During his celebrated 16-year career in the National Basketball Association, the man known as “Sir Charles” to fans and foes alike earned upwards of $40 million in salary alone. But to hear him tell it, Charles Barkley has gambled away nearly all of that money over the years as a result of an ongoing addiction to casinos and table games.
Appearing for a sit-down interview on The Seth Davis Show, Barkley recounted in January of 2015, Barkley recounted the titanic swings he experienced after being tempted time and time again by Las Vegas’ notorious high-roller tables:
“You know, it’s like anything, if you do it in moderation it’s alright. And now with my gambling, ‘cause I love it. I love the action, I love the juice. But I just learned to do it in moderation.
I went to Vegas a bunch of times and won a million dollars. Probably 10 times. But I’ve also went to Vegas and lost a million probably three times as much.”
While this admission came this year – 15 years after Barkley retired from the NBA as a certifiable legend of the game – he has always been dogged by rumor and innuendo regarding his gambling habits. In May of 2006, the same year in which Barkley was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, he confessed that gambling on games like blackjack, craps, baccarat, and sports betting had become a recurring problem in his life – one which had already cost him $10 million at the time:
“Do I have a gambling problem? Yeah, I do have a gambling problem but I don’t consider it a problem because I can afford to gamble. It’s just a stupid habit that I’ve got to get under control, because it’s just not a good thing to be broke after all of these years.
“But I’ve got to understand you can’t beat the casino. You might win a lot of money from them, but in the long run they are going to win more money from you, and I’ve got to get to a point where I don’t gamble for as much. That’s what I’ve got to do, because I’m not going to quit gambling because it’s my life and it’s my money.”
Barkley’s tone in the 2006 interview was decidedly defiant, as he defended his right to gamble addictively while simultaneously decrying that same addiction’s negative consequences on his own life. Barkley’s paradoxical attitude was par for the course though, after a career spent speaking truth to power despite the bright spotlight shined upon him as an NBA superstar.
Charles Wade Barkley was born on February 20th, 1963 in Leeds, Alabama, and after standing out as a member of his high school basketball squad, he was recruited by Auburn University. Standing at 6 feet 6 inches tall, Barkley routinely played at a weight of 250 pounds, but despite his apparent disadvantages as a slightly shorter, heavier player, he led the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in rebounds during each of his three seasons at Auburn. Barkley’s propensity for hitting the boards hard and out-rebounding his taller, slimmer opponents gave rise to one of sports’ enduring nicknames: “The Round Mound of Rebound.”
Barkley was selected fifth overall in the 1984 NBA Draft by the Philadelphia 76ers – only two spots behind NBA all-time great and fellow gambling aficionado to be Michael Jordan. Playing alongside bona fide legends like Julius Irving and Moses Malone, Barkley soon began to refine his on-court game, while also learning how to manage his physique and physical conditioning off the court. His play improved steadily during his time in Philadelphia, beginning with the first o Barkley’s 11 straight All-Star Game appearances in 1986-1987, and culminating with a near-miss in the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) voting in 1989-1990.
That year saw Barkley average 25.2 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, while the 76ers won 53 games and secured a berth in the playoffs. Although his team fell short to Jordan’s Chicago Bulls in the semifinals that year, Barkley was named Player of the Year by The Sporting News and Basketball Weekly.
Unfortunately, 1991 was also the year that Barkley’s stellar play on the hardwood was eclipsed by the infamous “spitting incident.” Angered by a fan in New Jersey who was allegedly heckling him with racial slurs, Barkley attempted to spit on the man, only to hit a young girl instead. Following intensely negative media attention around the country, Barkley was suspended and fined by the league, but he eventually made amends with the girl and her family. During a career defined by the concept of having no regrets, Barkley remains profusely apologetic for his mistake, telling Sports Illustrated in 2007:
“I was fairly controversial, I guess, but I regret only one thing – the spitting incident. But you know what? It taught me a valuable lesson. It taught me that I was getting way too intense during the game. It let me know I wanted to win way too bad. I had to calm down. I wanted to win at all costs. Instead of playing the game the right way and respecting the game, I only thought about winning.”
Barkley was traded to the Phoenix Suns before the 1992-1993 season began, and in four years playing in the desert he ascended to superstardom. That year the Barkley-led Suns topped the league with a 62-20 record, and Barkley was rewarded with his first and only NBA MVP award. The Suns went on to their first NBA Finals appearance in over a decade, but Barkley was once again rebuffed by Jordan, who led the Bulls to their first “three-peat” by winning their third consecutive championship.
With his outspoken nature once more making national headlines, Barkley drew the ire of sports media figures and fans in 1993 when he told the world “I am not a role model” during an iconic Nike ad campaign. Barkley eventually encapsulated his overall stance on the issue by saying:
“I think the media demands that athletes be role models because there’s some jealousy involved. It’s as if they say, this is a young black kid playing a game for a living and making all this money, so we’re going to make it tough on him. And what they’re really doing is telling kids to look up to someone they can’t become, because not many people can be like we are. Kids can’t be like Michael Jordan.”
Barkley finished out his NBA career as a member of the Houston Rockets, and although he never managed to capture a league championship, he was named as a member of the NBA’s 50 All-Time Greatest Players list in 1996. He also earned two gold medals as part of the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball “Dream Team” at the 1992 and 1996 games. His outspoken demeanor and penchant for saying exactly what comes to mind led Barkley to accept a broadcasting position with Tuner Network Broadcasting in 2000, where he has worked as one of basketball’s most entertaining and informative analysts ever since.
During his retirement from professional basketball Barkley’s propensity for high-stakes gambling made national news on several different occasions. In addition to the numerous confessional interviews he has given over the years, Barkley’s name was splashed across national headlines in May of 2008. The ironically-named Wynn Las Vegas casino filed a lawsuit against Barkley, claiming that he had failed to pay back four separate $100,000 casino markers extended by the casino as credit in October of 2007. As lawyers for the Wynn Las Vegas wrote in the civil complaint:
“By taking the $400,000 in credit and refusing to pay the amount despite repeated attempts, Barkley has wrongfully exercised dominion and control over Wynn’s property. Barkley has exercised this dominion in derogation, exclusion and defiance of Wynn’s rights in its property.”
Barkley promptly repaid his debt to the casino just a few days later, but the episode proved to be humiliating for the supposed high-roller, providing further evidence for critics who claimed he suffered from gambling addiction. In responding to the situation after settling up with Wynn Las Vegas, Barkley was typically unreserved in his assessment:
“I screwed up and didn’t pay them in a significant amount of time. Could they have handled it differently? Yes. But it was my fault. For right now, the next year or two, I’m not going to gamble. Just because I can afford to lose money doesn’t mean I should do it.”
After making good on his intention to abstain from gambling for a few years, Barkley returned to the tables and continued making hefty six-figure wagers. Speaking with ESPN The Magazine as part of that publication’s “Gambling Issue,” Barkley made no bones about his stance on the subject of legalized gambling:
“I’ve got dirty hands. Let’s get that straight. I’m a gambling degenerate. The No. 1 reason football is the No. 1 sport is because of gambling. And legalizing won’t change the landscape. The notion that if they legalize it it’s going to become an epidemic is ridiculous. If you want to smoke pot, you’re going to smoke pot. I’ve never said to myself, ‘They legalized pot; I’m going to start smoking.’ I think the same thing for gambling.
People who bet on sports are going to bet regardless. Only if you bet already are you going to bet on it when it’s legal. It’s going to give more people economic opportunity. You’re going to have to hire more people. It’s going to help fan interest. If a person wants to bet on a basketball game, that’s a fan that we’ve got.”