Charles Barkley hits from the sand during the 2022 American Century Championship, photo by Kurtis Rix, courtesy ACC

Sir Charles is King at Lake Tahoe

Already a crowd favorite at the American Century Championship, basketball great Charles Barkley is adored by the South Shore community for his incredible generosity in wake of the Angora Fire


Lake Tahoe has no major league sports team, so one could be forgiven for believing the region has never known the mutual adulation that grows between a city and a professional athlete. But that conjecture would be mistaken.

The Tahoe region in general, and South Lake Tahoe in particular, has one such relationship with an NBA hall of famer.

Despite never playing professionally for a team in Northern California, Charles Barkley has become a beloved figure in the Tahoe Basin thanks to his annual appearances in the American Century Championship (ACC) celebrity golf tournament at Edgewood Tahoe Resort. But it was his charitable and empathetic reaction to the Angora Fire in 2007 that truly won the hearts of Tahoe residents.

“This is one of the most special places in the world,” says Barkley, speaking with Tahoe Quarterly in a recent interview. “They embraced me, so I have no choice but to embrace them.”


Outsized Personality

This embrace is unique because, while Barkley travels to Tahoe each summer to compete in one of the foremost celebrity sports events, he doesn’t exactly demonstrate prowess as a golfer. In fact, his unorthodox swing filled with idiosyncratic hitches—along with a tendency to hit certain shots one-handed—means he regularly finishes toward the bottom of the field (he finished 81st among 92 competitors in 2023).

Instead, Barkley has etched his name in the annals of Tahoe athletic lore on the strength of his outsized personality, his natural charisma and his common touch, all of which are manifested in his willingness to interact with the tournament’s attendees.

An event volunteer shares a laugh with Barkley while walking the Edgewood Tahoe course, photo courtesy ACC

When I covered the ACC in 2009—in a tournament that featured Michael Jordan, John Elway, Dan Marino, Bode Miller and Ray Romano, among many other famous athletes and entertainers—it was Barkley who consistently drew the biggest crowds.

On his way to finishing second to last, he would stop and sign autographs for children and engage in friendly banter with fans. At one point, as the 6-foot-6-inch former basketball star trudged from the green on the front nine, an elderly woman told him he looked more handsome in person than she expected.

“Are you saying I look like shit on TV?” he quipped without missing a beat, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Barkley’s talent at repartee, humor and insight are why he stands out as one of the NBA’s preeminent television analysts, allowing him to transcend the sports world and become a cultural commentator, as well. He even hosted a weekly news discussion show on CNN with Gayle King called King Charles.

But here in Tahoe, the appreciation for Barkley extends beyond his abilities as a communicator. Tahoe residents love Sir Charles, as he is widely known, for his generosity.


Tragedy Strikes Tahoe

The Angora Fire was caused by an illegal campfire near Seneca Pond on the afternoon of June 24, 2007.

Due to intense winds and bone-dry conditions, the fire quickly spread, roaring through the Angora Creek watershed before scorching houses and businesses in the Upper Truckee Road subdivision. The fire was contained eight days later, by which time it had burned 3,100 acres and destroyed 242 homes and 67 commercial structures. A short distance from the tourist center of town, entire neighborhoods were razed. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, despite evacuation warnings coming just minutes before homes were engulfed. 

“I was at work that day. My wife called me and told me my family had about five or 10 minutes to get out of there,” recalls Steve Yingling, a South Lake Tahoe resident who lost his home in the fire. “Then she called back and told me they had to leave right away.”

Yingling, his wife and their two children lost everything to the fire that day. Only their chimney remained, which proved fortuitous, as the family cat managed to crawl into the damper and survive the inferno.

The fire cost $13 million to fight and caused $150 million in property damage.


Connecting With the Community

About three weeks later, with the blaze still smoldering in places, Barkley and the rest of the celebrity attendees descended on Lake Tahoe to play in the ACC. But something about playing golf in a community that had just endured such a tragedy did not sit well with Barkley.

“I just remember when I came here after the Angora Fire, it didn’t feel right to just play golf after so many people had lost their homes,” he says. 

