ONE DAY LAST fall, Charles Barkley had someone he wanted me to meet. We settled in for lunch at one of his favorite local restaurants, Chops steakhouse in Bala Cynwyd, not far from the Main Line townhouse Barkley and his wife, Maureen, keep here. It was Charles, his close friend and golfing buddy, Comcast SportsNet’s Neil Hartman, and I, but the three of us weren’t alone. A camera crew filming Charles’s new reality show for the Golf Channel, The Haney Project: Charles Barkley, which debuts this month, was following us. The show chronicles the attempts of Hank Haney, Tiger Woods’s legendary coach, to salvage Barkley’s quagmire of a golf swing; just search “Barkley” and “golf swing” on YouTube to witness the carnage. It’s best been described as a type of linksland Tourette’s, all stopping and starting and stuttering and sputtering.
But as with all things Barkley lo these many years, the show is about so much more than a sport. It’s really about a middle-aged retired guy on a self-improvement crash course, with all of life’s pitfalls laid bare. Barkley’s arrest for DUI on New Year’s Eve day will no doubt be part of it, as will his rollicking good-time lifestyle. He used to say, “We ain’t here for a long time, we have to have a good time,” and for this big man of big appetites, not much has changed. As when he reigned on the hardcourts here from 1984 through 1992, Charles, now 46, remains a work in progress, an authentic, three-dimensional character who, for good or ill, is always in a state of becoming.
On that day last fall, Barkley, in a trash-talking mood, wanted me to meet Dave the Bartender. Dave Malone, the Chops barkeep, is a scratch golfer who saw Barkley’s swing on TV. When Barkley first came into Chops as a customer a few years ago, Malone invited him out to play. “I’m not playing golf anymore,” Charles said.
“Yeah, if I was you, I wouldn’t be playing either,” Dave said.
“That’s why you’re on my list, Dave,” Charles said now, introducing Dave to us in a booming command of a voice. “You’re number three on my list of the people I’m gonna call once my game is back, and I’m gonna kick their asses on the course. Michael Jordan is number one, ’cause he won’t even play with me anymore. Tiger’s number two. You’re not going to like it when I play against you, Dave.”
This is Charles the public raconteur, intimately aware of his performance. He spoke loudly enough not only for the cameras, but for the whole restaurant. When one of the show’s producers told him that John Nash, the former general manager of the 76ers, might stop by, Barkley entered quip mode. “Ask if he’s bringing Charles Shackleford,” he said. Shackleford was the underachieving, laconic center management acquired for Barkley’s team here 17 years ago. “He told me Shackleford would be the last piece of the puzzle. Charles Shackleford.”