The thing about 6 ft. 6 in., 253-pound forward Charles Barkley of the Philadelphia 76ers is that he doesn't look like a pro basketball player. His rivals say they need a bus ticket just to get around him. This guy probably should have been a defensive end on a pro football team. Or maybe a circus strongman. Or possibly the guy Central Casting calls on the phone every time a movie director like Cecil B. DeMille needs someone to play Samson.
Those who were in Philadelphia's Spectrum for a game in 1985 still vividly remember a dunk by the intense rookie that moved a 2,000-pound basket support six inches to the right.
Barkley doesn't just play well in heavy traffic, he is heavy traffic. Most guys who have a body like his don't have the fine skills to go along with it. But Charles can get up in the air for rebounds, get out on the fast break, and shoot a jumper that has the quality of silk.
On the negative side, Barkley often comes off as an individualist in a team sport. Yet every time you pick up a paper these days, it seems there is a story in which somebody important in the National Basketball Association is saying that Charles is having an MVP season.
Actually, Charles had a pretty wonderful season last year, too. In addition to leading the 76ers in almost every important offensive category, he had the highest rebound average (14.6 per game) of anyone in the NBA. He also was named to the all-league second team.
A tough act to follow, but Barkley has managed to do so - and then some. This year most of his figures are up, and with an average of around 29 points per game he has even been making a run of sorts at Chicago's Michael Jordan and Boston's Larry Bird for the scoring leadership.
``Along with his skills, plus the fact that he takes up a lot of room under the basket, Barkley is one of those guys who likes contact,'' Philadelphia coach Matt Guokas explained. ``Usually he gets good position inside and holds it because of his size.
``If a rebound comes off the board anywhere near him, he's probably going to get it,'' Matt continued. ``But I've also seen him grab a lot of rebounds he had no right to get because he was willing to fight his way to the ball.''
Asked how his defending champion Los Angeles Lakers prepare to face the Sixers, coach Pat Riley said, ``When you are playing a team that has a Charles Barkley, you never say to yourself, `Well, maybe he'll start off slowly or have an off night.' You assign two players to guard him and you keep them on him no matter what kind of night he's having. We don't try to tire him out. We do try to deny him the ball. Still when the game is over, guys like him usually are right on their average.''
To see the real Charles Barkley, the trailer truck that corners like a sports car, you need to watch him catch a pass inside and then take that first step to the basket. It's possible that Jordan doesn't do it any quicker. And Barkley's philosophy on rebounds is basically, ``He who hesitates is bossed!''
TV commentator Tommy Heinsohn, a former star player and coach in Boston, feels that this fourth pro season for Barkley is the one in which the former Auburn University star has really come into his own.
``I see a guy this year who has improved his game all over the place,'' Heinsohn said. ``I think last year was still a kind of finding-out process for Charles. He needed to see how far he could push himself. He needed to learn what he could do.'' Well, he found out, and now he probably reads the game as well as any 10-year NBA veteran.''
Talking to Barkley after the 76ers have lost is not recommended as the first step to an in-depth interview.
At times like this, he answers all questions as though he expected a receipt. But he did say that for a number of years now, going back to his college days, he personally evaluates his game at the end of every season.
``If I see something I don't like about my play, I work on improving it during the off-season,'' Barkley told me in the locker room after a recent loss to the Lakers in L.A. ``Last summer I devoted most of my attention to my jump shot and so far this season that extra work has paid off.''