For a man whose swing resembles an elderly granny attempting to put up her umbrella in a hurricane and who finished stone last in the US Celebrity Golf Championship, Charles Barkley knows how to pull in a crowd. When "Sir Charles" appeared on a TV programme in which a leading coach tried to turn him into something resembling a golfer, the channel enjoyed its second highest audience.
As he launches his campaign to become Governor of Alabama in 2011 with the support of Barrack Obama, it is the nation's continuing fascination with the 46-year-old former basketball star that many believe could lead all the way to the White House (stranger things have happened: think Ronald Reagan). The most charismatic, controversial, unpredictable, voluble, most beloved and most reviled American sportsman since Muhammad Ali, Barkley is an intelligent and thoughtful man.
He could also be something of an ogre, once turning his venom on the crowd to inadvertently spit in the face of an eight-year-old girl. But for all his frequent verbal and physical tirades, Barkley, like Muhammad Ali , not only transcended his chosen sport, he transcends the racial divide. "He is the most influential black athlete in US society today," remarked Ali once. "People don't see Charles Barkley as having black skin. What they see is the greatest basketball player in the world. A handsome man who knows the meaning of every word in the dictionary. Though he ain't ever gonna be as pretty or smart as me."
Seven years after his retirement following a career in which he won everything, including two Olympic gold medals, Barkley still awakens each morning knowing his every word and facial expression will be painstakingly analysed in the American media. When he enjoyed a brief fling with Madonna it was Barkley who received star billing in every gossip column at a time. His shaven-headed image achieved a recognition rating of 87 per cent in a nationwide poll compared to president Bill Clinton's 73 per cent.
"Well, somebody's gotta be me," he told me with a grin of mischief. "I guess the more I try to infuriate people, the more they seem to love me. Even though everyone must know that I've got a few skeletons in my closet, a whole cemetery of them, in fact." In a famous television advert in which he played one-on-one basketball with Godzilla, Barkley growled from the screen: "I am not paid to be a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I can dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids."
This is the same man, however, who cares deeply about social inequality, racial prejudice and inherited poverty. Raised by his mother and grandmother in a one-room apartment on an Alabama housing project, Barkley speaks from the heart: "Millionaire athletes have a duty to every child. "A duty to speak out against physical and mental cruelty - to speak out against a society in which children can be denied education due to an accident of birth. Depriving a child of education is slavery. Maybe you have to come from my background to know what it does to a kid to have no schooling. What do we do in America?
"On TV we blitz them with the message 'Y'all must have a big house, and an expensive car, and real nice clothes'. And then we act all indignant when these kids, whom we never bothered to educate, go out and get those things the only way they know; stealing and robbing, like I did till my grandma whapped me good and hard. I wasn't born Sir Charles Barkley, you know ... " firstname.lastname@example.org Politics is a second career to many
Charles Barkley would not be the first player to step out of the NBA to take a run at the White House; Bill Bradley won two championships with the New York Knicks before spending three terms as Senator for New Jersey, subsequently relinquishing the post to mount an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic party's Presidential nomination in 2000. Indeed, politics have frequently provided a second career for many sportspersons when the cheers of the fans have subsided.
Scotland's Sir Menzies Campbell, who competed in the 200m and 4x100m relay at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, enjoyed a brief reign as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Sir Christopher Chataway beat Russian Vladimir Kuts to break the world 5,000m record at London's White City in 1954 and later served as a cabinet minister under Ted Heath in the early 1970s. The double Olympic gold medallist Lord Sebastien Coe became a Conservative MP from 1992-97 before masterminding London's campaign for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Australia's John Landy was the second man to break the four-minute mile barrier and the 26th Governor of Victoria. Landy's compatriot, the swimming legend Dawn Fraser, who won four Olympic gold medals and held the 100m world record for 16 years, entered the political arena as an independent MP for Balmain in the New South Wales Assembly but cricketing icon Imran Khan, the former Pakistan captain and all-rounder, went even further by launching his party in Pakistan.
But the daddy of all sporting politicians remains an Ugandan boxer, the self-styled 'His Excellency President for Life', Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC CBE (Conqueror of the British Empire)'. During his 1971 to 79 reign, Amin also reclaimed his country's heavyweight crown, retiring undefeated when he was overthrown. "Nobody came forward to challenge me," he said of his boxing prowess. I wonder why...?