Charles Barkley’s Vertical Leap

Jeanie Chung

This is the list I made before my sophomore year in high school. I had it taped to my bedroom wall, just to the right of the TV, across from the couch. Actually, I guess you could call it the living room, but since it was where I slept it was really my bedroom too, wasn’t it? My mom didn’t like having stuff taped up on the wall — thought it looked cheap — but she knew how important it was to me.

How To Make The NBA

1.        Make varsity.
2.        Ask C.B. for help.
3.        Become a starter.
4.        Vertical leap: 36 inches.
5.        Get a D-1 scholarship.
6.        Stay healthy.
7.        WORK HARD!

That’s what successful people do: they make a plan of attack and just check each step off their list. It was simple. Start with Step One. The summer after freshman year, every minute I hadn’t been eating, sleeping, or on the court, I was at the Park District gym lifting weights, usually squats. I was going harder than anybody on our team, including our star, Roosevelt Rawls. Which I knew for a fact, because that summer, like every summer, we hung out together all the time. Now don’t get me wrong, Ro worked hard, just not as hard as I did. Didn’t have to, I guess.

“We’re gonna make it, aren’t we, Ro?” I’d asked him that summer.

“Hell, yeah.”

With Step One underway, I focused on Step Two. They say around here, we all wanna be like Mike, right? Let me tell you: nothing against No. 23, he’s a great player and all, but for me, it was always Charles Barkley, the greatest basketball player ever and the most important person in my life, except maybe my mom. You know what? Not even. I mean, don’t tell anybody — I love my mom, but Charles Barkley? Your boy was the shit. He was too short to be a post player. Too slow and fat to be a guard. Still, every time, you’d see him working down there in the paint, outscoring, outrebounding, just tearing up guys who were, like, a foot taller.

How did he do it? Your boy had a vertical leap of thirty-nine inches. When you’re trying to put a ball into a hoop that’s 10 feet high, it helps if you can get as close to it as possible. And how did he get that vertical leap? Flat-out, he just worked at it. He wanted it more.

If you know your history, you’ll tell me Charles Barkley didn’t make varsity as a junior, and there was one year Michael didn’t make varsity either. I was already taller than Charles Barkley — if I could get my vertical leap up even close to his, and if I could make varsity as a sophomore, and stay there, I’d already be ahead of where they were.

When I found out Charles Barkley was coming to sign autographs in Chicago that fall, I took it as a sign. I didn’t care if I was in the middle of tryouts: I’d go late if I had to, stand in line for hours. I’d take my homework with me, skip dinner. Check No. 2 off my list.

Ro wasn’t as big a fan as me — nobody was — and he’d already met a couple of NBA guys at camps and stuff. But since he was my friend, and since he never met anybody as famous as Charles Barkley, he said he’d come with me to Niketown. We left right after practice, took the Green Line into the Loop, then walked up Michigan Avenue to our appointment with the greatest player in the world.

When we got to the store, there was a line out the door. A lot of people were wearing Rockets and Suns and Sixers jerseys, but there were some Bulls jerseys too, and a bunch of people in suits and work clothes. There he was, signing autographs, wearing an expensive-looking jacket over a turtleneck. He wasn’t afraid to show he had money. Hell, when I get to the NBA, start making that kind of money, I’m gonna buy as many suits, as many cars — no, more cars than I can drive. I’ll let my friends drive ’em. That’s how we do it.

Some of the people there to shop didn’t know he was going to be there and when they saw the crowd, then saw it was Charles Barkley, they’d yell, “Where’s your ring?” or “1993, baby! Bulls in six!” He just smiled, waved, and even blew kisses to couple of people.

When we got close to the front, Ro moved off to the side. He was just there to get a look for himself; he wasn’t a big autograph guy. I wouldn’t be either, if I’d been him. Even as a sophomore, he’d signed so many already he couldn’t see the point. He felt like, if a high school kid could do it, how exciting could it be? Me, though, I wanted proof I’d seen the greatest. I was gonna get him to sign a poster, then put it right up on the wall next to my list.

“What’s your name, son?”


“You play high school?”

“Yes, sir. Just came from tryouts.”

“Aw, you’ll make the team. Big, strong guy like you. You play in the city?”

“Sure do. Coolidge High School.”

Charles Barkley wrinkled that big forehead for a second, then turned around to the guy behind him: his agent or bodyguard or something. He pointed at the man’s newspaper, the Sentinel, and unfolded it when the man handed it to him. We were ranked tenth in the season preview that had just come out that day.

“That’s right, Coolidge,” he said. “Knew I’d seen it. So you must know this Roosevelt Rawls. He that good?”

