Barkley and Wang on TNT set
Lin Wang and Charles Barkley on the TNT set

One of the best sports stories of 2018 is a story of an Odd Couple.

Gentler than the relationship of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, more real than the bond between Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes, was the friendship between a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa named Lin Wang, and one of the most famous basketball players on the planet, Charles Barkley.

The story told by Wang’s daughter, a journalist named Shirley Wang, set the internet world abuzz a few weeks ago with her feel-good story of how her father was in a hotel in Sacramento in 2014 when he spied Barkley at the empty bar, and then went up to say hi. What ensued was 6 hours of drinks and dinner, and a friendship that lasted four years, much to the mystery of Shirley’s family, and the bemusement of Barkley’s jet-setting friends.

Shirley Wang tells the story eloquently in this audio report for public radio called “My Dad’s Friendship with Charles Barkley.” Wang and Barkley texted each other. Wang would get invited onto the TNT set when Barkley was broadcasting. Barkley would sign Air Jordan and Air Max sneakers for Wang, which Wang would then send to his close friends on their birthdays.

Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie
Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie

But when Barkley’s mother passed away, Wang dropped everything, got on a plane, made his way to Leeds, Alabama, and attended the funeral. Here’s how Barkley explained the scene to Shirley on the phone last year: “You know, it was obviously a very difficult time. And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’

Wang’s daughter, Shirley, had no idea who Barkley was, and humored her father who said he was friends with a big celebrity. To her, Barkley was not one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, as her father would fondly note. No, at best he was a B-List celebrity. And as she learned when she was interviewed on a Slate sports podcast, Barkley did not have the best of reputations as a player.

In his hey day, the “Round Mound of Rebound,” as he was known, the 6ft 6 (198cm) and 250 lb (113 kg) Charles Barkley was a loud-mouth, elbow-swinging, rim-shaking Mack Truck on the basketball court, who was an 11-time NBA All Star for the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets.

A member of the US men’s basketball team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, aka The Dream Team, he was labeled the Ugly American for elbowing a slight Angolan player in the chest for little apparent reason. “Next time, maybe I should pick on a fat guy,” he said flippantly after the game.

In defense of friends sitting with him at a bar, he stood up to a guy who was said to throw ice at him and his friends. Barkley chased the 20-year-old man down, picked him up and threw him through the window of the Orlando, Florida bar.  “For all I care, you can lay there and die,” Barkley was quoted as saying as he left the scene.

And in his current role as commentator on the NBA, TNT and their viewers love the unfiltered opinions and clownish antics of Charles Barkley.

Wang, on the other hand, was a quiet cheerful guy, “everybody’s suburban dad”, as his daughter would put it. But Barkley and Wang found a deep common bond, as she explained on the Slate podcast.

To me, they were kindred spirits. They had a chance encounter and they decided to act and follow through on that friendship to exchange numbers and continue talking. I don’t think a lot of people would sense that connection with other people. They wouldn’t go out of their way for other people. I think my dad could feel the gravity of a moment and he could be very convicted about what he needed to do. He felt really convicted about his feelings and his friendships so I guess that’s why he jetted off. It was confusing to us at the time. We didn’t really understand why.”

It really surprised me that he thought about our similar racialized experiences in the US. And of course they were very different. My dad came  with a visa to study for a PhD. He was already on a path set for success, or financial stability. Whereas Charley comes from a lower income family in the South of the US. It was really interesting that they made that connection. But I do think that they come from a very specific generation where that is the belief – the American dream. They can both build themselves up. Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough.

Shirley Wang and Lin Wang
Shirley Wang and Lin Wang

In May of 2016, Lin Wang was diagnosed with cancer, a fact he hid for a long time from friends, including Barkley. And in June of 2018, Wang passed away. And as the guests began to settle in to the funeral taking place in Iowa City, Iowa, Shirley looked behind her. “Standing there — drenched in sweat from the Iowa summer, towering over everyone in the room at 6 feet, 6 inches tall — was Charles Barkley.”

Alone, slightly panicked, disoriented in a town he had never been with people at a funeral he had never met, but gracious and humble, Barkley was true to the spirit of his friendship with Wang – authentic.

In her phone interview, Shirley asked Barkley what they talked about. He replied they talked primarily about their kids, and that Wang talked about his son and daughter a lot. And Barkley, to the surprise of the world, dispensed insight into the parental mind that melted hearts:

“Hey, listen. You stay in touch. Please tell your mom I said hello. Give her a big kiss. Tell your brother I said hello. And listen: Just keep doing you. It’s your time now. Don’t forget that. That’s the most important thing. Your dad prepared you to take care of yourself. He prepared you for that. I was blessed to know him — and know you, too.”

“Thank you for your time,” I said.

“You’re welcome, baby. You take it easy, you hear?”

“You too.”

