So Charles Barkley is suffering from his special brand of foot-in-mouth syndrome. Or is he?
The Hall-of-Famer summoned his inner Round Mound of Rebound when commenting on the NBA playoff series between the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are up 2-0, and quite close to vaporizing the Hawks.
Noting that King James & Co. are darting down the court with impunity, passing and shooting at record rates, Barkley suggested that the Hawks “take someone out.” That’s his inelegant euphemism for getting a little physical.
And now the cognoscenti is appalled. The PC police asserts that Barkley’s charge is to bring back thugs to the Association, to grind the game down to a brutal 48-minute crawl of assault and battery. Now Barkley is battling a three-pronged opponent: the Cavaliers, Charles Oakley and the specious, PC media that loves to snipe from the comfort of their cubicles.
Barkley is a little loose with his perspectives, his caustic tongue sparing no one, from fans to players to the power brokers of basketball. So it’s no shock that his analysis crossed some symbolic line. But the meat of his take is hardly offensive.
Sure, every generation laments the last. Millennials are tired of hearing how much tougher — and better — basketball was in the 1980s and ’90s. They giggle at the diaper-length shorts of Larry and Magic and Charles.
They give us Michael Jordan, but beyond that they think players from 30 years ago would have no chance against the uber-quick Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving. The old-school defensive savants, like Dennis Rodman, would have no chance to stop or even irritate LeBron James.
It’s hardly a fresh dynamic. As long as there are sports and sports fans, we will always debate the bona fides of every generation. When I was a kid, I was told Doc Gooden and Roger Clemens couldn’t carry Bob Feller’s jock strap. Walter Payton was no Jim Brown. And Hakeem Olajuwon was hardly Bill Russell.
This is a gulf in culture and age as much, if not more, than a gap in talent. Everyone wants to think they lived during the Golden Age, of everything. So the latest is truly the greatest. Justin Bieber is better than Michael Jackson. Lady Gaga beats Madonna. The 2016 Warriors trump the 1996 Bulls.
Oakley, a Cleveland native, has taken a curious approach to Barkley’s commentary. No one played more physically, or relied more on intimidation, than Oakley. Take it from a native New Yorker who saw “Oak Man” courtside for years. Oakley turned Madison Square Garden into a cage match. And we loved it. Oakley’s issue is surely more with Barkley the person — whom he’s hated for 25 years — than with Barkley’s opinion.
Tyronn Lue is chafed. But he should be. It’s the head coach’s job to be indignant at the slightest suggestion that his team be pushed around, even legally.
The media — which includes yours truly — trades on contrived controversy. Barkley’s views shouldn’t offend anyone, at least not in this case. The condescending, highbrow bent of sportswriters is so transparent. Half the reporters who lament Barkley’s take are the same ones who gleefully jammed microphones under his chin during his playing days, grinning widely while he filled their notepads with fresh and funny quotes.
Yet suddenly they see Barkley as some Stone Age savage who confuses boxing with basketball. They discard his theories, drop them in the junk pile with his old set of Rock’em Sock’em Robots.
But Barkley’s overall point was prudent. If the Hawks are going to counter the Cavaliers’ running, gunning pace, which led to a blizzard of three-pointers — setting an NBA-record for one game — they have to get physical.
Particularly in the new-age NBA, where sneezing on someone spawns a flagrant foul. Nowadays, when a player twists an ankle, he shrieks like he’s been shot, while five players literally carry him off the court. At the risk of sounding like the very geriatrics I hated as a child, it’s time to get tough. It’s May, when it was long assumed the games slowed to a grunting, playoff pitch.
Barkley’s goofball aesthetics aside, there’s nothing wrong with a shove here, an elbow there, especially among these giants. You’ve got 6-foot-7 behemoths galloping up and down the hardwood. There has to be a happy medium between the lethargic, prehistoric pace of the 1990s — when the Knicks and Bulls seemed to score once a quarter, with more free throw than field goal attempts — and this brand of Wild West, jump-shooting mayhem.
And LeBron knows that basketball is — or should be — a physical game. It’s not in his best interest to admit that now. But no NBA player uses his size and strength to compliment his skill more than LeBron James.
In fact, if their respective arcs continue as planned, LeBron’s Cavs will soon face Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s Warriors, and the Pamplona-style offense that has dominated the league for two years. How ironic will it be to see LeBron try to slow the game to a 1990s crawl to keep the Splash Brothers from getting wet. And Charles Barkley will be there every step of the way, to defend the Cavs.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.