Feb. 2, 2012
By Matt Winkeljohn
Sasha Goodlett was first into the video room Thursday morning. With her teammates queueing up behind her and all of them expecting a final preview of that evening’s opponent, she came eye-to-nose with a big bald dude the moment she walked through the door.
Later she said, “I thought, ‘Hmmm. This guy looks a lot like Charles Barkley.’ “
A moment or so later, Goodlett realized her intuition was reality.
Chuck was in the house.
“How you doin’?” he said to Georgia Tech’s senior center as they shook hands.
And so it went, right through the entire roster.
As the Yellow Jackets took their seats, there was more schoolgirl giggling than you might imagine, perhaps because head coach MaChelle Joseph knew this was going to happen but didn’t tell her team.
The bus that was to take them to Gwinnett County prior to Thursday evening’s game against N.C. State was, after all, idling just outside the Zelnak Center doors, as per usual.
There’s little common about Barkley, the NBA Hall of Fame forward, member of the original Olympic Dream team, Saturday Night Live host and ever-amusing television personality.
He and Joseph have been acquainted for years, and there are other connections in the Tech women’s program that conspired to bring Barkley across 10th Street from the TNT/NBA TV, etc. offices where he commutes from his home in Phoenix to work a couple days a week (and two straight months in March and April).
“It’s my pleasure. I just want to tell you how proud I am of y’all,” Barkley told the room once everyone was sitting. “Y’all understand what college is all about. I’ve been a big proponent of education.
“I’m not happy with the state of the men’s game [in general] as far as academics. Going to Georgia Tech, I don’t have to worry about that with y’all. Georgia Tech is a great school. It ain’t a good school, it’s a great school, and I know you’re all going to get your education. That’s what this whole thing is about.”
There was some sermonizing on the virtues of the women’s academic diligence mixed in with diverse opinion on the state of men’s college basketball. On that topic, Barkley waxed polemic.
“On the men’s side, I just think it’s a travesty what’s happening,” he said. “I used to didn’t have a dog in the fight, but now we broadcast the NCAA Tournament and I told [NCAA president Mark] Emmert, ‘It’s a joke. We signed a check to y’all for $11 billion, and you’re not graduating your kids. “They’re not ever going to pay kids, and I’ll tell you why. They can’t pay everybody. Can’t pay the women’s team and the men’s team, the diving team … they’re never going to be able to pay everybody. But they have a moral obligation to graduate people.”
There’s not space here to detail all that Barkley said, but he circled back to education and its value a few times. He also reminded the Jackets of the opportunity they have as scholarship student-athletes.
This is chopped up and merged together because he approached topics much as he does while on air — as if waving a verbal machine gun in several directions.
“People ask me what is my biggest regret in life, and I say, ‘If I could go back to college, I would make sure that I did better and my friends did better in school.’ Now that I’m removed from the situation, I can see how some of their lives turned out,” Barkley said.
“We weren’t worried about getting our education … I was blessed to play in the NBA. It was the greatest job, but I look at all my [college] teammates, and we didn’t do good in school … I wish more schools had the academic standards of Georgia Tech. It’s going to dictate the rest of your life.”
The adrenaline of competition still gets Barkley going, but the buzz he drew from big-time competitive basketball — at the collegiate, professional and international levels — is gone for good for him. He wishes it weren’t, but it is, and so is the rare dynamic of being on a college team. That, he reminded the Jackets, is to be treasured.
“I miss playing basketball. Once you leave this team, you’re probably not going to play again. It ain’t going to be no fun playing around the neighborhood,” he suggested. “You’re part of a team, and that’s a really cool thing.
“I went to Auburn a couple weeks ago, and I hadn’t seen some of the guys in 25 years, and it was really cool. It was like we never left each other. When you’re part of a team, you’re always going to be friends.
“Y’all get to travel. I had never left Alabama until I went to college. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m in Kentucky.’ [Other college students] are not getting to do the stuff you’re doing. Basketball has given me everything. I’ve been to China, Japan, Germany … all because of basketball.
“I was recently at my 30-year high school reunion. They go to Florida once a year for vacation. I said I just got back from China. They were like, ‘You were in China?’ I grew up in a small town [Leeds] outside of Birmingham. I’ve been to France, Spain … it’s because of basketball. You all get to travel and have fun.”
Barkley took some questions, although there were just a couple. Goodlett said that was probably because the Jackets, “were in shock.”
Ty Marshall asked the former Tiger to mediate a debate within the team. “Who’s better, Kobe or LeBron?” she asked.
“That’s a question? Are you kidding?” Barkley said. “I’m a big LeBron James fan. The difference between him and Kobe, and guys like Michael, is … Michael and Kobe will kill you to score.
“I think LeBron is a pass-first guy. He’s a great, great player, but I think … Michael and Kobe want to get 60 points a night. LeBron wants a triple double.”
How about that? Known for attacking questions and rolling his opinion out there as if it were no big deal, Barkley dodged.
He didn’t skirt when asked his approach to rebounding. Perhaps the greatest inch-for-inch rebounder in modern NBA history (if not all NBA history), Barkley offered insight.
“I wasn’t very good in high school. I played with a bunch of really good players, and they wouldn’t pass me the ball. I said if I want the ball, I better go get it. The key to rebounding is you better go get the ball. Just hold that box out for a second, and then go get it.”
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