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Ranking Charles Barkley's 10 Most Defining Moments in the NBA

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2017

Ranking Charles Barkley's 10 Most Defining Moments in the NBA

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    Charles Barkley, who turned 50 on Feb. 20, was one of the NBA's all-time greats, and his career featured a nearly equal split between his on-court excellence and off-court blunders.

    He's no stranger to the police blotter or the NBA record books. He maximized his talents in a way that no 6'4" basketball player had ever done before or has ever done since.

    One cannot attempt to assemble Barkley's lasting legacy without a thorough examination of the many different roles he played during his 16 NBA seasons. He was indefensible in some of his actions, inspirational in others.

    Whether considered one of the game's greats or its greatest problem, there's one aspect of Barkley on which his supporters and detractors all agree—he was brutally honest.

    Attempting to highlight Barkley's 10 most defining moments is an exhaustive effort given all of the good and bad that he brought to the league.

    Still, these rise above the rest.

10. A Golden Performance in Game 3, 1994

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    The 1993-94 season proved to be a trying year for Barkley.

    Injuries limited him to just 65 games in the regular season, the lowest total of his career at the time. His scoring (21.6 points per game) dropped to an eight-year low.

    Despite shouldering the lingering effects of his various ailments, though, he fought his body and the Golden State Warriors defense en route to one of the finest postseason showings in league history.

    In Game 3 of the Warriors vs. Suns first-round matchup, Barkley shredded Golden State with 56 points. His offensive efficiency (23-of-31 from the field) was a sight to behold. He rounded out his stat line with 14 rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block in 41 minutes of work.

9. Winning the Rebounding Title, 1986-87

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    Barkley didn't make his NBA debut quietly.

    A productive collegiate career at Auburn University earned him the fifth overall draft slot in the 1984 draft. He joined a talented Philadelphia 76ers team led by a pair of Hall of Famers in Moses Malone and Julius Erving and showed that he was worthy of his lofty draft status by putting up 14.0 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.

    But after two supportive seasons to open his career, Barkley emerged as the face of the franchise in the 1986-87 season. Malone had been traded to the Washington Bullets, and the 36-year-old Erving was playing in his 11th and final NBA season.

    Barkley proved more than capable of handling the newfound responsibility, leading Philly with 23.0 points per game and capturing the only rebounding title of his career (14.6 rebounds per game, including 5.7 offensive boards).

    He's the shortest player to ever lead the league in boards. (He's tied if you buy his listed 6'6" height, but he leads at his natural 6'4" size.)

8. Standing Up to Superman, 1999

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    The Los Angeles Lakers were on the cusp of the team's run of three straight championships under coach Phil Jackson in the 1999-2000 season.

    The Lakers had the biggest star in the game, Shaquille O'Neal. O'Neal packed hordes of athleticism in his 7'1", 325-pound frame.

    Defenders wanted nothing to do with "Diesel" near the basket, and no player was foolish enough to put himself on the big man's bad side.

    Other than Barkley, that is.

    In a Nov. 10 meeting between O'Neal's Lakers and Barkley's Rockets, O'Neal swatted Barkley's layup attempt and then shoved him aside. Barkley quickly threw the ball at O'Neal, and the two giants crashed to the floor interlocked with one another.

    The moment may not have been Barkley's most brilliant decision, but it showcased his refusal to back down from a perceived challenge.

7. Honoring a Living Legend, 1991-92

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    The 1991-92 NBA season was unlike anything the league had experienced in its existence.

    Los Angeles Lakers superstar Magic Johnson abruptly retired following his announcement that he had tested positive for HIV. Arguably the game's brightest star at the time, Johnson received a rocky response from his peers. Some players balked at the possibility of ever sharing the floor with him again.

    But he did find one unwavering supporter in Barkley. "Sir Charles" donned the No. 32 jersey in honor of Johnson over the course of his final season with the 76ers.

    Barkley came to the defense of his Dream Team running mate in a way that only he could. "We're just playing basketball," Barkley said. "It's not like we're going out to have unprotected sex with Magic."

6. Carrying Himself out of the League, 2000

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    On the surface, Barkley's NBA career ended in unceremonious fashion.

    Outside of the brawl with O'Neal, Sir Charles' final season began with a rather forgettable 18 games. Things then spiraled from bad to worse when he ruptured his left quadriceps tendon in a December game at Philadelphia.

    All signs pointed to this being the end of his illustrious career. The Rockets' aging core was already worn down following the lockout-shortened schedule, and while they were competitive, they held no realistic championship hopes.

    But it was far from the storybook ending that he had envisioned. And it was one he had no intention of leaving as his final mark on the basketball floor.

    So Barkley embarked on a grueling four-month rehab. He worked himself into good enough shape for one final appearance on the NBA hardwood, recording two points, one assist, one rebound and one block in six minutes.

    It was as inspirational as six minutes of NBA hoops will ever be.

