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Charles Barkley is the best athlete turned analyst in television history. He may also be the nicest superstar you’ll ever eat clam chowder with.

The tiny, elderly Russian woman working the coat-check room at this trendy Manhattan seafood restaurant grabs her chest in shock.

“Eeez Chahz Barkley!” she exclaims.

Indeed, Barkley dashes in with a TNT public-relations sidekick and heads to the bar for an interview. He stands out not so much because of his height (he’s only six-foot-four, not six-foot-six, as was listed during his playing days) but because he’s dressed in Nike athletic wear. Okay, and because he’s Charles Barkley -- one of the

NBA’s official “50 Greatest” basketball players of all time, author or coauthor of a half-dozen books, cell phone pitchman, and current NBA television analyst for TNT. All of that has made Barkley one of the most recognizable athletes of his generation.

“You talk to him?” the coat checker asks me, her eyes beaming when I tell her I’m meeting him. “You tell him I love him. He so funny. So good. So sweet.”

Sweet? Really? As for funny, there’s no question: Barkley is beloved as a television analyst not just because he knows the game so well but also because he says the things fans are thinking. During one postgame discussion about a particularly ugly match, he was asked to comment, and he responded by looking down at a screen beneath his desk and declaring he had nothing to say about such a “boring” contest. Then he asked to be left alone because he was “busy watching Ugly Betty.” So, funny? Yes.

As for good, there’s also no doubt. Barkley was one of the most dynamic basketball players ever, and he is arguably the best athlete turned analyst in sports history. His insight, humor, and passion for the game he covers is unmatched by any former player in any sport you can name.

But sweet? This is a man who was so ferocious a competitor, he was known for flooring the biggest and strongest players in the game. This is a man who could get so into the moment during a game that he once lost his head completely and tried to spit in the face of a heckler in the crowd but accidentally spit on a young girl instead. Even today, as a commentator, Barkley is so outspoken that he insists he be allowed to talk about social issues whenever he wants to, even if that means making people uncomfortable during a midseason Nets-Cavaliers contest. Charles Barkley sweet? Well, maybe so.

“Thank you, dear,” he tells the waitress when she brings him his two glasses -- yes, two -- of diet soda. On his way to the table, he shakes hands with every diner who wants to say hi. He looks them in the eye and tells them to have a great day, and he seems to mean it.

Of course, you can be kind and still be distrustful of the media. That’s just being smart.

“You sit here next to me,” Barkley says, pointing my way. “That way, if you ask me something I don’t like, I can slap the stuffing out of you.”

He’s joking. Probably. And, no, he didn’t use the word stuffing. Space limits in this magazine prevent us from pointing out every place we’ve substituted a family-friendly term for one of Barkley’s more colorful word choices. But it’s safe to say that the Barkley you see on TV is the one you get in person, at least today: He’s honest, polite (that good Alabama upbringing), engaging, and bigger than life in every way.

“When I got in this business, I wanted to do three things,” he says, picking at his clam chowder, which has grown cold because he refused an offer to stop the interview so he could eat. “I wanted to have fun so we could make watching a game enjoyable for the fans. I wanted to talk about basketball in a way that everyone could relate to. And I wanted to be able to talk about social issues whenever I wanted. So there’s never been any pressure for me, because I’m getting paid to do the things I would do every day anyway. It’s the greatest job in the world.”

Dick Ebersol, then the president of NBC Sports, knew Barkley would be great on television. After all, he was unafraid to criticize other players (even his friends) when asked for his opinion, but he was likeable and didn’t take himself too seriously, even though he took basketball seriously -- the qualities of a perfect studio host.

Ebersol approached Barkley five years or so prior to his 2002 retirement and asked him to consider coming to NBC, which then broadcast some NBA games. At that time, Barkley wasn’t yet thinking about what he would do after his playing career ended. But when it did finally come to a close, after 16 seasons, he decided that TV, and NBC specifically, was where he would ply his new trade. Before he could make it official, though, he had to do a favor for a friend. “As a favor for this buddy of mine in Philadelphia, I agreed to meet with the guys from TNT,” says Barkley, who today lives in Phoenix, home to the NBA’s Suns, the team he led to the NBA Finals during his 1993 MVP season. He still had connections to the city of his first team, the Philadelphia 76ers. “So I met with them, and we just clicked. I told them what I wanted to do, how I wanted to work, what was important to me, and they just said, ‘We’ll give you everything you want.’ And we had cigars. And wine.”

Barkley made a call to his agent, who was set to sign him with NBC. “We’ve got a problem,” Barkley said.

Actually, only NBC had the problem. TNT had something else: cable-television gold. With Barkley, TNT’s Inside the NBA, the studio show that both precedes and follows that network’s basketball coverage, sparkles like no other program of its kind. The show’s host is Ernie Johnson, a wry traffic cop who is an expert at letting Barkley riff on topics like, say, Shaq and Viagra and then reeling him back into game analysis. Barkley’s partner is Kenny Smith, a former point guard who won two championships with Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. Smith is Abbott to Barkley’s Costello: While he’s also great fun to listen to, he’s more reserved, content to play off Barkley’s latest pronouncement of ineptitude rather than hog the spotlight. Smith plays it just like a good point guard is supposed to.

That trio creates a show so engaging that its ratings have at times been higher than those of the games that preceded it. In other words, people are tuning in to a game-wrap-up show for a game they didn’t watch. That’s unheard of in sports TV.

why he gave $1 million of his own money to Katrina relief.

And Barkley encourages that kind of community involvement from today’s young, wealthy players. This game, he says, has benefited the players, shining a light on them. In return, they must use their fame to redirect that light to the issues that are important to them. He knows many of them don’t listen. He just turned 45, and many young players see him as some sort of grumpy old uncle. But that doesn’t stop him from trying.

“This game has blessed me beyond my wildest dreams,” Barkley says. “I love basketball for what it’s given me. I’m 45, I’m rich, and I’ve never worked a day in my life. So I have an obligation to give back -- to people who need help, to the game that provided for me, to the fans who supported me.”

That’s why when he leaves, on his way to an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman, Barkley makes a point to talk to the people in the restaurant who want to chat with him about basketball, his political stance, his latest joke, or the playoff chances of their favorite team. Because if the fans are happy, the Chuckster’s happy.

Five things you don’t know about Charles Barkley

1. He has never even tried coffee. “I never had to get up early. Practice didn’t start until 11. I could be out all night and get up by 11.”

2. His favorite announcers are tennis’s John McEnroe and baseball’s Joe Morgan.

3. He bought a house in alabama last year so that he can run for governor there in 2014.

4. Although in a T-Mobile commercial he says, “And that’s why I don’t eat shrimp,” he does in fact eat shrimp.

5. He respects Bobby Knight, the coach who cut him from the 1984 Olympic team. “I probably deserved it, and the man graduates his players.”