Charles Barkley surveys the charred wreckage of his life following events of the past seven days? No, although the metaphor is apt.
This is Charles talking with my friend Steve Yingling, in the aftermath of a South Lake Tahoe forest fire that destroyed Steve's home — and about 200 others — in July of 2007. That's where our little story begins.
I thought it appropriate to revisit this little snapshot in time, considering all the grief Barkley has been getting lately. Hey, he earned it, no doubt; running a red light while drunk to get a blow job will even get you arrested in Amsterdam. But when we widen the scope and ask the question, is Charles Barkley a bad person?, I believe a little perspective is in order.
Steve's the sports editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, who, among other notable accomplishments, won our fantasy football league this season despite having drafted Tom Brady with the No. 1 pick. About a year and a half ago, he was not so lucky. That's when the Angora Fire swept through a large portion of the southwest side of the Tahoe basin, displacing upwards of 3,500 residents and causing about $160 million in damage.
One thinks of South Tahoe as a resort area and in many respects it is. But it's mostly a blue collar community with small town sensibilities, where people like Steve work and live and raise their kids. Steve and his wife and his two kids were among the people who lost their homes in the fire, and I mean they lost everything. No freaking fun.
Steve has covered the American Century Celebrity golf tournament each of its 17 years of existence, and has interacted often with Barkley, who plays in the tournament every year. And when he heard about the disaster, Barkley's first order of business was to visit the fire zone. Next, he wrote a check for $25,000 to the fire victims fund. He then asked Steve's son, Jordan, what he could do for him.
"Could you get me a ball signed by Michael Jordan?" the 14-year-old asked. "Done," Barkley replied. "Michael does what I tell him to do."
The result is pictured to the left.
"If we stay over there at the golf and casino, we're not going to think anything is going on here,'' Barkley said while touring the fire zone. "That's why I wanted to come here with a camera. When you live in different parts of the country and they show you two houses burned down, you don't get the full effect."
Tahoe has been the scene of many of Barkley's most notorious escapades; in 2006 he chugged Patron and purchased drinks for practically everyone at Harrah's on Saturday night until the sun came up. But the following year, he was on a different mission.
"I didn't think it was appropriate for us to be out here just having fun playing golf when so many people experienced such devastation," Barkley said. "After seeing the fire area, I wanted to do something for them."
His generosity didn't stop there. That Friday, he took 200 firefighters to dinner at Sammy Hagar's Cabo Wabo Club at the Hard Rock Cafe at Harveys, picking up the entire check. In tow was none other than Dan Quayle, giving Barkley an impressive double-double; bringing out the philanthropist in both Michael Jordan and Quayle on the same weekend. Before he left, Barkley gave another 75 grand to the fund for displaced families; making his total donation the second largest received, next to Harrah's/Harveys.
One year later, South Lake Tahoe paid tribute with Charles Barkley Day, planting a tree at Edgewood Golf Course in his honor, which Barkley promptly hit off the first tee.
"The thing is, with anyone else you would assume it was all a publicity stunt," Steve told me. "But Barkley's concern is real. He cares about people, and it's not an act. You'd never be able to talk bad about him around my kids, I know that. The guy's an anomaly."
I guess the moral of the story is that we're all anomalies; made up of several moving parts, some functioning at all times, some not. Unless you've got several heads stored in a basement freezer or enjoy the music of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, nobody is truly a bad person. Meeting adjourned.