I'm watching the Billboard Music Awards on the telly at the Fiddler's Inn in Wedgwood after a spirited game of gym rat hoops when the

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Eat, drink, dunk

How Sir Charles inspired my love of hoops and Sarah McLachlan.

I'm watching the Billboard Music Awards on the telly at the Fiddler's Inn in Wedgwood after a spirited game of gym rat hoops when the love of my life, Sarah McLachlan, waltzes up to the podium to present a lifetime achievement award to country crooner Emmylou Harris. Sarah, with looks as luxurious as her soprano pipes, is trying her darndest to appear frumpy: black granny shawl, dirty girl hair, sans brassiere.

After Sarah's presentation came a performance by Celine Dion. Not the Celine Dion in the evening gown belting out the theme from Titanic, but the new, improved Celine—the one with a Britney Spears fake tan, Courtney Cox bod, slinky tank top, metallic disco pants, and a Puffy Combs-esque troupe of giggers.

Turn the sound off and you could make a case for Celine Dion actually one-upping the lovely Ms. McLachlan on the sweat-ometer.

But, unless you're deaf, beauty runs far deeper. In other words, there's more to the package than the wrapping paper. So it doesn't matter if Sarah shows up with a zit on her forehead and bunions on her big toes—she's still way hotter than Diva Dion.

Just like Charles Barkley is a better athlete than Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, and the whole damn lot.

Unintelligible segue? Perhaps—except for the fact that on the same night that Ms. McLachlan donned her grandma's sweater, Charles Barkley suffered a season-ending injury that also effectively ended his storied National Basketball Association career.

For those of you dim on details about "The Round Mound of Rebound," I'll fill in the blanks. Chuck grew up in Alabama, where his mom no doubt kept him on a steady three-plus-times-per-day diet of catfish, ribs, grits, and mac & cheese (which in the south is a vegetable). I say this because by the time the Chuck Wagon accepted a scholarship to play power forward at nearby University of Auburn, he'd already packed 280 pounds of lard on his 6-foot-4-inch frame. The joke on campus was that Auburn's administration had meant to offer him a football scholarship instead. That quickly ceased as Barkley became a cult hero on campus, eating up opposing squads with the same voracity as his mama's meat 'n' three. Charles became one of the game's first "20-20" men (20 rebounds, 20 points) and shocked fans with rim-rattling, high-wire hops to go with his girth.

After a record-setting career at Auburn, Chaz was a lottery pick by the Philadelphia 76ers, then bolted for Phoenix and its title-contending Suns. There, he cemented his reputation as the biggest mouth this side of Rodman II (Rodman I being the workmanlike power forward for the Detroit Pistons, not the later, tattoo-addled, Chicago Bulls version), year after year earning props from reporters as "best interview in the league." This mouth also earned him tens of thousands a year in fines for bad-mouthing referees, league brass, opponents, and teammates. Not that Chuck cared—I mean, what's a few grand when you're pulling in five million clams a year.

Chaz was also endearingly open about his Republican Party political aspirations in the state of his birth and his over-the-top partying ways. A nightclub fixture wherever the Suns travelled, the drunk version of Charles wasn't afraid to punch a boozy heckler—or throw people through windows if they really struck a nerve.

Despite having made it to the NBA Finals while in Phoenix, the knock on Chuck was that he was too fat, lazy, and selfish to take a team all the way—a sentiment uttered most recently by Michael Jordan's second fiddle and Charles' ex-mate on the Rockets, Scottie Pippen. Of course, no one outside of Hakeem Olajuwon really accomplished much in the way of championship rings with His Airness in the league.

But what makes Charles Barkley really special is that he has inspired a nation of potbellied gym rats like yours truly to lace 'em up with confidence, week in and week out. Poor muscle tone? Too short? So what—Charles did it, and so can I. Know what else? Charles got drunk after the game, so I can, too.

Truly great athletes transcend the boundaries of sport. Michael Jordan never really did this. Sure, he was the best basketball player of all time—but, let's face it, all the guy has proven outside the key is that he's a bland pitchman and crappy actor who can't hit a curveball. Transcendence? I think not.

Barkley, on the other hand, lived life to its fullest. At the dinner table, at the bar, in front of the microphone, in the paint—a multidimensional, hilarious barrel of a man whose fat ass was only part of the act.

I got home from the Fiddler's that Wednesday and looked at the pile of dirty clothes on my floor. At the bottom of the pile was my Phoenix Suns Barkley jersey, number 34. I picked it up and pressed it to my nose. Ripe as hell—just like it woulda been had Barkley been sweating out a night of hard booze and buffalo wings against Jordan's Bulls.

Because you ate, drank, and dunked, Charles, so, too, can we all.

 
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