Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2020-21: Charles Barkley, the Voice of the NBA Player

In a ceremony postponed by the pandemic, the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame Class of 2020 will be inducted on Dec. 14 at the New York Hilton. SVG is profiling the nine inductees in the weeks prior. For more information, CLICK HERE.

Many sports fans know Charles Barkley’s manifold nicknames: Sir Charles, the Chuckster, the Round Mound of Rebound. Now they have a new one to learn: Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer.

An unabashed analyst on one of the most successful studio shows in the history of sports entertainment, Inside the NBA, Barkley is always willing to discuss any topic at any time and go toe-to-toe with anyone in the business. His brutal honesty has provided unfettered insights into the psyche of a professional basketball player and a character who plays by his own set of rules.

“There is no one like Charles,” says Turner Sports President Lenny Daniels. “There never will be. He is one of the most influential figures in sports history, with a personality and voice that transcend the entire media industry.”

Long before gracing the masses with his on-air persona, Barkley made his way through the high school basketball ranks in Leeds, AL. Having nabbed a starting spot on the varsity team his senior year, he blossomed into a player who averaged 19.1 points and 17.9 rebounds per game. His efforts led the Leeds High School Green Wave to a 26-3 record in 1981 and the program’s fourth appearance in the state tournament.

His stellar play didn’t garner attention from collegiate coaches, but his luck would change in the state semifinals vs. Huntsville’s S.R. Butler High School. Going against the top-ranked recruit in Alabama, McDonald’s All-America and future NBA sixth-round pick Bobby Lee Hurt, Barkley dropped 26 points and attracted the notice of Auburn University Assistant Coach Charles H. Smith.

During his time with the orange and blue, Barkley ascended to elite-level player, winning the 1984 SEC Player of the Year Award and 1984 SEC Tournament MVP, holding the school record for field-goal percentage at 64.4%, and being named to the All-SEC First Team in 1984 and All-SEC Second Team in 1982 and 1983. The university retired his No. 34 in 2001, making him one of only six players to have their jersey hang in the Auburn Arena rafters in the program’s 116-year history.

Barkley was once an overlooked short and stocky kid from Leeds, but NBA scouts clamored for his instinctual feel for the game and his bulldog tenacity. The Philadelphia 76ers won the sweepstakes and drafted him with the fifth overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft. Over his 16-year professional career, he racked up countless accolades, including 11 All-Star appearances, back-to-back Olympic gold medals with the 1992 “Dream Team” in Atlanta and in 1996 in Barcelona, 1993NBA MVP, and the rebounding title in 1988. He was one of six players with 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists; his No. 34 was retired by the 76ers, and he was included in the Phoenix Suns’ Ring of Honor. He was selected for the NBA 50th-Anniversary Team in 1996 and NBA 75th-Anniversary Team in 2021. His playing days culminated with enshrinement in both the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

When he decided to hang up his shoes and retire from the professional game, folks in the NBA knew that Barkley wouldn’t stay away too long.

“With a larger-than-life personality and unique perspective on the game,” says NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, “Charles has endeared himself to generations of NBA fans as he did throughout his Hall of Fame playing career. Charles is one of the smartest, most entertaining, and influential commentators in all of sports.”

After retirement, Barkley joined the 12-year-old Inside the NBA and launched his second act as one of the most beloved — and, at times, most controversial — figures in 20th century sports television. At the time, Turner Sports as a whole was coming of age on the sports scene, and, with the show’s dynamic in the early stages nurtured by Ernie Johnson and Kenny “The Jet” Smith, Barkley began moving the needle with his often-out-of-bounds sense of humor.

“The free-wheeling format at TNT allowed him to be Charles,” notes Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and legendary sportscaster Bob Costa. “He gets away with saying things that would get other people in trouble or gets to do what he wouldn’t be able to do anywhere else.”

As the show picked up steam throughout the mid to late 2000s, Barkley found his niche: part class clown and part basketball genius. Soon enough, serving up knowledgeable information about a certain play or game alongside a hilarious joke was working well with the fanbase.

“He would’ve been a viral sensation,” says Albert “Scooter” Vertino, SVP, programming, Turner Sports, “but we didn’t have the technology back then. I used to talk about how he was kind of like our King Midas: whatever he spoke about turned to gold.”

The “viral” moments were bountiful, but today social media has a field day with his playful antics. For instance, the four-time Sports Emmy Award–winner “guaranteed” that the Brooklyn Nets would sweep the Boston Celtics in the 2021 NBA Eastern Conference First Round after a Nets 130-108 win in Game 2. The Celtics went on to win Game 3, 125-119, to avoid the sweep and ruin Barkley’s prediction. In a popular segment “Who He Play For?”, Barkley tries to guess (and regularly fails) to correctly guess the NBA team that a random player is on.

“This is all about the most respected NBA analyst’s not knowing which teams particular players play for,” says ESPN SportsCenter anchor Stan Verrett. “Everybody has so much fun in the fact that he doesn’t know any of these players.”

Most of the time, his knack for being unpredictable makes for appointment viewing. Fans flock to the pre/postgame and halftime shows during the NBA season to see what Barkley will say next. Over the course of the show’s existence, that could very well be the secret sauce of its success.

“In the history of the business,” says Turner Associate Director Sports Shawn Gerchicoff, “there are three people who you’ll watch regardless of what the score is. The first one was Howard Cosell, the second was John Madden, and now it’s Chuck.”

Similar to the way he played in high school, collegiate, or professional basketball games, Barkley is able not only to share the stage with Johnson, Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal but also to take over the show by commenting on more-serious topics, such as the death of Kobe Bryant or the league’s stance on social-justice issues.

“Our willingness to talk about things other than basketball that are more socially important stems a lot from Charles being on the show,” says Johnson.

Some of the conversations can spark a nuanced and meaningful discussion or draw a backlash from an opposing group, but Barkley remains true to himself and doesn’t let his convictions be swayed by others.

“One thing I like about Charles is that he’s unafraid of input,” says Michael Wilbon, host of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. “Most people that famous and rich want an amen chorus, but he isn’t interested in an amen chorus.”

More than two decades after entering the sports-media landscape, Inside the NBA has won 15 Sports Emmy Awards, has a four-part documentary, and has turned into the prime example of what studio shows strive to become.

“Along with Ernie, Kenny, and Shaq,” says former Turner Sports President David Levy, “[Barkley has helped establish] Inside the NBA as the most iconic sports studio show in the history of television. Off the air, Charles is one of the most gracious and loyal people you will come across and is revered in the halls of Turner Sports because he treats everyone like they are part of his family.”

Barkley continues to offer player-centric viewpoints on the current era of the sport and serve up laughter and lighthearted moments to the beat of his own drum.

“His basketball IQ, quick wit, unfiltered opinions, and self-deprecating demeanor have informed and entertained countless fans,” says Daniels. “He is so deserving of this prestigious honor.”

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