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.