I know how much his friendship with Charles Barkley meant to my dad. It was not just a relationship with a celebrity — it shed light on the possibilities of this world. A world where someone like him could just say something cool, something charming, and befriend someone like Charles Barkley.

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What’s the highest grossing film about basketball in history? Ivan Reitman’s 1996 film, Space Jam, featuring the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan.

Where were the greatest pick-up basketball games of all time played? On the set of Space Jam in 1995, on a custom-made indoor-basketball court built on the location of the studio where Space Jam was shot.

Starring in the movie with 1992 Olympic gold medalist, Jordan, were his teammates on that Barcelona Dream Team, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley. Jordan had come out of retirement in 1995, but fell just short of taking his Chicago Bulls to the NBA Finals, which lost to the Orlando Magic in six games.

According to this great ESPN article, Jordan wanted to make sure he was able to train hard and gear up for the following NBA season while filming Space Jam, so he asked for and got the construction of the indoor basketball court, dubbed the Jordan Dome. Jordan put out the word that he was looking for people to play in pick-up games, and the stars made a beeline for LA. In addition to co-stars Ewing and Barkley, all stars like Grant Hill, Rod Strickland, Glen Rice, Dennis Rodman, Juwan Howard, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson and Reggie Miller came to play some of the most intense shirt-skins matches ever.

Tracy Murray, who played in these games, said “it was like an NBA all-star game every day.”

Michael Jordan, a man not satisfied with semi-final finishes, was determined to make sure these pick-up matches got him razor-sharp ready for the NBA season. According to the ESPN article, Don MacLean, a power forward for the Washington Bullets at the time, was being guarded by Jordan. MacLean got hot and scored the majority of his team’s points to help his team to victory one evening. MacLean had to leave town after that match, and Jordan came up to him and said, “Thanks for coming, make sure you come back.” MacLean thought that was cool of Jordan to say that, so he looked forward to coming back a couple of weeks later. Here’s how ESPN explained Jordan’s revenge.

When MacLean did show up a couple of weeks later, he played in the first game of the night. “[Jordan] walks on the court, says, ‘I got MacLean,’ and did not let me touch the ball for the entire game,” MacLean said. “And I was trying. And he was not letting me touch the ball. “Right then and there, I was like, ‘My God.’ For a pickup game in the summer that means nothing, two weeks later, he remembers that. I couldn’t believe it.”

No one was more competitive, or more skilled than Michael Jordan in his prime. And therefore, no was better.

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Stephen Strasburg, Dexter Fowler, Trevor Cahill and Jake Arrieta with their bronze medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

They are a dying breed. Since baseball was dropped from the Olympics as an official sport from the 2012 London Games, there are fewer and fewer Olympic medalists still playing in the Major Leagues.

But as it turns out, three of them are on the Chicago Cubs, the recently crowned world champions. As you can see in the picture above, very young versions of Dexter Fowler, Trevor Cahill and Jake Arrieta were on the bronze-medal winning American team that competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the last time that baseball was played in an Olympics.

By my count, there are 12 major leaguers who have won a medal in baseball in the Olympics, and played in the 2016 MLB season. Baseball premiered at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Incredibly there is still one player from all medalists in the 1996 Olympics who is still playing in the majors – R. A. Dickey, a 42-year-old pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays.

  1. RA Dickey of the Toronto Blue Jays, who won bronze for Team USA at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics
  2. Koji Uehara of the Boston Red Sox, who won bronze for Team Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics
  3. Lee Dae-Ho of the Seattle Mariners, who won gold for Team Korea at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  4. Oh Seung-hwan of the St Louis Cardinals, who won gold for Team Korea at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  5. Ryu Hung-Jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won gold for Team Korea at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  6. Brett Anderson of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  7. Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  8. Trevor Cahill of the Chicago Cubs, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  9. Brian Duensing of the Baltimore Orioles, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  10. Dexter Fowler of the Chicago Cubs, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  11. Kevin Jepsen of the Tampa Bay Rays, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics
  12. Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals, who won bronze for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Don’t forget. Baseball is coming back to the Olympics at the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Which major league stars of today will still be Olympians in four years: Mike Trout? Bryce Harper? Noah Syndergaard? Mookie Betts? Maikel Franco? Manny Machado? Nolan Arenado? Francisco Lindor? The entire Chicago Cubs infield?

The 10,000 meter race is grueling race that grinds for close to 30 minutes, and yet short enough to still feature fantastic sprints to the finish line. The finals at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics was no different…but this one has a bit of a stench.

Khalid Skah of Morocco was locked in a two-person duel with Richard Chelimo of Kenya with only three laps to go. Skah and Chelimo were quite familiar with each other. The year previously, Chelimo helped set the pace for fellow Kenyan, Moses Tanui, at the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo, which allowed Tanui to lengthen his lead against Skah, and eventually win gold. In a race for individuals, that is considered fairplay teamwork.

