It started with a boast. It’s the kind that’s made one-time NBA MVP Charles Barkley perhaps even more famous in retirement as the main mouthpiece of TNT’s Inside the NBA than he was during his Hall of Fame career.
But on a random winter night, Barkley was far from TNT’s Atlanta studios, instead working the Kings-Lakers game in Sacramento with Marv Albert. Filling in as the color analyst for Steve Kerr, Barkley made a snide comment about veteran referee Dick Bavetta.
“Hey, I can outrun Dick Bavetta right now,” Sir Charles said.
“I believe Dick would beat you in a footrace,” Albert countered.
“I can outrun Dick Bavetta right now, Marv,” Barkley shot back.
What followed Barkley’s comment could have only happened with the characters involved: a producer particularly attuned to the entertainment opportunities a personality like Barkley presented; a referee who thrived on a good challenge, loved to run, and had developed a close-knit relationship with the former player (Barkley was one of three presenters when Dick was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2015); and of course Chuck. Because without Chuck, none of this is possible.
So a challenge was issued, a date selected, and the parameters of a footrace between two individuals so far past their athletic prime that it immediately became must-see TV was settled upon. All-Star Saturday arguably had a marquee event that wasn’t the Dunk Contest for the first time in recent memory.
“You see a lot of different things on All-Star weekend,” says Ernie Johnson, host of Inside the NBA, with a nostalgic sigh. “And this was so totally different.”
On February 17, 2007, history—in a sense—was made. Most NBA fans can’t remember who won the All-Star MVP that Sunday, or the Dunk Contest later that night, but in front of 15,694 people at Las Vegas’s Thomas & Mack Center and millions watching at home, they know who won the race between the then-43-year-old Barkley and the then-67-year-old Bavetta.
They also know what happened immediately after it.
Origins of the Race
Barkley’s line about Bavetta might’ve been dismissed or ignored if he worked for a different network. It might have even necessitated one of those ingratiating apologies where a fresh-faced communications staffer a year out of college plays the role of a contrite Barkley and the rest of the world rolls their eyes as he reads the pre-written statement. But that’s not what happened that night in Sacramento. Barkley’s dismissive comment about racing Bavetta became an aha moment for one of the executive producers back in Atlanta.
Tim Kiely, Turner Sports vice president of production and Inside the NBA executive producer: It was me [who thought of actually trying to do it].
Ernie Johnson, host of Inside the NBA: That’s one of those things that no one will ever think of.
Kiely: I lit up like a Christmas tree [when I heard Barkley say it]. I thought, This could be the greatest thing ever. So I asked the league to reach out to Dick and he freakin’ loved it. Once that was settled and Dick was on board, I went to Chuck and said, "We’re going to do this, are you going to do it?" He said, "Hell yeah. Ain’t no 67-year-old man gonna beat the Chuckster." You don’t have to work very hard to get [Barkley] to accept a challenge like that.
Johnson: The whole thing was just ridiculous from start to finish. The fact that Charles had even issued the challenge anyway, that he could challenge a 70-something [he was 67 at the time of the race] year-old man. And Dick is such a good-hearted, wonderful man. I think everybody knew it would be great theater to watch it happen in Vegas.
Charles Barkley, via NBA.com: I was like, The guy is 70 years old, he can’t outrun me. That’s what I was saying to myself.
Dick Bavetta, via Vice: People make fun of me. I have thin legs. I don't have an imposing figure. But I always would say to these young officials coming in, "A racehorse has thin legs, a greyhound has thin legs, and they're running forever."
Inside the NBA is built around the premise that all friends spend time ribbing each other as they take in the game. So why not show that same camaraderie among NBA stars? Except, unlike most NBA stars, Charles Barkley doesn’t mind acting as the butt of the joke. In fact, he almost prefers it. Once the Bavetta challenge had been accepted, the real fun began. There are few, if any, athletes with a resume like Barkley who are willing to sacrifice themselves at the altar of comedy. But he embraced it, which made it that much more fun for the whole crew and viewers at home.
Johnson: There were a few shorter races in the parking lot leading up because Charles felt he had to back it up and prove that he was faster than most people thought he was.
Kiely: The genesis of that was we were doing things showing Chuck training horribly and putting up graphics of Chuck’s face and Dick’s face and all that sort of stuff. We kept poking, poking. Every Thursday we tried to come up with something to keep the story alive. And of course, our green room is mayhem. Chuck talks shit, everybody talks shit back to him. Chuck’s the type of person, if you don’t talk shit to him, he’s actually disappointed. He actually wants you to give him shit. Which is again part of his brilliance.
So there were just people piling on and piling on. He turned up [in the green room] and said, “OK, y’all come outside and run.” And five other people—two women and two or three other younger guys—all said, “OK, I’ll do it.”
And we lined them up, ran a 50-yard dash, and Chuck dusted everybody. And a couple of them were in pretty good shape. But Chuck still had those thighs and that ass. There was still a motor left there and that surprised me. I was like, holy hell, he dusted everybody. So at that point, I started to think, Hmm, because I was actually thinking Bavetta was gonna win. And when I saw that, I was like, oh, that’s why he was such a great athlete.
“The whole thing was just ridiculous from start to finish. The fact that Charles had even issued the challenge anyway, that he could challenge a 70-something-Year-Old Man.”
Johnson: I thought [Barkley] had a chance, but I just know what kind of shape Dick Bavetta is in. And how he runs. He would run all the time; he was a runner every day. I think the question was going to be if Chuck was in better shape than we thought.