5. Supersonic Showing in Game 7, 1993

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    On the heels of his MVP 1992-93 campaign, Barkley seemed more determined than ever to see his efforts rewarded with a championship. After opening the postseason with consecutive home losses to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Suns then rattled off seven wins in their next nine games.

    Phoenix made its third Western Conference Final in its last five seasons and figured to need a heavy dose of Barkley to push the franchise back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1976.

    But Barkley's teammates did the heavy lifting in leading the Suns to a 2-1 advantage over the Seattle SuperSonics. Barkley tallied just 28 points in the two wins—a number he had already surpassed in four different games in the playoffs.

    But Barkley knew his team needed more from him, particularly when the Sonics tied the series with a Game 4 win. He butchered Seattle's defense with a triple-double in a Game 5 Suns win (43 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists), but the Sonics answered in Game 6, holding Barkley to just 13 points.

    That set the biggest stage for Barkley's NBA career to date, and the little big man made the most of the moment. He scored 44 points (on 60 percent shooting) and corralled 24 rebounds (including 10 offensive boards) in the Suns' decisive 123-110 series-clinching win.

4. Nasty Night in New Jersey, 1991

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    Barkley had many regrettable moments throughout his career, but he wishes he could only delete one of them from the history books.

    Late in the 1990-91 season, Barkley's 76ers traveled to New Jersey for a meeting with the Nets.

    He was in the midst of yet another dominant performance, one which would eventually see him drop 32 points, 17 rebounds and six assists.

    But a particularly nasty, racist heckler held Barkley's ear throughout the night. Eventually, the verbal assaults reached an unbearable level, and Barkley tried to spit on the culprit.

    But the spit missed its target and instead hit a little girl sitting nearby. The ugly incident earned him a $10,000 fine and a suspension without pay.

    Yet somehow, Barkley managed to turn this tale into a heartwarming one over time. He befriended the girl and her family, providing tickets to future games and other things (via NBA.com).

3. Barkley Goes West, 1992-93

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    Barkley spent the first eight seasons of his career in Philadelphia, establishing himself as one of the game's most unique offensive weapons along the way.

    Outside of his rookie season, he never averaged fewer than 20.0 points and 10.1 rebounds per game as a member of the 76ers. He became an All-Star Game fixture, making the All-Star trek in each of his final six seasons in Philly.

    But his individual success rarely carried over to his team. The Sixers made six playoff trips in his eight seasons but only once made it out of the second round (during his rookie season).

    Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns in a three-for-one deal before the 1992-93 season. The Suns had made four straight postseason appearances before Barkley's arrival, but he quickly took over the team's leadership role. 

    Barkley dazzled in his first season in the desert, totaling 25.6 points and 12.2 rebounds per game en route to his only MVP award. Barkley carried the Suns to the NBA Finals, where they ultimately fell to Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in six games.

2. Role Reversal, 1993

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    Nike sparked national debate over its commercial campaign surrounding Barkley, with the hoops star declaring, "I am not a role model."

    There were strong sentiments on both sides of the issue.

    Supporters said Barkley wasn't wrong in his statement. They said parents, not basketball players, should be responsible for the characters instilled in their children.

    Detractors said Barkley was put in a position of prominence, heavily compensated for it and therefore a role model even if he had no desire to be one.

    Sports stars are held to a high regard and owe the fans a certain amount of responsibility for their monetary support, but it's still tough to argue with Barkley's baseline sentiment. He's paid to dominate on the basketball court, and even with his questionable decision-making, that's exactly what he did.

1. Game 6 Loss, 1997

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    After 12 successful seasons split between Philadelphia and Phoenix, Barkley still carried a strong desire to capture the one thing missing from his career—an NBA championship.

    The Suns then set him up with the best chance to realize that dream by trading him in 1996 to a Houston Rockets team that had won two of the past three titles.

    Barkley joined a Hall of Fame Rockets core that included Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon. At 33 years old, he was the youngest of the three, but the trio was still wildly productive on the floor (all averaged at least 18.0 points per game that season).

    But the Rockets couldn't solve the Utah Jazz's own historic combo of John Stockton and Karl Malone.

    Houston and Utah split the first four games of the Western Conference Finals, with both teams protecting their home courts. The Jazz built a 3-2 advantage behind their Game 5 win in Utah.

    When the series went back to Houston, the Rockets had no answer for the balanced Jazz starters. Each Utah starter scored at least 15 points, with Malone and Stockton combining for 49.

    And Barkley could never get himself going. He finished with 20 points in 39 minutes but shot just 38.5 percent from the field.

    The game proved to be Barkley's last realistic shot at a title. He played three more seasons in Houston, but the Rockets never made it out of the first round.

    Fair or not, this forever added an asterisk alongside Barkley's achievements. It left him destined to be remembered as one of basketball's greatest players to have never won a championship.

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