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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now let's focus on somebody you read about in the sports pages. Charles Barkley retired from pro basketball but not from the spotlight. He's a commentator for the cable TV program "Inside the NBA," and that's now a job from which he's taking a leave of absence that follows his arrest a few weeks ago on suspicion of driving under the influence. Our sports commentator Frank Deford still finds him arresting.

FRANK DEFORD: Charles Barkley is perennially identified by that dreadful word, controversial, which is all too often now employed by the insecure to put down anybody who dares flaunt originality. And Barkley has been one of a kind again and again.

To begin with, he was that oddity, a fat basketball player. The round mound of rebound. Middle-aged, he is a large man of large, intemperate habits, especially where booze, betting and sex are concerned. Sir Charles had baldly admitted losing $2.5 million in six hours at blackjack.

When he was arrested on New Year's Eve for driving under the influence, he glibly volunteered to the constabulary that he had run through a stop sign so that he might more quickly arrive at a venue where he could enjoy the company of his female companion. He is unfiltered without guile. Most famously, he spoke these words after absolutely hammering a skinny African player in the Olympics: "How was I to know he wasn't carrying a spear?" In this particular case, Barkley managed to be twice-flagellated. First for being a bad sport, and second for practicing a double standard, making an offensive remark that he could get away with only because he's African-American.

But then, through the years, Barkley's often made rather blunt remarks about the athletic limitations of white basketball players. Of course, all sorts of observers, white and black, make the same sort of remarks in private, although they're not nearly as funny as the way Barkley phrases them.

Anyway, now that Sir Charles' transgressions have risen to a point where John Law has intervened, many Pecksniffian sorts who have been offended in the past by the Barkley chorale couldn't wait to rise up to castigate him. Listening to some, you'd think this off-the-cuff analyst of profound issues like zone defense and the pick-and-roll was a threat to the morality of the state and to the tender sensibilities of the youth of America.

Barkley has agreed to stay away from TNT for a bit. Fair enough. DUI is dangerous business, and he deserves to be punished. but for goodness sake, have we reached a point where we take sports so seriously that chubby, chattering old ex-ballplayers are treated to the standard of preachers and presidents? Amidst all the tedious sports analysts who treat games like worship, Sir Charles happens to be three things, fun, unpredictable and blasphemous. And as always, two out of three ain't bad.

INSKEEP: Commentary from Frank Deford, who usually manages at least two out of those three himself. He joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut. It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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