UP FROM LEEDS
The Place, the People and the Privilege That Made Charles Barkley a Role Model
By JESSE WASHINGTON
with reporting by RYAN CORTES
February 12, 2015
At the end of a turbulent, troubled Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Charles Barkley sits calmly before four cameras, a hot mike pinned to his gray suit, preparing to offer a compromise.
Barkley is on the Atlanta set of "Inside the NBA," less than three miles from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was baptized as a child, preached as a minister and was laid to rest as a martyr. It's the same church where, a few hours earlier on this MLK Day 2015, about 200 demonstrators sat down in the streets, halted the traditional parade and protested while carrying a symbolic, makeshift coffin.
Similar protests ignited across America, quiet, dignified remembrances of the Founding Father of racial equality disrupted by boiling anger over police killings of unarmed black males.
"No Justice, No Peace" ramming headfirst into "We Shall Overcome."
Enter Charles Barkley, born into Jim Crow segregation in 1963 in Leeds, Alabama, to analyze the day, the month and the entire history of civil and uncivil disobedience.
Somehow, Barkley has arrived at this position, as one of America's sought-after voices on race and injustice. He has pursued this platform since the day he retired as a player and chose TNT over NBC because, he says, Turner promised he could address social issues. He has reached the broadcasting mountaintop with a mouth inspired by Muhammad Ali, a style reminiscent of Howard Cosell and buckets of down-home wisdom.
Recent NBA events have magnified Barkley's voice, and this moment. Since casting out disgraced owner Donald Sterling this past spring, the league with the highest concentration of black athletes and fans has risen to the forefront of America's renewed, loud conversation about race. LeBron James, Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant amplified the discussion, flouting league rules by wearing "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts in support of #BlackLivesMatter protesters and Eric Garner, the New York man who died after a police chokehold.
Today, the NBA has laid claim to the King holiday, broadcasting a dozen games with its television partners and rolling out a promotional video featuring an extremely rare and expensive commercial use of the "I Have A Dream" speech.
The pregame show for the Bulls-Cavaliers contest approaches. Barkley readies to do what he does best, what will earn him far more money talking basketball than playing it, what has made "Inside the NBA" a perennial Emmy winner and must-see TV for more than a decade: speak from the heart.
There's only one problem:
Barkley speaks from the heart.