Story Time With Bomb Volume 3...Charles In 3-D: Sweetchuck & The Chuckster
The first, and only time to date, that I met Charles Barkley was late in the evening in Atlantic City. It was the fall of 1987, after the conclusion of our first quarterly marking period. I was 11 years old, in the sixth grade, my first attending middle school.
Charles was my favorite athlete at the time, playing for my favorite team, the Philadelphia 76ers.
It was after I'd just watched Tyson pummel Tyrell Biggs for 7 rounds, alongside my uncle, from the $50 nose-bleed seats in Trump Plaza.
Big fights, especially title fights, even more so peak-era, undefeated, unified world heavyweight champion Iron Mike Tyson fights, are great places to people watch, especially to spot a bunch of celebrities, packed in under one roof, there to have a good time, as you watch them witnessing the same event.
I had 'met' Hall of Fame Giant linebacker Lawrence Taylor that night, on the way out of the fight in the concourse, but didn't actually speak to him. As I approached, he started pushing folks out of the way, like the cops were after him, with a wild look in his eye.
Later in life that look, along with his actions, made much more sense to me.
But back to Charles.....
Sometime shortly after Tyson's cruel bludgeoning of Atlantic City-bred, 1984 Gold Medalist, undefeated Olympian Biggs, was stopped by the referee and scored a TKO, my uncle and I were walking out of Atlantic City's Convention Hall. Clutching my fight program, wearing my white Tyson/Biggs hoodie, an immediately prized piece of clothing in '87/'88 my uncle had copped for me pre-fight at the gift shop.
I waited outside, gawking at a bare-chested then-popular fight promoter named Butch Lewis, who was standing before me wearing a tuxedo vest like it was a wife beater, barking out orders to his minions.
I would go on to wear that hoodie so many days that year in my first year in middle school, that it was on when the rest of the kids cleaned up nice for picture day in our school yearbook. Mom was less impressed, opting not to frame that year's edition of my school picture.
Standing outside with my uncle, I spotted none other than the Round Mound of Rebound, walking out from the sliding doors in a tuxedo, with a couple other similarly dressed, seemingly important people, who signaled the valet for their ride.
"There's Charles Barkley!" I exclaimed to my unc as we looked on from maybe 50 yards or so yards away.
"Go get his autograph", Unc said.
This seemed like a sensible, perhaps even inspired, idea at the time.
But keep in mind I'm an 11-year-old kid, not yet fully confident in my approach.
Nevertheless, I begin creeping across the parking lot with hesitation, can't recall for sure but I might have even turned back the first time.
Got to the start of the pavilion where the valet was, basically a lane of limo cars, across the street from where Charles was hobnobbing with his important friends.
I didn't even have a pen let alone a Sharpie, a thought which occurred to me far too late in the process.
All the sudden after standing still for maybe a second or perhaps a full minute, Charles Barkley made a waving motion with his hand.
I didn't make much of it, he was Charles Barkley, in a tuxedo on fight night, waiting on his ride, talking to others doing the same.
He waved over a second time. This time it really seemed like he was staring right at me, but that must have been in my head.
Looked behind me to see if there was more grown, important men in tuxedos or possibly gorgeous women in evening gowns behind me.
Third time a wave.
Now this time we were at a distance close enough to notice making direct eye contact.
Still wasn't buying it.
"Me?" I said out loud, in an tone of inquiry, while pointing to the middle of my chest, adorned with Mike Tyson/Tyrell Biggs' profile photos on it.
"Yeah, YOU! Boy, get over here!"
All the sudden I was crossing the limo line, to approach the franchise power forward of the Philadelphia 76ers, an intense man whose poster hung on my bedroom wall and whose hanging two-handed power dunks I'd often tried to imitate at the dunkball court two blocks from my house by Kingsway Learning Center as well as the low rim hanging over my buddy's parents garage on Belmont Ave.
Charles continued to motion me closer and soon after he had stopped talking to his other tuxedo-d friends.
"Hi, Mr. Barkley"
"Hey little man, what's your name?"
"Matt", I said, still a few years and nickname shifts away from being know as 'Bomb', among friends.
"You lookin' lost over there son, you need something?:"-The Chuckster.
"Well, I'm a Sixer fan and you're my favorite player, so my uncle told me to ask you to autograph my program"-Young Bambino
"Oh yeah, you here with your uncle, where's he at?"-CB
*pointing across what felt like a football field's worth of concrete from where I had started my slow journey as I noticed my uncle looking on*
Charles Barkley waved.
I waved along with him.
Unc waved back grinning.
"Where you go to school, Matt? What grade you in?" asked Charles.
"Haddonfield Middle School, I'm in sixth grade, it's my first year" came my reply, already developing a habit for long replies to short questions.
"First year of what, middle school?"
"How you like it?"
"How your grades?"
"They're pretty good."
Author's note: I was already, in my mind, lying. That semester I'd received my first 'C'. School was getting quite a bit harder, now that I could no longer coast on natural intellect, and was expected to actually crack open some books, or get into the dirty business of stuff like homework, papers, assigned reading of novels I didn't choose, or sometimes even having to study for tests.
"Hey son, you paused, you tellin' me the truth?"
*more hesitation, barely audible mumble attempt*
"Yeah" (in a voice that lacked bass, even for pre-pubescence)
"What'd you get on your last report card? I wanna hear every class, every grade!"
"Well, I got an A in Math, an A in English, an A- in Social Studies, a B+ in Science, an A in PE, a B+ in Spanish and *trailing off into a barely audible lets-wrap-this-up-mumble*.....a-C-in-Technology*
"Wait little man, you said that last one too quick, say it again"
"A 'C' in Technology"
"Technology?!? What kinda class is that?"
"Well....it's this class where we have like....projects, like we saw wood, use this metal vice, carve stu-"
*Charles cuts me off quick, with an incredulous retort/question*
"You mean SHOP?!?"
*pausing to think*
"Yeah, guess so"
"BOY! How in Thee......HELL......are you gonna get A's & B's in Math, English, and Science then you go turn around and get a C in SHOP?!?"
*struggling to find an answer, twisting and turning inside, no discernible words being produced from my mouth in reply*
"Boy, didn't nobody tell you SHOP the easiest class they got in those damn schools?!?"
Charles Barkley seemed genuinely pissed, as was my father when he saw the same mark a month earlier.
Nevertheless he grabbed the program from my hand, possibly noticing it beginning to shake in my grip.
"Now I'ma sign this......but if I see you again, don't ever me hear you got no C in no damn SHOP again!"
*beginning to exhale again*
"Where's your pen at?"
"Um, I don't have one"
Charles again looks some combination of annoyed and disappointed, then makes his way over to the limo directly behind me, the driver rolls down the passenger side window, Charles asks him if he has a pen, the driver hands it to him as he says thanks.
"You should always keep a pen with you Matt even when you ain't in school, never know when you might need to write something down"
"Okay, thanks, Charles"
"You gonna be alright, little man, go back over to your uncle before he leaves here without you and I get stuck with you"
"Thanks again, Charles"
More than two decades after that night, I know Charles almost surely would have no recollection of that exchange but he gave me three things in those few minutes that I've carried with me ever since:
1) I never get a C in no damn shop ever again
2) Grasping the importance of keeping a writing implement around me
3) This story