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Sunday, May 18, 2008

For our sake, let's hope Chuck's OK

Call him the Round Mound of Double Down. Cool Hand Chuck. Sir Charge.
By literally playing with house money, Charles Barkley managed to rack up a $400,000 bill last October at the Wynn Las Vegas Resort.

That in itself wouldn't be a particularly big story, but then he went seven months without paying it back.

In this Barkley is not alone.

Lots of Americans have failed to make payments on $400,000 debts over the last seven months. Only in almost all of those cases the debt in question has been a mortgage.

But Barkley's $400,000 I.O.U. isn't being held by Chase Home Finance. And he hasn't been victimized by the subprime lending scandal. The money is owed to Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn. And even the billionaire Wynn, who famously laughed off putting his elbow through his own $139 million Picasso, might notice 400 grand if it's missing long enough.

The embarrassing news that the Clark County District Attorney's Office would be issuing a criminal complaint if Barkley did not make good on the markers he obtained last October prompted Sir Charles to announce, "I'm not broke."

But coming so soon on the heels of Latrell Sprewell's foreclosing on his home (which cost $405,000 in 1994) and his yacht, the story makes one wonder — and worry perhaps since Charles is nothing short of a national treasure — if we might one day be reading that Barkley is, in fact, broke.

Presumably, except for his all-night binges in the casinos, Barkley — a business management major at Auburn — has been smarter with his money than Sprewell, who has basically written Suze Orman's next book for her.

She could call it Spending Spree and it could include these valuable lessons:

Don't overrate your value and walk away from $21 million with no better offers on the horizon. Don't buy a 70-foot yacht. Don't foreclose on a $405,000 home when your peak salary reached $14.6 million in one year. Don't choke anyone who might be able to give you a reference.

Watch yourself, Charles: You're headed down a dangerous path. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE / Getty Images)

Barkley and Sprewell are both in the perilous final phase of the three-phase athlete's earning cycle.

Phase One is the O.J. Mayo Phase.

Since neither was heavily recruited out of high school, Barkley and Sprewell missed out on Phase One, the small window where a handful of preternatural athletes can cash in on a booster's desire to have him attend a certain school or an agent's desire to rep him or a promoter's desire to get in business with him. (Lloyd Lake claims to have given Reggie Bush $291,000 during this phase.)

Phase Two is The Bonanza.

However long an athlete's playing career lasts this is usually his one shot at the golden goose. Both Barkley and Sprewell made tens of millions during their playing days, but unlike Sprewell, Charles wrung just about every dime he could out of his body.

Sprewell, perplexed as to how he would feed his family on a mere $21 million, left a ton of dough on the table and turned so toxic in his final season with the T-Wolves that his value diminished with each sulk. Maybe he just wanted to get on with his yachting career.

Phase Three is Reality.

Few athletes can expect to earn anywhere near what they made as players once they retire. The real world can be pretty brutal on guys whose only skills are no longer marketable. For every Lenny Dykstra success story, there are 10 guys who have been forced to sell their Super Bowl rings.

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By the time he retired from the hardwood, Barkley had established himself as an able and amiable pitchman for Right Guard, McDonald's and Nike. It was no surprise that he was a serviceable studio analyst, but through candor and humor he grew rapidly into the single most compelling sports personality in the country. You could argue he is a better sports talking head than he was a player, since no one thinks of him as the greatest player of his generation but many regard him as the absolute salvation of the moribund sports talk show genre.

So he'll never have Sprewell's financial problems, right? Probably not, unless he assaults Ernie Johnson. But what if T-Mobile goes in a different direction next year? What if Barkley prices himself out of the basic cable sports budget?

Having admitted to losing $10 million gambling and as much as $2.5 million in one sitting, Barkley — as ever — remains hostage to his prodigious appetites. Why play three hours of blackjack when you can play eight? Why lose a mere $50,000 when the casino will spot you four $100,000 markers? Why choose between the popcorn shrimp and the bacon skins when you can have both?

Legend has it Joe DiMaggio never picked up a check and had giant trash bags filled with cash stowed at his sister's to show for his penuriousness. Barkley sends bottles of Cristal to people he barely likes. In a town where high rollers are called whales, Vegas must consider him Moby Dick.

There's a reason Barkley felt obliged to proclaim his solvency. When a guy lets a $400,000 debt — which couldn't possibly have slipped his sharp mind — remain outstanding for seven months people are going to begin to wonder.

So it is with thoughts of Art Schlichter and Pete Rose that I worry about Charles and his compulsion.

Because with home teams (yawn) winning every playoff game and TNT going wall-to-wall with those confounding Bill Engvall promos (comedy? 2008?), Charles is more precious than ever.

Original here