I cracked up, then looked over at Roosevelt who was close enough to hear everything. He shook his head. “Why don’t you ask him? He’s right over there.” Ro kept on shaking his head and started waving his arms “No” when I pointed at him.

“Shoot,” Charles Barkley said, turning toward Ro and drawing him closer with one arm. “Look at your little bony self. I hope you got a good jump shot, boy, you want to make it in the league, stand here and get paid to sign your name like I do.”

Ro just laughed, put his arm around me and said, “This boy, right here, he’s your biggest fan, ever. Don’t even watch the Bulls unless they’re playing you. Isn’t that wrong? Cheering for a guy who don’t even like Chicago?”

Charles Barkley started chuckling, then laughed harder until he was shaking.

“I never said I didn’t like Chicago. I just wanted to beat you, back in the day. Now, I just feel bad for you, with Michael about to leave and all.”

People used to ask me if I was jealous of Ro, and I said, seriously, why? He was my best friend. He didn’t care if I was as good as he was, never rubbed my face in it. But mainly, it was because we were never competing for the same thing. He was a guard; I played down in the post. It would be like a dog being jealous of a grape or something. It was two totally different concepts.

So no, I wasn’t jealous. But right then, seeing him and Charles Barkley whooping it up like old buddies, Charles Barkley knowing Coolidge High School because of Roosevelt Rawls and not having any idea who I was, if you’d asked me right then, I would’ve said yes, I am jealous. But I didn’t have much time to feel bad because Charles Barkley turned right back to me.

“You studying hard, doing well in school?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t bother. I never did.” He chuckled again. “No, seriously. You should. I was lucky. You — wait, did you say you have tryouts?”

Ro and I both nodded.

“You’re sophomores, right? And you, you’re the star of the team. You have to try out too?”

“Yes, sir,” Roosevelt said.

Charles Barkley let out the loudest laugh I’d heard that afternoon.

“Damn, that’s old school. He make you run sprints, too? Naw, don’t even tell me. I know he does.” He turned around and grabbed the bodyguard or agent or whoever he was by the shoulder. “Billy, they got the next Michael Jordan running sprints. We gotta go see this.” He turned back to us. “What time y’all practice tomorrow?”

Turned out he had to leave in the morning. He looked disappointed about it.

“Y’all gonna make the team, though, right?”

Ro nodded; I shrugged. The way I saw it, the only sophomores who didn’t have to worry about making varsity were Ro, Poochie — who was probably gonna start — and Mo Chambers, the big man who was on varsity last year and was probably going to start this year too. Three sophomore starters and one guy just trying to make the cut. Charles Barkley looked at Ro, thumbed at me and said, “He’s not gonna make it?”

“Pfff. He’s just playing,” Ro said. He turned to me. “You know how it is, Zo. We had a post guy graduate last year, and now we only got two guys over six-five. Coach wants guys who are gonna listen to him. He knows you’ll work hard. No way you don’t make it.”

I turned back to Charles Barkley, “Gotta make varsity if I want to play in the league someday.” He nodded.

“You have any advice?” I asked. “How we can make it like you?”

He smiled. “What’s your vertical jump?”


“Shoot. You’re 6-6, maybe? Still growing, probably? You’re already ahead of me, seems like. You keep up like that, you’ll be unstoppable.”

Damn straight, I wanted to say. But since I was trying not to sound too cocky, I just smiled and said, “Thank you.”

Charles Barkley was having a good time talking to us, seemed like. He kept right on until the people behind us started clearing their throats, real loud.

“Aw, I better go. Y’all be patient. Just lemme sign this poster for young Lorenzo here. Ladies and gentle- well, I guess it’s just gentlemen — you’ll be seeing these boys over at the United Center in a few years. I promise you.”

He scribbled for almost a minute, then handed me the poster back, smiling.

“Next time we’re in town, you boys come by. I’ll leave you some tickets.”

I unrolled the poster while we were walking away. It said, “Lorenzo, Keep doing those sprints. Stay out of trouble and go easy on that Roosevelt Rawls. Not everybody is blessed with our physical gifts. See you, Charles Barkley.”

It must’ve been dark by the time we got home, but I didn’t even notice. Usually me and Ro would be goofing on each other, sometimes on other people, when we ride the train, but I just stared out the window, imagining the day I’d go one-on-one with Charles Barkley. Maybe at some kind of NBA fundraising thing, for cancer or for kids back in the hood. Maybe we could come back to Coolidge — me, Roosevelt and Poochie — and do a clinic. No, not Poochie. He said from the jump that basketball was his ticket off the West Side, but that there was more to life than hoops. Maybe for him there was.

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