Air Jordan and Sir Charles: A Tale of Two Second Acts

Lou CappettaAnalyst IIFebruary 18, 2013

Jordan and Barkley as friendly rivals during their playing days.
Jordan and Barkley as friendly rivals during their playing days.

Nobody would blame Charles Barkley if he was bitter.

There have been plenty of great players who were denied championships, and ultimately the respect they deserve, during the reign of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, leaving many fans with a mental asterisk associated with their careers. It's partly the reason why many consider Patrick Ewing a choke artist, why Malone and Stockton will never be looked at the same way Jordan and Pippen are, and why Dominique Wilkins is widely overlooked in the discussions of all-time great players.

There is a list of players as long as Jordan's wingspan—from Craig Ehlo to Clyde Drexler—who would have every reason to spend this All-Star weekend, the same weekend that arguably the greatest basketball player ever turns 50, bitter at the man who whose triumphs are directly connected to their failures.

Perhaps no player from the "Jordan Era", save Scottie Pippen, has been more entwined in the fabric of the Air Jordan legacy than the other NBA Hall of Fame player who turns 50 this month. Perhaps no player has been more linked to, or effected by the greatness of Michael Jordan's playing career than Charles Barkley.

Sure, there is the obvious link of Jordan's Bulls defeating Barkley's Suns in the 1992-93 NBA Finals, giving Jordan a cruel last laugh during the only season that Sir Charles would beat out Jordan for the NBA's MVP honors. 

There's also the fact that the two basketball greats entered the league in the same draft, a draft that has become more about Sam Bowie being picked ahead of Jordan than the other great players selected that year such as Barkley or John Stockton. The fact that both were Nike endorsers, Jordan was the elite player who everyone wanted to be, and Barkley the rebel bad boy who told you he was not a role model. Even their public friendship seemed to be more "cool kid hanging with the nerd" than a mutual respect and fondness for one another.



Even now—more than a decade since both players were playing in the NBA at the same time—while ESPN has seemingly spent this entire month dedicated to the fact that Michael Jordan will turn 50, Charles Barkley got a sit-down special after a horribly boring All-Star Saturday night on TNT, a network that also happens to be his current employer. 

So if Charles Barkley was bitter at the greatness of Michael Jordan, who could blame him? If he is, he's either one of the best actors around (and if you've seen Space Jam you know that's not the case) or truly at peace with the way things have unfolded for him.

Since Charles Barkley retired in 2000, it's easy to see why.

Barkley hasn't changed, but the perception of him has greatly. The same man who was once seen as too outspoken and outrageous in his playing days is now seen as refreshing and honest as a member of the media. Like "Manny being Manny", Charles's comments, no matter how controversial, are now taken with a grain of salt, something that nobody who remembers the controversy that surrounded the words "I am not a role model..." would have imagined.

Barkley's candid remarks, be it during his basketball analysis or about the successes and failures of his career, have made him as much a joy to watch now as he ever was, even during the prime of his playing days. He's not only at peace with the way his career turned out, but is proud of what he accomplished. He's grateful for everything that has happened to him, has no problems laughing at himself and simply seems very happy being Charles Barkley.

Two years after Barkley left the NBA for good, Michael Jordan returned as a player for the Washington Wizards. His failures in the team's front office would lead him to return to the court as a player. It was the first real sign of his arrogance as he seemed driven to turn the Wizards around one way or another. While the jersey still said "Jordan 23" on the back, and there were still flashes at times of his days in Chicago, there was a bit of a feeling that somebody should step in and tell Jordan that he was embarrassing himself.



After two seasons Jordan would leave the NBA for good, but there was always a feeling that he was the only person in the universe who was left unsatisfied by the basketball legacy he left behind. His Hall of Fame speech was terrible and unscripted, making it seem like because he was Michael Jordan he could just say anything, and it would be great. Rather than reflect on his accomplishments with pride and satisfaction, he arrogantly used the forum as the ultimate "I told you so". It was as painful to watch as any of his Birmingham Barons at-bats were.

As his playing days get further and further behind him, Michael Jordan becomes more of the man who drafted Kwame Brown and is running the worst franchise in the NBA than the player whose greatness, drive and desire thwarted so many other players' dreams. And while Jordan is turning 50, and the idea of there being a 50-year-old basketball player in the NBA seems utterly ridiculous, Jordan has left us with a feeling that he could return to the game at any time simply to remind us all that he is still great.

So as the second acts of Michael and Charles continue to play out, and the television cameras continue to show Barkley enjoying being the butt of jokes from his TNT cohorts, and Michael Jordan looking miserable as he watches a front court of Bismack Biyombo and Byron Mullens represent his team, it's becoming more difficult to tell who made out better in the grand scheme of things: the man with the modest 50th birthday special on TNT, or the guy who EPSN has dedicated a month to, who still seems unfulfilled with being the greatest of alltime?

So it would be completely understandable if Charles Barkley was bitter toward Michael Jordan, but then again, with the way the two second acts are playing out, why would he?