Lessons in freedom from Charles Barkley

September 5, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Freedom, Leadership

When I talk about freedom here I usually mean your mental freedom to think and believe what you want. I consider this freedom more fundamental than, say, political freedom, not that I see much point in comparing them. Everyone benefits from both and few, if anyone, has to choose between either.

Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning described how fundamental he considered the freedom to believe what you want, the freedom that allowed him to find meaning in life as a prisoner in Auschwitz.

Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

Charles Barkley

Charles Barkley was one of the great basketball players of all time — all the more so for a kid growing up in Philadelphia when and where he started his professional career. Among other things, people loved him for his outspokenness, which put him in the center of controversies.

I think most people saw him as the guy who threw a man through a plate-glass window after he got hit with a glass in a bar. Or that spit on a little girl, however accidentally.

I once saw a video that showed to me a freedom that Charles had beyond what most people do, that I think could only have come from behaving completely consistently with his beliefs and getting rid of fake stuff. Prominence in the public eye forces you to do that. I think actors spend years trying to achieve it. Leaders do, or should, if you ask me.

I should mention I’m going to refer to a video I saw so long ago my memory may have distorted what I saw. For all I know I completely mis-remember it. If anyone has a copy of the scene I’m about to describe, please tell me. I hope I get the gist right. Anyway, I’m presenting the rest of this post as best I remember.

Barkley in a difficult situation

The scene is a competitive NBA game — an away game for Barkley. He dives for a ball going out-of-bounds, into the fans in the folding seats, courtside. Bodies go flying in a big mess. Play stops. When Barkley stands up, he’s face to face with a little old woman — an irate opposing fan — who gets in his face and starts chastising him. You don’t know what she says, but she looks aggressive.

Barkley probably weighed more than twice as much as her. Physically he could destroy her. He was no doubt full of adrenaline. In this case, these would-be strengths on court worked against him. A physical altercation would be a disaster for him. Adrenaline might get him to react without thinking and hurt her.

I remember thinking the situation looked bad for him. I couldn’t think of any successful reaction for him by whatever definition of success I could think of. If he reacted physically he could easily permanently hurt her. Apologizing would imply he did something wrong. If he walked away he’d appear to lose.

Here’s an exercise to the reader: what would you do in that situation? Can you think of any successful responses for him?

Barkley shows freedom

Barkley’s response seemed completely automatic and made him look great. It made everyone look great, including the woman.

He hugged her.

It seemed a perfect response. I believe he showed her respect for caring about the game. He physically dominated her without the slightest hint of aggression or violence. He gave her a story to tell everyone she knew. He showed he didn’t confuse what happened on the court with what happened off it.

I couldn’t think of it while watching and I wasn’t full of adrenaline. I’ve asked many people since then what they might have done and none suggested a comparable response.

Most important for me was that he couldn’t possibly have prepared for exactly such a moment. I can’t see how he could have gone through the pros and cons of different responses, let alone try to create a list of them. As best I could tell, he just acted how he felt natural.

If your natural behavior can not only diffuse but create a winning outcome for everyone from the most apparently unwinnable situation, you have the freedom and confidence to do what few others can.

How did he achieve this freedom?

If you’re like me, you want such freedom in your life. You want to be able to stay calm in difficult situations and resolve them effortlessly. I don’t know how he did it, but I suspect at the root he started behaving naturally early on and developed experience, mainly through making mistakes. Over time I bet he got rid of properties that caused him pain, allowing parts to emerge and rise up that he liked. After a long period of purging the problems, he was left only with the parts he liked and had no problems showing or defending.

If you don’t expose all of you, you’ll never know what might emerge under the most stress. If you do expose all of you, you will experience pain. I think to become a great leader or, for that matter, a great person, you have to choose to risk experiencing pain — you have to if you want to learn.

A clue to where he got it from?

I think his response to the spitting incident reveals how he opened himself up to learning. First let’s look at the incident, then his response.

According to Wikipedia’s page on Barkley,

In March 1991, during a game in New Jersey, Barkley attempted to spit on a fan that had been heckling with racial slurs; however, his spit instead hit a young girl near by. Rod Thorn, the NBA’s president of operations at the time, suspended Barkley without pay and fined him $10,000 for spitting and using abusive language at the fan. It became a national story and Barkley was vilified for it.

His response, first at the time, in which I believe he turned a problem into a solution

Barkley, however, eventually developed a friendship with the girl and her family. He apologized and, among other things, provided tickets to future games.

Next we see his response after he retired ten years later, which seems to me that he used the incident to reflect and grow, not to deny or hide it.

I was fairly controversial, I guess, but I regret only one thing—the spitting incident. But you know what? It taught me a valuable lesson. It taught me that I was getting way too intense during the game. It let me know I wanted to win way too bad. I had to calm down. I wanted to win at all costs. Instead of playing the game the right way and respecting the game, I only thought about winning.

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