If there’s one thing we’ve known about Charles Barkley over the years, it’s that he’s always marched to the beat of his own drum. While I truly never thought I’d mention him in the same sentence with Frank Sinatra, Barkley has channeled “Ol’ Blue Eyes” throughout his entire career, both as a player and a broadcaster, in the sense that he does things his way.
Not everyone has agreed with his behavior at certain times, even his own teammates and colleagues, but we’re guessing the 11-time NBA All-Star really doesn’t care. Barkley famously said back in the day that he shouldn’t be a role model and there were certainly plenty of times when he didn’t.
One such instance came during his run with the Dream Team in 1992 when he created an international incident during the squad’s first Olympic game against the African nation of Angola.
Charles Barkley elbowed an Angolan player in the chest during the Dream Team’s first game at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics
Coming into the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, no team was expected to defeat the Dream Team, or even come close for that matter. For the first time ever, NBA players were allowed to represent USA Basketball in international competition and that first team of superstars is still considered by most to be the greatest collection of talent ever assembled. Outside of Christian Laettner, the lone college player on the roster, every single member of the Dream Team, obviously including Barkley, was later individually inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The question was never if the Dream Team would win each of their games but by how much. And their easiest game was their first as they matched up with Angola, who didn’t have a player bigger than 6-foot-6 on their roster. So everyone knew this would be a blowout and it certainly was that as the U.S. rolled to a 68-point victory, 116-48.
Barkley led all scorers in the game with 24 points but that certainly wasn’t the big story of the day. At one point early on, Barkley shoved an Angolan player after being fouled in the paint. Then, after the U.S. had scored 29 straight points, Barkley scored on a driving layup that was contested by 24-year-old Herlander Coimbra. As Charles was running back up the court, he elbowed Coimbra, all 174 pounds of him, square in the chest, which drew a technical foul.
The act clearly surprised everyone on the court, obviously including Coimbra. But the controversy was only just beginning.
His comments afterward made the situation worse
Following the game, Barkley was unapologetic about his actions, claiming Coimbra had hit him on numerous occasions before he threw his infamous elbow. And things only got worse when “The Mound of Rebound” made these comments (h/t Sports Illustrated):
“People told me to hit a fat guy next time, not a skinny one. That guy probably hadn’t eaten in a few weeks.”Charles Barkley
At the time, famine was a massive problem in Angola as the country was engaged in a decades-long civil war that lasted another decade. So Barkley’s actions and comments certainly didn’t sit well with a lot of people, including his own teammates.
Michael Jordan told NBC afterward that he and the rest of the Dream Team spoke with Barkley after everything went down and told him that what he did “wasn’t smart” and hoped the team as a whole could get past the mistake. The Dream Team had already upset a few people by not staying in the Olympic Village with the rest of the athletes for security reasons and instead were staying in a $900-per-night hotel. So Barkley’s actions certainly didn’t help on that end.
The U.S. Olympic Committee actually considered sending Barkley home but obviously didn’t do so. He received another technical the following game against Toni Kukoc and Croatia for interacting with the crowd, a big no-no in international competition. While he certainly received some boos as the Olympics continued, he also heard a lot of cheers as his personality has always drawn people to him.
Barkley and the Dream Team obviously went on to win the gold medal and Charles was clearly the team’s best player over the two-week period, averaging a team-high 18 points.
Barkley and Coimbra struck up a friendship
Four years later, Barkley again represented the U.S. at the Olympics in Atlanta and the only game he missed was the game against Angola. But that didn’t stop him from having a little reunion with Coimbra, who was very quick to forgive Barkley following the incident in 1992. Barkley later said the two even struck up a bit of a friendship as the years went by.
“Everybody made a big deal about that (elbow). I told him [Coimbra] it was nothing personal but, ‘You hit me, I had to hit you back.’
“He came looking for me in 1996 in Atlanta to say hello. He said, ‘You made me a big star in my country.’ We’ve had a nice bond, a little friendship ever since then.”Charles Barkley
Once again, Barkley led the U.S. in scoring, averaging 12.4 points on the way to winning his second gold medal. And he did so that time without throwing any elbows.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference