By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - The recruitment of Charles Barkley began by accident.
"We were recruiting a young man at his school [Leeds High School in Birmingham] who was really a good player," remembers Sonny Smith, Auburn's basketball coach from 1978-89.
Assistant coach Herbert Greene returned with a glowing evaluation….of the recruiting target's teammate.
"He came back and said, 'They've got this kid on that team who's 6-3 or 6-4, probably weighs 280 pounds, or 290. And he can jump out of the gym. You need to go see him,'" Smith recalled.
Intrigued, Coach Smith went to Leeds.
"The ball bounced off the board for a rebound. He jumped up and caught it and threw it to midcourt before he ever hit the floor," Smith said. "And I said to myself, 'We've got to have this guy.'
"Fortunately, we end up with him, and got one of the greatest players to ever play here."
As a junior in 1984, Barkley led Auburn to the program's first NCAA Tournament berth. After earning SEC Player of the Year honors and being named MVP of the SEC Tournament, Barkley was the No. 5 pick in the 1984 NBA Draft.
A 16-year NBA career, 11 All-Star game appearances and two Olympic gold medals followed. And it all started with a discerning assistant coach.
"Herbert Greene recruited Charles," Smith said. "He spent the most time with him. He had gone to see another guy, and saw Charles and realized what great potential he had and how good he could be."
Greene, an Auburn assistant from 1977-81 who died in 2015, made an indelible impression on Barkley.
"I have always had great admiration for Herbert because he was the first guy who actually thought I could play," Barkley said in 2015. "Auburn was actually recruiting another player on my team and wasn't recruiting me so Herbert is actually the first person who thought I could play major college basketball. I will always be in debt to him for that. He will always be a special person in my heart."
In 1984, Charles Barkley led Sonny Smith's Tigers to Auburn's first NCAA Tournament appearance
Friday is Charles Barkley Appreciation night at Auburn Arena. The Tigers play Winthrop at 6 p.m. The festivities culminate Saturday at 11 a.m. with the unveiling of Barkley's statue outside Auburn Arena.
In 84 games at Auburn, Barkley averaged 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds. Beginning with Barkley's final season, Auburn made five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Sonny Smith will be one of the speakers at the unveiling.
"To the basketball program, he brought it back from the dead," Smith said. "Before he got here, we were wallowing around in the bottom of the league. He took us to heights. He put us on a trail that we had never been on before. And it was all because of him."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer