Getting Charles Barkley talking has never been difficult, it’s getting him to stop that’s the problem. Only why would you ever want to? On this Tuesday morning, the Turner analyst and Hall of Famer is holding court to a whole slew of media during what is technically an introduction to this year’s Turner/CBS March Madness coverage. Reporters come and go as Barkley—a pair of Diet Cokes on ice in front of him—happily opines on, well, everything. He even speaks out on speaking out, an Xzibit-meme-in-real-life moment if there ever was one: “Athletes have always spoke out, man, It’s just more visible now because of social media. The only difference now is people got Twitter and Facebook and all that other crap.”
He jumps from topic to topic with ease, occasionally repeating anecdotes as the audience refreshes itself. Asked about the recent NCAA investigations as the Final Four and National Championship games return to TBS, Barkley defends the college system. Or, more accurately, he defends the college players: “I tend to look at the big picture. Is the NCAA perfect? Not even close. But—I don’t want these people out there telling young black kids education is not important. Education is really important.”
He then spins back to the NBA, into a well-worn rut lamenting the rise of the 3-pointer: “I don’t think it’s been great for the game that we made it so everyone shoots threes now,” he says. “The level of basketball in the NBA is why we’ve got four good teams—they’ve taken the big man out of the game and got him shooting threes,” before acknowledging the the Rockets have done quite well with it. Then, this: “The Toronto Raptors are the best team in the East,” Barkley says. “I think they’re gonna win the East.”
During lulls, we managed to pull something of a one-on-one session from the group chat. Seeing that nothing is out of bounds, and seeing that he’s fresh off his fourth time hosting Saturday Night Live, it seems like the right time to ask him about his first time hosting, back in September of 1993. What follows is our questions in bold, cut with some more of his general conversation.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
What do you remember from the first time you hosted Saturday Night Live in 1993?
I remember Nirvana. That’s what I remember about it the most. I didn’t know a lot about them, and people told me they were the hottest band in the country, and they were. I did a little research afterwards. I remember Courtney and Kurt, they were really nice, that’s what I remember the most.
What was it like doing the monologue the first time?
It’s nerve-wracking doing the monologue. I mean, it’s a live audience, and I’d never read cue cards before and you just don’t want to stumble. But you’re nervous. I was nervous this time.
But this time you seemed to know what you wanted to talk about.
Well, I’d been practicing it all week. Because like when you do SNL, like Sterling Brown doing it this week, he had to be there [Monday]. Your first two days you spend working on your monologue and talking about different skits you want to try, and then you start rehearsing on Wednesday. So I started working on my monologue on Thursday, but I was fucking tired. Because I work from like 10 in the morning to 11 o’clock at night, and then Friday I worked from 9 o’clock in the morning to 2 in the morning. And then I had to be back Saturday and then you do the first show at like 8 o’clock. We did two skits that we didn’t get to Saturday night, we ran out of time.
As outspoken as Barkley is both in interview settings and on TNT’s Inside the NBA, he’s never embraced social media—which is strange, since Twitter at least seems like it was tailor made for Barkley’s tendency toward definitive pronouncements. He’s spoken about why before, but we thought this would be a good time to get it all on the record again, and maybe even change his mind. Well, try to change his mind anyway.
What would it take to get you on Twitter?
What would it take to get me on Twitter? Nothin’. Never.
It’s funny because you’d be great at it.
No. Because honesty is never great. You have to remember something about honesty: People only want honesty when they agree with you. Like everybody always says they want you to be honest, they really mean I want you to be honest but I only want you to be honest if I agree with you.
But you get to be honest on TNT.
