freebies (It always amazes me that the more money people have, the more stuff they get for free. "That's how rich people stay rich," Barkley said.)
It was just like every other time I've seen him out except for one thing: A thick bodyguard stood near Barkley at all times. That's the stipulation the NBA gave him if he still wanted to go out after his latest incident, in which he allegedly threw a man through a plate-glass window in an Orlando, Fla., nightclub in the early-morning hours of Oct. 26.
Barkley said 20-year-old Jorge Lugo threw a glass of ice on him while he was sitting at a table with three women. Barkley said he then chased after and shoved--not threw--Lugo, who fell through the window (They don't make glass the way they used to, Barkley lamented to reporters in Seattle this week).
Barkley was charged with battery and resisting arrest without violence. He spent a few hours in jail before teammate Clyde Drexler bailed him out.
It wasn't his first time on the police blotter, but he never has been found guilty. Charges were dropped after Barkley was involved in a bar fight in Chicago, Barkley was acquitted of misdemeanor battery charges in a fight outside a Milwaukee bar, and a jury rejected a $550,000 civil lawsuit filed by a man in Cleveland who claimed Barkley punched him in the nose.
When those events happen, they're reported, as they should be. There just hasn't been much balance. You'd think Barkley gets in trouble every time he goes out. And there usually isn't much questioning of the other parties involved. For instance, what was the 20-year-old Lugo doing in a nightclub?
It's ironic that Barkley draws so much attention and trouble because he tries to be normal.
In an era when most athletes do as much as possible to distance themselves from the fans who account for their huge salaries, Barkley is the opposite. He loves to be around people, regular, everyday people. Even sportswriters.
"I don't think I'm better than anybody else," Barkley said before the game. "I try to respect all people. You ask me a question, I'm going to be honest with you."
They are the traits that make him the best athlete to hang with and the greatest interview in sports. But they also make him vulnerable.
Barkley can't simply go out in public because, as he said, "95% of the fans are great; the other 5% are idiots."
Because of those 5%, he can't simply walk around like you and me. Yet he never had a bodyguard before, not even after the incidents in Chicago, Milwaukee or Cleveland.
"I'm just a person, man," Barkley said. "You don't go around with a security guard, do you?"
"All right then, why should I have to? I'm not bothering anybody."
But people, whether they want to prove their toughness or win some money, bother Barkley. And Barkley has not always exercised good judgment.
"I'm going to stand up for what I believe is right," Barkley said. "They say that if somebody throws a drink on me, I'm [supposed] to walk away. That's not going to happen. I wouldn't expect it to happen to you.
"For some reason when you're famous, people kind of say, 'Well, he should take that.' Well, I totally disagree with that."
Barkley is right when he says most people's first reaction would be the same as his. The difference is, most people don't have as much to lose. Barkley has the opportunity to make endorsement money because of his status. Are companies going to want a reputed bar brawler to be their pitchman?
"You don't sit around and think about what you've got to lose," Barkley said. " It's just a gut reaction. When a guy throws a drink in your face, you don't have time to say, 'I'm Charles Barkley.' It's kind of like a gut reaction."
It's impossible to defend all of Barkley's actions or beliefs. Spitting on a girl and elbowing an Angolan basketball player are acts I find reprehensible.
But as much as he criticizes the media, he did say he is a believer in the First Amendment. In turn, I believe he should be able to go wherever he wants.
"I just like to go to a bar, sit at a table with my friends, nobody throws a drink on me," Barkley said. "Is that too much to ask for? I don't think so."
Let's hope the bodyguard will keep people from messing with Barkley, keep Barkley from getting himself into trouble and allow him to live life the same as always. If he ever did become a recluse and shut down his act, it would be our loss more than his.