Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Greatest Philadelphia Athlete Debate - Part I

Editor's Note: The following debate is a five-part series in which every member of The BSJ will make an argument for the greatest athlete in Philadelphia Sports history. Since everyone writing is 30 years-old or younger the list will be limited to only those athletes that we actually saw play. Let the debate begin!

The Good Old Days With Philly's Finest

The greatest athlete in Philadelphia sports that I've ever seen is one Sir Charles Barkley. Mind you, Barkley was not an easy decision to reach on this topic-I seriously considered Pete Rose, Allen Iverson and even Randall Cunningham among other more obvious options like Mike Schmidt or Julius Erving.

I settled on Barkley for several reasons: of the major team sports basketball requires the most "athleticism" to play at the game's highest level; Barkley redefined what people thought of as a power forward; his lasting reputation as one of the 50 greatest players in his sport; and his personality which embodied the spirit of Philadelphia.

Unfortunately Barkley only spent eight of his sixteen NBA seasons in the great city of Philadelphia and many will contend that because he didn't deliver a championship over that period that he shouldn't be eligible for this debate. Winning a championship is important, but (lest you forget) Barkley's tenure in Philadelphia was tainted by the ownership of Harold Katz, whose competitiveness was a mere fraction of Barkley's. Barkley did, however, lead the team to several playoff berths and his first year in Phoenix (following the infamous trade for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang) he led the Suns to the Finals and won the league MVP. Barkley may not have an NBA Championship on his resume, but he does have two Olympic Gold Medals, won in 1992 and 1996 with the USA Men's Basketball team. You want accolades? Barkley's got those too: 11-time All Star; All NBA First-team 1988-1991, 1993; NBA MVP 1993.

Forget all of that, though. Barkley is the greatest because he was one of the most electrifying players to watch. He was listed at 6'6'', but was really about 6'4" and played the game with a tenacity that, perhaps, is still unmatched in the game. Despite being well undersized for his position Barkley's tenacious play translated into dominating the paint and the backboard. He managed to lead the league in rebounding in 1987 with 14.6 rebounds per game. He also led the league in offensive rebounds for three straight years, 1987-1989. Furthermore, Barkley was a prolific scorer. His career high for points per game was in 1988, at 28.3. That's an exact tie for Julius Erving's NBA career high. All of that amounted to him being named one of the 50 Greatest Players of all-time in the NBA.

In addition to his prowess on the court, "the round mound of rebound" was an entertaining individual. Barkley had the charisma and sense of humor that many other great Philly athletes, like Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Randall Cunningham, Allen Iverson, lack(ed). Barkley was an unpredictable guy who delivered many an amusing sound-bite and even the occasional punch for for an opposing player that might've rubbed him the wrong way. Remember Barkley exchanging fisticuffs with Bill Laimbeer? That was vintage Charles Barkley, as was his Nike commercial in which he warned everyone,"I am not a role model."

It was that swagger that best defines Barkley as the quintessential Philadelphia athlete. Philadelphia sports fans aren't role models either and Barkley embodied that in his play and his attitude . If ever there was a perfect fit, it was Charles Barkley playing basketball in Philadelphia. Pure synergy. Inch for inch (okay, not pound for pound) Barkley delivered more points, more rebounds and more thrills than a player his size should have.

Whether it was Barkley throwing down one of his trademark thunder dunks or mouthing off to the officials or getting in a bar fight off the court, he is the single most important athlete over the last 25-30 years in Philadelphia. That shame is that the Sixers let him get away.

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