Who loves ya, Oklahoma?
Charles Barkley, that's who.
I know some of the things that the TNT analyst has said and done in the past would lead you to believe otherwise. There was the whole “Oklahoma is nothing but vast wasteland” comment, then there was the promise to visit Oklahoma that went unfulfilled for six years.
Had the Thunder failed to make the Western Conference Finals, which is being broadcast by TNT, I suspect we'd still be waiting on that visit from the network's basketball blabbermouth.
But the Thunder made it.
So did Chuck.
And after spending four hours with him Friday afternoon on a tour of Oklahoma City, I can tell you with certainty that he doesn't hate our state or our city. Truth be told — you might want to brace yourself here — he is actually quite fond of them.
Wherever we went, you could see the love between Charles and Oklahomans. It started from the beginning when we walked into Cattlemen's for lunch. People cheered, hollering greetings and snapping photos.
“Hello, hello,” Barkley said as he would many times Friday.
When people started gathering near our table with cameras or phones in hand, Barkley's body guard held them off at first. He eventually approached Barkley, whispered something in his ear, then started allowing people to approach.
Ann Hussong was among the first.
“I just want to say I shook your hand,” she told Barkley. “My kids will be so impressed.”
“What's your name?” he asked.
“Thanks for the hospitality.”
“Oh, you're enjoying it here?”
“I'm having a blast. Everybody's fantastic.”
Hussong lowered her voice a bit.
“We're country,” she said.
“I'm from the country,” Barkley said. “I'm from Alabama.”
Barkley grew up in Leeds, Ala., only about 10 minutes from Birmingham. In truth, he was reared in a place that is not all that different from Oklahoma City by people who are not all that different from Oklahomans.
Barkley is a bit of a kindred spirit. He shakes every hand. He smiles for every photo. He signs every autograph.
He did it at Cattlemen's, where he had a steak well-done, by the way. He did it on an Oklahoma River Cruises ferry, where he stood inside the cabin among a bunch of kids and answered every question. He did it at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial, where he was visibly moved by the pictures and the mementos and the chairs. He did it inside the USRowing Oklahoma City Training Center, where a bunch of past, current and future Olympians put him through some of their paces.
Yep, Sir Charles got a bit of a workout.
It started with a spin on one of the stationary kayak machines, then moved to one of the stationary rowing machines. Barkley crammed his size 16 shoes into the straps and folded his 6-foot-5 frame onto the machines.
“You think you can get down to 160?” Bryan Volpenhein, one of the most decorated rowers in U.S. history, said of the racing weight goal for all rowers.
“If I'm dead,” Barkley quipped.
Volpenhein and Co. pushed those bounds when they put Barkley in their indoor propulsion tank. The set-up is meant to perfectly replicate a boat in the water, though I suspect it would've had difficulty had it actually been in the water.
At first, Barkley was just out of sync with the other four guys in the boat.
But then, they increased the water flow.
Other athletes around the tank hooted and hollered as Barkley tried to keep up with the others. When the water finally stopped, his eyes were wide and his breathing was heavy. He even put his hand to his heart.
Here's the truth — he could've taken a pass on the whole scene. A TNT camera crew was rolling on the whole scene for a package that will run during Saturday night's pregame show. Our photo guy Nate Billings was snapping away on his camera.
But Barkley is comfortable in his own skin.
“I don't worry too much about how my personality plays,” he said. “No matter what you say, half the people like it and half the people don't like it.”
He learned that early on in his playing career.
“I'm from a small town, a reporter would ask me questions, and I would try to be honest,” he said, remembering the complaints that would always flood in. “It doesn't matter what you say. It could be on any subject. Half the people are going to agree, and half the people are going to disagree.
“So by my third or fourth year in the league, I made up my mind, ‘You know what? I'm going to say what the hell I want to say. If they're going to get mad either way …'”
Barkley has been that way ever since. He is opinionated, yes, but more than that, he's honest.
When we started talking about the time Barkley told then-Oklahoma City Hornet point guard Chris Paul that he figured everyone here had chickens and cows in their backyards, I told him that I thought CP3 really liked it in Oklahoma.
“I think everybody likes it here,” he said.
He was serious, Oklahoma.
“As a player, I don't think you can beat it. It inspires you to play in front of crowds every night.”
Told you he liked us.
Riding one of the Oklahoma Spirit trolleys as our tour wound down, Barkley pooh-poohed the idea that he ever hated Oklahoma City. Ditto for San Antonio, which he's said a few not-so-nice things about, too.
“You know what's funny about the whole Oklahoma City thing and San Antonio thing?” he said. “They're both great cities, but I love joking around and making people laugh. Oklahoma City's a very nice city, got a lot to do. The same thing about San Antonio. I just like giving them a hard time. It's just about trying to make people enjoy watching basketball.
“The thing that's cool about both cities — they've probably got the best fan bases in the NBA.”
Gosh, you're making us blush, Charles.
I don't know about you, Oklahoma, but suddenly, he doesn't seem all that turrible.