By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
Thursday, on the campus of Miles College, Charles Barkley was the very thing he said years ago that he wasn’t.
He was a role model.
Barkley, voted one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA history, spoke during a Miles College pep rally. But the Round Mound of Rebound’s message was less about rooting on the Golden Bears as they host Lane College in a 6 p.m. football game on Saturday and more about rooting on the students of the historically black college in Fairfield.
The product of Leeds and Auburn University told a few hundred students gathered outside the George T. French Jr. Student Activity Center that they can write their own stories by getting their education.
“Control your future,” he said. “Control your future.”
Barkley cited the 1980s Nike commercial in which he said, “I’m not a role model.”
“The reason I made the commercial was I felt too many young black kids think they’re going to play in the NBA,” he said. “First of all, there ain’t but 400 of them (NBA players). You ain’t gonna be one of those 400 but you can be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, teacher, fireman, policeman.
“You can use your brain,” Barkley continued. “I wish everybody could play in the NBA. But you have to be realistic … but you can be anything you want to do academically.”
The former NBA great said his message at colleges and universities is always about education. He said becoming a player in the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball is “a lucky life miracle.”
“I’m 56,” Barkley said. “I’m the only one from my hometown. There’s one in every hometown. That’s it. The rest of the people gotta get a real job. I always tell kids when I speak to them: There’s nothing wrong with digging ditches, but it’s gonna be hot or cold. But if you get that education, you can go to work in a nice suit and control your future. Control your future and your destiny.”
Barkley left Auburn University after a three-year playing career. He was selected with the fifth pick in the first round of the NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, two slots after the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan.
But Barkley, who is a studio analyst for Turner Network Television (TNT), understands the importance of education, particularly the education provided by historically black colleges and universities. He said he’s contributed to Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in Georgia and Alabama A&M here in his home state.
And he plans to add Miles College to his list.
“I haven’t figured out what I’m gonna do with Miles yet,” he told the crowd, “but I’m gonna do something.”
Interim Miles President Bobbie Knight said she has known Barkley for a while but the two have recently talked about projects in which he can get involved in and around Birmingham.
“When he found out I was coming to Miles as interim president, he reached out to me,” the former Alabama Power vice president said. “You normally don’t get people that say, ‘What can I do to help?’ Normally, it’s “How can you help me?’ That was amazing to me.”
Knight said Barkley wanted to visit and tour the campus. The two have talked about potential growth on the campus, including the need for a new gymnasium.
“He’s really interested in seeing how he can help us with that,” she said. “He’s giving back. Being a student-athlete is critically important to him and he likes the idea of giving back to other student-athletes and students in general.”
Among those in attendance at the pep rally was Miles professor Ethel B. Hill, who taught Barkley chemistry when he was a student at Leeds High School. She remembers him being an excellent student who “sometimes liked to play a little bit.”
She recalled him being “a little shy” as a high school junior and senior. Clearly, the fellow who was known by his middle name, Wade, in those days is shy no more.
“He got a little help from home and me,” Hill said with a laugh. “I can’t tell you what but from home and me.”