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Charles Barkley remains a crowd favorite for good reason

The former NBA player puts fans first and maintains hilarious conversation as he discusses the Lakers, Miami Heat and charity while making the rounds at the American Century Championship.

July 15, 2010|T.J. Simers

From Lake Tahoe, Nev. — "How you doing?" he says, and I don't know how many hundreds or thousands of spectators were here Thursday for the celebrity golf tournament, but I'm pretty sure Charles Barkley personally greeted each one of them.

That crown they've placed on King James is misplaced. It belongs on the head of the guy who puts the fans and the Lakers first.

"The Heat has matchup problems with the Lakers," Barkley says in discounting any worries for the champs, and tell me now he isn't your favorite, too.

I just witnessed greatness in action, Barkley seemingly taking aim at every tree in this forest preserve, ground balls here and there, a hiccup in his swing that would have him stopping just before impact as if there were an invisible shield preventing him from going any further.

He would do this once, twice and then somehow unleash to dribble the ball. He's so bad, he's finished last in this tournament four straight years and Thursday borrowed left-handed clubs from one of his partners and started hitting from the other side.

At the same time he maintained a running, hilarious conversation with the gallery, stopping to sign autographs between every hole, frustrated and upset with himself for being such a lousy golfer, yet everyone here walking away talking about what a great guy they just met.

"He's one of my favorite people in the whole world," says Hank Haney, who has gone from coaching Tiger Woods to Sir Hacker. "He's the most gracious, humble, approachable athlete you will ever see."

While keeping in mind he's been working with Woods, Haney says that he will now work with Barkley as a left-handed golfer and he believes Barkley will return next year as an 18-handicap.

If so, officials here might want to determine where the statue of Haney will sit, the miracle worker giving Barkley every reason to come back for years and years to the fans' delight.

"Things could be worse," Barkley told the crowd after hitting a ball in the water. "I could be Mel Gibson."

FUNNY THAT it would be Barkley who once said athletes should not be role models when it's Barkley who should be every ex-athlete's example of why they should thank their good fortunes people still care about them.

"Some of these people take themselves too seriously," Barkley says. "I'm just a basketball player. That's it. How awesome is this, just walking around on a beautiful day? We could be working."

Three years ago this area was devastated by a fire that wiped out 254 homes, two weeks later celebrities reporting for American Century Championship fun and games.

"I thought it was inappropriate for everyone to be gambling, drinking and playing golf without helping," Barkley says, who took a tour of the devastation and then wrote out a $100,000 check that didn't bounce to help families recover.

"It's probably the worst thing I've ever seen in my life, everything flat as a pancake."

Barkley, who also contributed to rebuilding efforts in New Orleans after Katrina, treated 100 firefighters here to dinner and then a year later donated another $90,000.

"There are really only five serious, important jobs in the world," he says. "Teachers, firemen, police, doctors and our folks serving in the armed forces."

Reporters?

"Right below jocks, when it comes to stealing," he says.

WE TALKED Lakers and LeBron at one point, Barkley tough on LeBron because he believes he should have stayed in the area where he was born and done something special — winning a title for the Cavs.

I said the Lakers and Kobe have changed the way everyone does business, a NBA team needing three stars like the Heat now have to win a title.

"What three stars do the Lakers have?" Barkley shoots back. "They have Kobe and Gasol."

I suggest the combination of Odom and Bynum counts as a third star and it's like he mistakes me for TNT's Ernie Johnson.

"Oh, come on now," he says, "come on."

He says the Heat will have problems with the Lakers but the Lakers need another piece, and understands why they were interested in Raja Bell.

"You put Kobe and Artest against LeBron and Wade, and I might give a slight advantage to the Heat. But Bosh can't cover either one of those big guys the Lakers have in Gasol and Bynum. One seven-footer doesn't change the game. Two do."

He says he loves what Utah has done in the off-season, noting the addition of Al Jefferson and still calls LeBron the best player in the NBA, and who am I to argue.

"If LeBron has Gasol, Odom and Bynum, he'd win, too," Barkley says.

And who am I to argue.

THE DAY started with CNBC host Maria Bartiromo telling Barkley LeBron's ESPN show attracted 10 million viewers.

"Those same people watch 'Jersey Shore' and the Kardashians, so you can't take them seriously," says Barkley. "The show was silly: We've got more serious stuff going on."

When he arrived at the first tee, he noticed an elderly tournament volunteer he obviously knew well, asking him, "What was Abe Lincoln like. Any idea what movie he was watching when he was shot?"

He had yet to take a shot, and everybody was already laughing. Then he tried hitting the ball, and while you would think most people would really fall down laughing, there was only applause and well wishes.

They just love the guy, and frankly, with good reason.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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