Boutayeb Chelimo Skah
Hammou Boutayeb, Richard Chelimo and Khalid Skah in the 10,000-meter finals of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

 

Back in Barcelona, at the 24-minute mark of the 10,000-meter finals, Chelimo was in the lead with Skah close behind. That’s when they came upon Hammou Boutayeb, the 10,000-meter gold medalist from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Boutayeb was unceremoniously lapped, as Chelimo continued his lead over Skah. “This is one of the most exciting races I ever witnessed,” said one of the broadcasters. “The crowd has stayed behind. It’s 25 to 11 (pm) in the Barcelona, Spain and 60,000 people in the stadium still cheering on these two athletes.”

Suddenly at the 25;10 mark, Boutayeb swung out wide and passed Chelimo, sliding into the innermost lane, placing Chelimo in a Moroccon sandwich. Chelimo at that point is very likely peeved that Boutayeb, a man he lapped, is playing tactics, but the Kenyan decides to push ahead of Boutayeb. Skah followed closely behind. After the announcer said “that was the dirtiest trick we’ve seen all night,” Boutayeb again sprinted out front, playing the pacemaker.

Official trying to stop Hammouj Boutayeb
Official trying to stop Boutayeb.

And remarkably, as Chelimo and Skah pass Boutayeb, a Swedish official named Carl-Gustav Tollemar, came out onto the track in an attempt to grab and stop Boutayeb for nought. With one lap to go, Chelimo and Skah finally separated from Boutayeb and the two drove to an incredible back-and-forth sprint in the final 100 meters, ending with the Moroccan taking gold in a dramatic finish. Here’s how the announcers responded:

  • A: Listen to the crowd. They don’t like it.
  • B: I don’t like it. You don’t like it. The crowd of 60,000 people don’t like it.
  • A: They’re booing and whistling and throwing things here at Skah. It’s a bit unfortunate for him but he used Boutayeb for two or three laps and there will probably be a protest from the Kenyan group.

As it turns out, the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) quickly disqualified Skah, making Chelimo the gold medal champion. Skah was informed that he was disqualified because he was seen talking with Boutayeb during the race, and was thus colluding with Skah to beat Chelimo. When Skah heard that, he exploded. According to The Complete Book of the Olympics 2012 Edition, Skah “had harsh words for Boutayeb, whom he accused of being an ‘animal, an imbecile’ who didn’t even know how to read or write.” Skah explained that he was actually telling Boutayeb to “go away and stop interfering”.

The next day, the IAAF Jury of Appeal ruled in favor of Skah, stating in the end that they could not prove any illegal assistance provided by Boutayeb to Skah, and that “Chelimo’s progress had not been physically impaired.” While the rulebook was eventually amended to penalize actions like the one Boutayeb took, Chelimo remained the silver medalist.

Boutayeb had nothing to say to the media.

barcelona cauldron lighting
The lighting of the cauldron at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The Olympics live on symbols. The five colored rings that represent the five continents of the world. The doves that represent peace. The gold, silver and bronze medals that symbol achievement at the highest sporting levels.

One of the most dramatic symbols of the Olympic Games has been the lighting of the Olympic cauldron that symbolically represents the Games ancient Greek origins, the beginning of the Games, and by extension, the suspension of hostilities in times of conflict and the coming together of the world’s athletes in competition and fair play. The cauldron lighting of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics most poignantly emphasized the need for world peace.

While this particular ceremony started at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, it was at the 1992 Barcelona Games where organizers raised the bar significantly in creating the Wow factor, that moment when you’ve seen something spectacular, something you would not have imagined or expected. In this case, it was paralympian archer, Antonio Rebollo, who shot a flaming arrow some 60 meters over a cauldron that rose seven-stories high, igniting the gases accumulating over the cauldron, and sending chills and thrills across the world.

In 1996, the organizers of the Atlanta Olympics had all sorts of issues with the planning of the cauldron lighting, but one thing they got right was having Muhammad Ali do the honors. Spectacle had to wait four more years for Sydney to bring goosebumps tot the world. An island nation, surrounded by water, Australia brought fire and water together in spectacular fashion. 400-meter sprinter, Cathy Freeman, stood in a pool of water. When she placed it to the watery surface, a ring of fire curled around her, the cauldron rising out of the water like a spaceship, making its way majestically to its home at the top of the stadium.

In 2008, China amazed the world with its spectacular opening ceremonies, highlighted by its impossible-to-imagine sky run, performed by legendary gymnast, Li Ning. Rising high above the crowd, suspended on wires, Ning appeared to run along the stadium wall for 500 meters before applying his torch and igniting another flame that spiraled up into a spectacular ignition of the cauldron.

What new spectacle and symbolism will the Rio Olympics bring? Our hearts are already a-flutter in anticipation.