Barkley, via NBA.com: I was in Las Vegas the week before. I hadn’t ran at all. So a couple nights before the race, I sprinted—you know how they have them long hallways [in the hotel]—so I sprinted all the way down the hallway. So we did the little thing with John Carlos (former pro football player and the 200-meter dash bronze medalist in the ’68 Olympics), and I kinda got a little winded and we only like jogged a hundred yards. So when I got back to the hotel, I said I should do a sprint, just to see what it would feel like. So when I got back to the hotel, I raced down the hall, and I almost like, I get really close, halfway down the hall and my hamstring starts tightening—OHHH, LORDIE! So I was actually like, Lord, please don’t let me get hurt.
Johnson: Believe me, I’m never out with Charles the night before for anything in Las Vegas, much less outside his hallway. He was taking that seriously because he had John Carlos as his coach. [Carlos] called him Black Rhino.
Kiely: I remember Carlos trying to stretch and Charles was rolling around like a beached whale in some of those shots. He literally can’t seem to get himself into a position to even stretch. I can’t believe that Charles, knowing him as I do, stretched more than 10 seconds before a game started. He just went out and balled on natural ability.
The Main Event
All-Star Saturday night can be weirdly flat sometimes. The events frequently disappoint, and the collective air in the arena will get sucked out pretty fast if a player underwhelms—like Chris “Birdman" Andersen did during his lone turn in the Dunk Contest a couple years before Vegas hosted the festivities. The Barkley-Bavetta race was different, though. The buildup had been gaining steam for weeks, so the anticipation and excitement was ratcheted up to a level not seen on All-Star Saturday night since Vinsanity, T-Mac, and Stevie Franchise took part in the iconic 2000 Dunk Contest.
But as the race neared—it was three and a half full-court sprints where your foot had to touch the baseline—the crowd was losing its collective mind.
Johnson: It took Dick Bavetta a really long time to just get his pants off.
Kiely: I remember we talked in the green room and [Barkley] was nervous. Because—despite it being in the middle of the arena, and he’s used to that—he was still out of his element: He wasn’t going to go out and shoot hoops. So he was nervous, but he didn’t say anything to me like, “Oh shit, I don’t want to do this.”
Chuck’s usually good for a head sweat as he’s walking into a situation, and he was doing his usual head sweat, but I just wrote that off. I did go to him once, right before we hit air because I had to leave and go to the truck to produce, and I said, “You’re gonna do this, right, because we’re all set up?” He’s like, “Hell, yeah.” I was like, “OK, good.” That was to make sure he was gonna show up and actually do it because I knew Dick Bavetta was gonna be standing there.
Johnson: It was like one of these match races of man against a horse. This was a Hall of Famer against a legendary official and just to see it, I remember how excited the building was. [The race] was really, really anticipated; the fans were really into it. The arena was so alive.
Barkley got off to an early lead and was much more explosive than Bavetta. Barkley maintained a healthy lead until the final half-court sprint when he decided to taunt Bavetta by backpedaling the final 20 feet. Barkley stumbled across half-court first, fell on his ass, and celebrated the victory on his back. Bavetta dove for the finish and almost nipped Barkley at the end. The ultra-hyped race lasted just 23 seconds.
Bavetta, via USA TODAY: I honestly thought I could win the race. I had no doubts in my mind that I could do the prescribed distance.
Kiely: Yeah, I did take Chuck [against the other guys in the truck] and I won a little money. It was good.
While many will never forget the race, the ensuing embrace between Barkley and Bavetta might’ve broken Twitter if the social media platform had been more mainstream at the time. (It wasn’t yet a year old.) But the kiss is now permanently emblazoned in the collective consciousness of all NBA fans, like Michael Jordan’s free-throw line jump in the 1988 Dunk Contest, and Magic Johnson’s 1992 All-Star Game MVP after being diagnosed with HIV. Except, their embrace was completely spontaneous, even if it didn’t surprise people who knew the longtime ref.
Johnson: Here’s the deal. If you know Dick Bavetta at all, you’ve probably been kissed by Dick Bavetta. I’ve been kissed by Dick Bavetta. He’s that kind of a guy. He comes up to you after he hasn’t seen you for a while and he gives you a kiss. No, that doesn't surprise me at all.
Steve Kerr, via NBA.com: Everybody remembers where they were the night Dick Bavetta kissed Charles Barkley.
Johnson: [Charles] never takes himself that seriously; he’s able to laugh at himself, and you don’t always find that in former athletes. You find some guys who get into TV, and, we can have some fun, but let’s not make me the butt of the joke or anything like that. Here’s a guy who, right after we hired him, we used to weigh him. He’s a people person. You know when you’re that high profile a guy, you’re always going to attract attention, you’re always going to attract a crowd, and he’s been nothing but accommodating all those times.
Kiely: In my job as a television producer, I have been given no greater gift than Charles Barkley. It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened. Because of his attitude, because of his willingness to be made fun of, which makes him human, which I think is the biggest appeal of him. I think his honesty is what people like, or some people don’t. But he always is willing to turn it back around and make fun of himself or allow us to make fun of him and never say, “What the fuck did you do that for?” He’s like, “Bring it on.”
So [the race] was like Christmas Day for me and opening up a little Red Ryder BB gun.
TNT will exclusively present live coverage of NBA All-Star 2017 marquee events from New Orleans, Feb. 16-19. The Inside the NBA studio show—with host Ernie Johnson and analysts Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal—will air live from the NBA on TNT Road Show, on-site in New Orleans.