Charles Barkley appears to be in charge on television scene

Charles Barkley has plopped himself in front of a bank of TV monitors in the TNT Sports studios. As he devours a steak almost as big as his head, he stares intently at one of the screens.

But Charles Barkley isn’t watching the first half of the playoff game between the Boston Celtics and New Jersey Nets – a game he will be analyzing in a few minutes on TNT’s halftime show. “I already know what’s going on,” he explains as he gnaws on a slice of beef. “You can tell by the score.”

This is the world of Sir Charles Barkley, who has successfully used his basketball career, which effectively ended in his 16th season with a leg injury in December 1999 (he came off the bench to score two points and grab one rebound in his final game for the Houston Rockets in April 2000), to build a virtual podium for himself from which he comments on just about anything that crosses his active mind.

Is Michael Jackson really that bad of a dad? Ask Charles. Are Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden still alive? What does Charles think? Who can give us a colorful sound bite about the Georgia state flag flap? Get Barkley on the line.

“He’s been like that his whole career, not just here,” says former NBA player Kenny Smith, who along with Ernie Johnson joins Barkley as part of TNT’s in-studio team. “Charles has found a forum of media that reaches beyond the sport he knows about. Even when he was playing, after the game, he wasn’t confined to simply talking about the game. He uses every opportunity as a forum to say the things that he feels comfortable about and that he’s read about during the day.”

According to Tim Brooks, author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network & Cable TV Shows,” the 40-year-old Barkley fits perfectly into what he calls TV’s “golden age for loud people.”

That’s fine with Barkley, who thoroughly enjoys his place on the airwaves.

“Sports Illustrated said I’m the only black guy on TV that can say what he wants,” he says proudly as he props his massive legs on the table in front him. “I don’t know if that’s true, but I do take great responsibility in saying what I want. If I see something happen, especially if it’s racial, I’m going to hammer it.”

This isn’t a new thing for Barkley, who caught some flak in the black community when he posed shirtless and in chains last year on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He says he spoke his mind from the first day he entered the NBA after being drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers as the “Round Mound of Rebound” out of Auburn in 1984. Barkley was approachable and quotable. The tough Philadelphia media loved him. But it was teammates Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Moses Malone who cautioned Barkley that the same media would hammer him any chance it got.

“They said, ‘Everybody tells you that they love you, but they don’t love you – it’s strictly business for them,'” Barkley says. “So I just decided I’m going to be honest and straightforward, and that’s it.”

“I don’t think everybody likes me,” he continues. “Being black, you make them nervous when you stand up and say stuff. That’s why you can’t worry about it.”

Which made him a go-to guy in the pre- and post-game locker rooms. He regularly berated his Philadelphia coaches and his teammates. Once after a bad game, he suggested he might go home and beat his wife and kids, sparking protests from women’s groups and a spot in the ACLU (Always Causing Legal Unrest) Web site’s Hall of Shame. During one tirade – before being traded to the Phoenix Suns – Barkley said the Sixers wouldn’t tolerate having an all-black team in “The City of Brotherly Love.” When he was lambasted by the league and the media for spitting on a little girl in New Jersey during a game, he apologized but said he meant to spit on the guy behind her.

While a member of that first gold medal-winning Dream Team during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, Barkley elbowed a skinny Angolan player, then joked that the guy “probably hadn’t eaten in a few weeks.” All the publicity led the U.S. Olympic Committee to practically beg Barkley to tone down his comments. He never did as he led the team – including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Karl Malone – in scoring.

And he’s still not toning down his comments.

Barkley, who lives with his wife, Maureen, and 13-year-old daughter, Christiana, in Phoenix, is quick to point out that more often than not, he gets along with people when he’s out in public.

“There are certain people who are known and that command attention,” Smith says. “Charles creates attention. There’s a difference. It’s 5 in the morning, and we have a 6 o’clock flight. We’re on the plane and he’s got the whole first class of the plane going crazy.”

TNT, whose playoff ratings for the “Inside the NBA” postgame show are up 36 percent from last season, has picked up on Barkley’s popularity. The network just extended his multiyear deal, which includes Barkley’s other show, “Listen Up.” Guests have included Ray Liotta, Denzel Washington and Bernie Mac. And Barkley’s growing popularity has crossed so many lines, he’s toying with the idea of venturing into politics.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do yet,” Barkley says. “As a black man from Alabama who has reached a certain level, I feel like I can say certain things. But I understand that I have a great responsibility being black and being on television because there aren’t that many blacks on television.”

Barkley perks up, realizing he’s also playing to his regular audience of TNT staffers in the green room.

“The only black people on TV are athletes and crooks – that’s it,” he says with a wicked laugh.

For all his bluster over the years, Barkley has turned out to be quite a role model, in his own way. He has donated $1 million to his high school in Leeds and another inner-city school in Birmingham. Barkley says he is about to purchase 10 homes in his hometown and have them remodeled. He’s also looking into what he can do to keep historically black universities thriving.

“I understand that people are listening to me, and that’s a great responsibility,” Barkley says. “I understand that the things I say have a powerful influence. I take great responsibility for that, especially being black.”