When did this happen? Sometime during the past few decades – after insisting he was not a role model, amassing fines for his misbehavior and catching hell for his words – Charles Barkley morphed into one of the true humanitarians of the modern sports era.
There is not a more generous superstar on the planet. He donates millions to charities, spends hours speaking with youngsters, constantly preaches the importance of education. Most impressively, he is not a hit-and-run celebrity. He signs on and shows up.
Which brings me to the annual American Century Championship this weekend at Edgewood Tahoe and a conversation Thursday with the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame forward. We talked golf, Gaza, Ukraine and Kings center DeMarcus Cousins but mostly his involvement with Mustard Seed School, the private school affiliated with Loaves & Fishes that provides education for homeless youngsters in Sacramento.
This is a big deal to Barkley. In February 2013, he gave the school the $67,000 he won as a celebrity contestant on “The Price is Right.” After defeating TNT castmates Ernie Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith in an office playoff pool in May, he donated another $10,000 and promises more.
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His generosity in recent years includes $190,000 to victims of South Lake Tahoe’s 2007 Angora fire; $1 million to those affected by Hurricane Katrina; $1 million to the medical research program at Alabama-Birmingham; $1 million to Auburn; $1 million to his hometown Leeds (Ala). High School; and smaller sums handed out here, there, seemingly everywhere.
“The big thing for me is education,” Barkley said. “Some of that money puts four kids through college. People call and ask me for money all the time, to show up for appearances, but I have to ‘feel it.’ If I like the person and I think it’s a good cause, I’m there for you.”
So about Mustard Seed School. Charles feels it deeply. When rain postponed play in the pro-am Thursday afternoon, he crowded into a corner of the VIP clubhouse lounge with NASCAR buddies Denny Hamlin and Michael Waltrip and former NFL great Emmitt Smith. Asked about the roots of his involvement with the Sacramento-based Mustard Seed, he said he became intrigued when TNT talent producer and Kennedy High School graduate Tara August starting telling him about a school in Sacramento where her mother volunteers.
While in Sacramento for Mayor Kevin Johnson’s annual St. Hope fundraiser in 2013, Barkley arranged for a quiet, unannounced visit to the green-trimmed cottages squeezed behind a chain-link fence near Loaves & Fishes and Maryhouse, the women’s shelter.
“I’ve sort of adopted this school, y’all,” Barkley told his fellow sports figures Thursday. “That day … was one of the coolest experiences of my life. Friggin’ unbelievable. I mean, five trailers. All these teachers and volunteers. These kids, they just made them feel so good.”
The more he talked, the more animated he became. He recited facts and figures, attempted to draw pictures with his massive hands.
“They have between 20 and 40 kids every day,” he continued, “and the numbers fluctuate because homeless people move around so much that a lot of these kids don’t have birth certificates or school records. I walked in there and was blown away. And I’m going to keep doing stuff for them.”
According to Mustard Seed School director Angela Hassell, more youngsters were enrolled this past school year – an average of 50 a day – than at any time since it opened in 1989. The uptick in the economy, she said, hasn’t trickled down to the premises on North C Street. Her 12-person staff includes teachers, office administrators and volunteers. Vans are dispatched in the morning to area motels, homeless camps along the river, parking lots and other areas where the homeless congregate. The average stay is three to four weeks, though it’s not uncommon for children to attend one day and be absent the next, or for families to return after a year of stability.
“Our goal is to get these kids back in public schools,” Hassell said, “but with their parents moving around so much, dealing with what they deal with, transportation is such a barrier. We have to be extremely flexible.”
When Barkley made his surprise visit, Hassell recalled, the children were ecstatic. A long swath of paper was attached to a wall so they could compare measurements with the 6-foot-6 superstar. Despite his creaky knees and aching hip, he eased into one of the tiny chairs for a round-table discussion and implored the kids to keep reading. He toured the shower facilities, the narrow courtyard with picnic tables and a tidy garden, the playground and the recreation area with the regulation-size hoop.
“Can you imagine what these kids have to deal with every day?” Barkley asked Thursday, shaking his head.
His background in a suburb of Birmingham was modest, though nothing like this, he said. Raised by a single mother and a grandmother, he was always the chubby, charismatic kid whose mouth got him in trouble. His enormous basketball talent provided the outlet and eventually his ticket to fame and fortune.
His golf game, of course, still stinks. Chip shots ricochet off trees, drives into the crowd send spectators scurrying, and his putting is frightening and wildly entertaining. After missing a putt in the Joe Morgan charity golf tournament in Granite Bay in 1999, he angrily swung his club against his golf bag, then spent 10 minutes trying to undo the damage. No such luck. He was stuck with the bent putter for the remaining 16 holes.
But he was back the next day, and in that regard not much has changed. He returns to South Lake Tahoe every July, the top attraction in a magnetic field, signing autographs, chugging beers, schmoozing. A year ago after tearing his rotator cuff here in the pro-am, he even ditched his clubs and good-naturedly walked the course.
This is Charles. This has always been Charles, with the occasional personal stumble, the 26-year marriage he seldom discusses, the 25-year-old daughter he adores. He keeps reminding everyone he is no saint, though he keeps working at it.
It just took him awhile – OK, a few decades – to modify his behavior, as I reminded him when he reiterated his oft-cited concerns about Cousins. The 1991 spitting incident, when he reacted to a fan hurling racial insults and accidentally tagged a young girl, resulted in a heavy fine and threatened his inclusion on the original Dream Team. When he elbowed skinny Angolan Herlander Coimbra in the 1992 Olympic opener in Barcelona, his close friend Michael Jordan dressed him down. He has gotten in bar fights, rolled the dice too many times and still battles his weight.
But the legend of Charles is an enduring, endearing, evolving fable. Charities continue calling. Adversaries plead for help. Individuals such as NBA executive Rod Thorn – who levied the fine in 1991 and was among the USA Basketball officials who only reluctantly endorsed his inclusion on the Dream Team – are among his most vocal fans.
There simply is no one quite like Charles. He is a human being with flaws, but with enormous compassion. He cares. He keeps giving. Mustard Seed School can’t wait for his return.