BIRMINGHAM, Alabama. The revelation by two-time Basketball Hall of Famer Charles Barkley that he’s lost more than $10 million gambling over the years has led to an outpouring of support in his hometown, where locals point to the good he’s done for numerous charities.
Barkley: “I’ll bet you six to one I can lick this thing.”
“He’s one of our biggest supporters,” says Children’s Hospital CEO Mack Doolin, M.D. “We’re going to stick with him until he gets this thing licked. He just needs to learn how to set limits,” says Doolin, who has counseled others with addictions.
And so Doolin is at Barkley’s side as he enters Leeds Elementary School to participate in “Spring Fling Carnival,” a fund-raiser for its PTO. “It’s a baby step,” says Barkley, “but I’ve got to start out small.”
“Shh–don’t tell him. The Fishin’ Hole’s rigged!”
Barkley draws a crowd of excited fans as he steps up to the Wheel O’ Fun, where fifty cents entitles a player to a spin for a toy or stuffed animal. “Fifty thousand on the red,” Barkley says before Doolin can intervene. “One ticket at a time, Charles,” he says, and the man known as “The Round Mound of Rebound” during his playing days with the Sixers, Suns and Rockets reluctantly agrees.
“Okay,” Barkley says sheepishly before laying down two quarters and winning a noisemaker that makes an annoying “clackety-clack” sound. “I’m gonna shake this sucker next time somebody asks me an embarrassing question on TV,” Barkley says with a mischievous grin, referring to his frequently incendiary comments that get him in hot water.
He moves on to the Action Figure Fishin’ Hole, where children drop a pole behind a bed sheet and the school’s fourth grade class officers attach a plastic superhero to the hook. “I want one of them Ninja Turtles,” Barkley says. Behind the sheet, Nancy Rouchka, class president, giggles as she picks Kimberly, the Pink Power Ranger, from a cardboard box and puts it on the line. When Barkley sees his girlish prize he explodes at Rouchka, causing Assistant Principal Morris Byrum to come running across the cafeteria.
“What’s going on here?” Byrum asks in an excited tone as the class president sobs loudly. “What kinda clip joint you runnin’ here?” Barkley yells at the hapless administrator, before picking him up and tossing him onto the conveyor belt that takes dirty plates back to the dishwasher.
Barkley moves on to the Pez Dispenser Ring Toss, where he decides to try for the Popeye model. “I like that dude ’cause he’s like me–I am what I am.” Barkley plunks down ten dollars for twenty rings, but he soon needs to buy more as he collects Batman, Spiderman and Snoopy–but no Popeye.
A half hour later Barkley is down $50 when Doolin again intervenes. “C’mon, Charles–just walk away–okay?” he says as he takes a roll of quarters from the former Dream Team member and leads him out of the building.
Even though he always said he wasn’t a role model, the kids are sad to see him go. “I wanna be as good as him when I grow up,” says third-grader Tyrone Williams. “Not everybody makes it to the NBA,” his dad cautions him.
“Not at basketball,” Tyrone says. “Texas Hold ‘Em!”