There's no denying it. Charles Barkley's a character. He proselytizes. He womanizes. And his traffic stop after supposedly chasing a fellatio artist through the streets of Scottsdale two weeks ago will undoubtedly further his reputation.
But before we burn Sir Charles at the stake (and let he who is without sin strike the first match, by the way), let me share a story that might cool TMZ-kindled tempers. I met Charles Barkley on his first day as a Phoenix Sun. He popped into Richardson's -- where I worked at the time -- for lunch. I fed him a good chunk of our menu, then we chatted. He thanked me for introducing him to Santa Fe-style food, and promised he'd be back for more.
True to his word, Barkley became a fixture at the restaurant. Fans expected him to show after home games, and packed the popular place even more than usual. Over many nights, I witnessed the endless procession of fans and fanatics such celebrity attracts: Customers using their kids as autograph-seeking couriers, drunken antagonists, and one woman I remember in particular who demanded I deliver a cocktail napkin with the message "Whatever, Whenever" to Charles' table one night while he was dining with Mrs. Barkley.
I cut her off, and sent her home to her husband, whom I also knew.
While I'd never say Charles and I became friends, he called me at home on the day he was traded to the Rockets. I'd had that night off, and he'd come in to say goodbye. When the phone rang, my then-four-year-old son, who was in my lap watching TV, answered.
"Who's this?" I heard Barkley's booming voice ask my little boy.
"I'm my dad's son," Tommy parroted back in the same words he'd heard me use to refer to him proudly so many times over.
"I'll bet you are, little man." Barkley chuckled. "Is your dad there?"
Tommy's in high school now, and doesn't remember the occasion. I wish to God he did.
Barkley thanked me for the hospitality we showed him. I wished him a championship ring and a back that would stay healthy enough for a few dances at his daughter's future wedding.
"Hey, brother, your mother's staying with you, right?" Barkley remembered from some prior conversation. "Let me talk to her."
"Ma," I handed her the phone, "It's Charles."
I'd told mom a few stories of my acquaintance with him. I think she only half-believed me up until that moment.
"H-Hello, Mr. Barkley," Mom's voice trembled. Then, as this woman who'd hadn't seen the Pacific Ocean until her 65th birthday sat taking in whatever Mr. Larger-Than-Life had to say, a smile came back to her face that weeks of hospitalization and physical therapy had wiped away. She seemed a kid again all of a sudden, and her star-struck expression left me laughing out loud.
"What did he say, Ma?" I had to know once we'd hung up.
"He said I was in good hands, and that you always took good care of him. He said good sons come from great mothers, and that he'll take me out dancing as soon as I feel up to it." (Mom was recovering from hip replacement surgery.)
Mom was transformed. She'd spoken with the Sir Charles of lore and had been given something every mother loves to hear. She went right to bed after that, inching her way down the hallway to her bedroom and muttering, "Charles Barkley. Imagine that. He likes my son. Imagine that."
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If you ever read this, Charles, just know what you did for my mother. She retold the story of her conversation with you many times over. And the last time she mentioned you was a little over a year ago, on the day she died.
"Good-hearted, considerate Charles Barkley," was how she put it, reminiscing.
Anonymous has seen it all in 25 years of waiting tables and tending bar at some of the Valley's most beloved restaurants.