So Barkley, whose penchant for carousing in the South Shore casinos during the tournament week is legendary, instead spent the last week of July 2007 using his national profile to raise awareness about the fire, taking an NBC camera crew to tour the burned areas.

Barkley is known for his friendly banter with fans at the annual American Century Championship, photo courtesy ACC

Barkley also bought dinner and drinks for more than 100 firefighters who fought the blaze and donated $190,000 to the South Tahoe Disaster Resource Center in consecutive years after the fire.

In 2022, Barkley appeared alongside Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District Fire Chief Scott Lindgren at a press conference for the ACC and reflected on his experience in 2007.

“I came up here 15 years ago and saw catastrophic damage,” Barkley said during the press conference. “It broke my heart. I’d actually never seen fire damage before.”

Even more than the substantial monetary donations, it was the neighborhood tours, the meeting with homeowners and hosting the huge dinner for firefighters that endeared Barkley to the Tahoe community.

“I get a little broken up when I talk about Charles Barkley, because he’s somebody who really cares,” Yingling says.

Yingling was there when Barkley toured the burn scars that included his solitary chimney and talked at length with him, as did other South Lake Tahoe homeowners who lost everything.

“He was just really good with the people,” Yingling says. “You could tell that he really cared.”

Barkley denies he did anything particularly special after the fire.

“Whether I sat drinking beer with firefighters or donating money to the community, it was all the least I could do,” he says.

The community of South Lake Tahoe—and the residents who lost their homes, in particular—respectfully disagree.


Barkley’s Tahoe Legacy 

There is a plaque by the driving range at Edgewood Tahoe that reads: “To Charles Barkley: In appreciation for your generous contribution to the Angora Fire Fund. With grateful thanks.” The plague is signed: “Community of South Lake Tahoe.”

Tahoe is far from the only place Barkley has left his mark.

A native of Leeds, Alabama, Barkley played collegiately for the Auburn Tigers, leading the program to its first-ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. He remains revered there.

Barkley takes a shot at a makeshift basketball hoop set up along the 17th hole, photo by Jeff Bayer, courtesy ACC

He was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers fifth overall in 1984, in what some consider the greatest draft class in NBA history (it included Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton). He played eight seasons in Philadelphia, making the all-star team six times. He joined the Phoenix Suns in 1992 and immediately garnered an MVP award en route to an NBA Finals appearance. He played four years in Phoenix before joining the Houston Rockets in 1996. By then Barkley was on the back nine of his career and functioned as a veteran role player attempting to win the elusive title, an effort that ultimately proved unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, Barkley is regarded as one of the best basketball players of all time, with The Athletic ranking him 22nd in a recent compilation. 

While his ability on a basketball court was often mitigated by off-court controversy—he racked up a wealth of technical fouls, wasn’t shy about throwing fists, got in trouble for accidentally spitting on a young girl while trying to spit on a heckler, famously repudiated the idea of athletes being role models, was arrested after breaking a man’s nose after a game, and landed in legal trouble for throwing a man through a window during a bar fight—he has nevertheless transcended those controversies to become a fixture in the media industry. Barkley was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

Philadelphia recognized his contributions on and off the court by retiring his number. Auburn has also retired the number 34 in his honor, while the Phoenix Suns included him in their Ring of Honor.

Despite the commemorations everywhere Barkley played, there is arguably nowhere on earth where he is more acclaimed than South Lake Tahoe, simply due to his gestures of concern for the community when it faced its greatest adversity.

“He’s become part of this community, from beyond appearing annually in the golf tournament, to taking a true interest in the area and its residents,” said South Lake Tahoe Mayor Jerry Birdwell in 2009, after Barkley had made his second donation of nearly $100,000 to the community. “I just hope his political aspirations stay in Alabama because if he ran for mayor of South Lake Tahoe right now, I’d be looking for work.”

Journalist Matthew Renda is a former Tahoe resident who now resides in Santa Cruz. As a lifelong basketball fan, he thoroughly enjoyed watching the Round Mound of Rebound during his playing heyday.

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