I do. Yes, but if I open myself up on Twitter, I have to hear from some jackass in Maine or Montana or South Dakota, Phoenix, and I don’t want to get in an argument where I say something—you have to understand something, when I was talking to the Alabama football team this year, Coach [Nick] Saban asked me to speak to them before the season, I said you guys need to be really careful with this social media stuff, and I told them for a couple of reasons. I said you guys are 18 years old, and they ask an 18-year-old kid about Charlottesville, Virginia, that’s not fair. They ask an 18-year-old kid about national anthem protests, that’s not fair. But you’ve got to understand why I don’t do social media. There’s people who, their only goal in life is to say something to piss you off. And it doesn’t matter what they say though. Your response back to them is the one that’s gonna blow up ESPN or the internet. And I might be in a bad mood, somebody might have died in my family, I might have had a fight at home, I might be drunk, and the last thing I want to do is to say something that I can’t get back that’s going to live forever. I’ve done enough stupid things in my life, you have to live with those. But this internet thing man, it’s a dangerous thing for people. I mean it has a lot of good things, but I choose to eliminate that possibility.
What would it take to get me on Twitter? Nothin’. Never.
Because you’re enough of a public figure where it’s like—
Yeah. I get enough shit from Ernie [Johnson] and Kenny [Smith] on their Twitter accounts. They tell me stuff people say because people actually think we care who wins. I don’t give a shit who wins. Like Ernie goes “Charles, who do you think’s gonna win?” And I say who, he says “man, they’re killing you down in Texas because you picked against their team.” I’m like dude, I don’t care who wins. It’s not personal. But that’s the negativity that comes when you talk to idiots on the internet. And I choose to totally eliminate that out of my life. People can walk up and be an asshole to me, I’m gonna walk away and let it go. But that’s the one part of my life I never have to worry about. I do no social media ever. And I’m never going to.
At some point Barkley will stop doing regular media too, which will be a shame, and that day might come sooner than we’d like. As fun as Inside is, Barkley doesn’t need to keep working. And while he’s under contract through the 2024-25 season, well, we’ll see. Not many have been able to keep Barkley from doing something he doesn’t want to.
“I just turned 55 and I want to retire young enough so I can enjoy life,” he says. “I don’t think you can work til you’re 65 or 70 and then say you’re going to enjoy life.
“I want to retire young enough where I can do my golfing and fishing every day. I just don’t feel the need to work ‘til the day I die. I’ve been blessed, I’ve saved my money and invested it well. People work til they drop dead, that’s just stupid.”
And he has been working, contrary to all those rumors that Barkley doesn’t even watch games anymore. “I’ve watched three college basketball games a day for the last two months, basically,” he says. All-Star flows into March Madness, then right into the playoffs. Basketball, as Nike once said, never stops.
It has to be easier to know when to walk away as an athlete than it is as a commentator though.
No it’s not. It’s hard to know when to walk away because what happens when you’re an athlete you try and have one more good year that never comes. Because you know you suck as a player and your ego says “let me have one more good year and I’ll leave on a high note,” and what ends up happening you end up playing like two years, three years too long, because your ego says “I know I suck but let me have one more hurrah.” Like I want people to say “he could actually play his last year.”
With that, the conversation slips seamlessly from sports to politics, as someone brings up the time he talked about running for governor of Alabama, and whether he’d ever actually do it. His answer to this, as they usually are, is definitive. “No,” he says firmly. “Those people crazy. The Republicans and the Democrats. They’re both crazy. They’re making a fool out of us. They’re not doing anything but arguing on TV every day. It’s a joke.” And who would know more about arguing on TV than Charles Barkley?
How do we break out of that cycle?
I don’t know, you know, it’s so bad now. That’s a great question. I wish I knew. As a black person, I’m so disappointed in the Democratic party, because I’ve voted Democrat my entire life, and they just makin’ a fool out of us black people. Ain’t did shit for us. I voted Democrat every single election my entire life, and when I look around at my communities, the situation we’re in, the public school system and things like that, they’ve done shit for us. I’m not saying Republicans are better now, because they’re not. But we have never held the Democrats accountable for taking all our black votes for granted through history.
Do you think we get a viable third party in our lifetime?
There’s too much money in it now. I don’t know if you could raise enough money as that third party. Because the Democrats and the Republicans are so entrenched with their donors.
I just wonder if there are enough people who are upset now.
I think there’s enough. I think we been there.