Grampa Celtic Talks Chaz Barkley


ATLANTA -- Lenny Wilkens understands Charles Barkley. It's very simple, he says. Just don't ask him a question if you really don't want to hear the answer.

``Charles is a great player,'' asserts the American Olympic mentor. ``He's very responsive to coaching. He comes to play. He's like Christian Laettner. They're very honest. They're going to tell you what they think. If you don't like honesty, you don't want to be around Charles. He's not going to sugarcoat it for you.''

Charles Barkley is an Equal Opportunity Offender. There is, for example, the subject of those irritating 10 p.m. starting times here in Atlanta. Charles knows very well they are dictated by all-powerful NBC, an entity whose lavish payments help make possible his own lavish lifestyle. ``It's very, very hard to play when you're starting at 10 o'clock,'' he says. ``We've had to move practice back in order to cut down on our free time in order to get ready to play. And then they don't even want to show the whole game, anyway.''

There is the subject of his confrontational style of play, especially considering the image problem the US created with its boorish behavior in Toronto at the 1994 World Championships. Charles makes it clear he has no intention of taking the Dale Carnegie route in the Olympics. He refuses to apologize for elbowing slender Angolan Herlander Coimbra in the '92 Olympic opener (he laughingly suggested that his African foe might have been carrying a spear, and just imagine the furor if a white guy said that), and he didn't exactly back away from trouble when Australia guard Shane Heal got a bit mouthy in their exhibition game a week ago Friday in Salt Lake City. He also managed to get a technical foul in the waning minutes of the first half against Argentina Saturday evening. It's quite clear that if there is going to be an international incident involving the American basketball team, the central figure will be Charles Barkley.

``I'm very consistent,'' he says when asked if he plans to avoid confrontations similar to the one with Heal. ``I try to hit everybody. In Heal's case, he was a talkative little fellow. He called me a couple of names NOT_FOUNDafter Barkley fouled him on a 3-point attempt without drawing a whistle, an officiating transgression that Barkley cheerfully admitsNOT_FOUND, and I told him I wouldn't take that from an American, and I definitely wasn't gonna take that off a foreigner. So we owe him one.''

Speaking of ``owing'' people something, do not look for any get-even tactics to be implemented by the aforementioned Coimbra, who would like to lead a placid existence on the court when the US bullies play Angola this evening. Coimbra knows he is a footnote in US Olympic basketball history, and footnote status is just fine with him.

``It is not a good way to be famous,'' he says. ``I hope he does not do this again. It is not good for sport.''

As for the word revenge, you kiddin', or what?

``No,'' he says. ``That's impossible. That is not a good way to play. And I don't have the muscles to do that.''

Barkley, of course, has the muscles to do just about anything he wishes in these games. International foes simply don't appear to know what to make of him. There are no ``Barkley types'' on the international scene, no 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound board-banging marauders who have linebacker mentalities, who can take a defensive rebound and weave through coast-to-coast traffic and who can nail threes. Small wonder that he was the single most effective Dream Team player in '92, or that whenever Wilkens wants a basket he knows the best way to get one is to throw the ball to Charles on the block.

Like many great people, Barkley has the infinite capacity to believe what he wants to believe. He has always maintained, for example, that he was provoked in Barcelona by the 6-6, 170-pound Coimbra.

``Do not believe it,'' says Coimbra. ``If you watch the tape, you will see I did nothing. You can watch it.''

There is also the soft side of Barkley. There is the Charles Barkley who posed for a picture with Coimbra after that game in Barcelona. There is the Charles Barkley who says of the Opening Ceremonies, ``If you don't get emotional or excited about that, there is something wrong with you.'' There is the Charles Barkley who was in attendance at the US women's game with Cuba yesterday afternoon because ``they deserve our support and we really, really, really want them to win the gold.''

But at the core there is the Charles Barkley who, as Wilkens says, doesn't ``sugarcoat anything,'' the one who doesn't seem to care how it hits his new teammates when he fulminates daily about the folly of calling this group a ``Dream Team'' (``Please change the name to Team USA'').

Charles sometimes says profound things, sometimes stupid things. But Charles always says the things he really wants to say. The way he looks at it, if you can't handle that, the problem is yours, not his.

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