Tufts University graduate Shirley Wang had always brushed off her father’s tales of drinking and hanging out with Charles Barkley as nothing more than “constant fan-girling” — until the basketball legend arrived at her father’s funeral to deliver a heartfelt eulogy.
“It was just hard to believe the realness of the friendship,” said Wang, whose account of the story captured national attention Saturday when the segment aired on NPR’s sports program, Only A Game. “I was at that funeral and everyone was so upset and [Barkley] just walked in and it was like, ‘What else do we not understand about how the world works?’”
Lin Wang, of Muscatine, Iowa, worked as a chemist in the cat litter industry. He struck up a bond with Barkley in 2013 during a chance encounter in Sacramento that led to a series of dinners and drinks, and, eventually a long-term friendship.
The two would meet up several times as their business travels took them to cities including Atlanta and New York City.
Shirley Wang was working in Boston as an intern at WGBH when she learned that her father had been diagnosed with cancer.
“I was at school, and that was really rough, just being so far away,” she told the Globe.
In her story for NPR, Wang wrote that her father died in June 2018. Afterwards, she went through his phone and texted all his friends, writing: “Hi. This is Shirley. My dad just passed away.”
At the funeral, Wang wrote she was talking to a friend when Barkley — “drenched in sweat from the Iowa summer, towering over everyone in the room at 6 feet, 6 inches tall” — showed up.
“It was absolutely shocking when he walked into the funeral,” Wang told the Globe.
A video uploaded to YouTube shows Barkley eulogizing his friend, telling those gathered, “I’m so blessed to know him as a person. . . He was a selfless man. He really cared about other people. The world is going to be a little less happier because he’s not here.”
Barkley also remembered his friend for his optimistic outlook: “I have never seen Lin in a bad mood,” he said in the video. “If you were around him, you were laughing the whole time. His personality was contagious.”
For Shirley Wang, the fact that her father was telling the truth about his friendship with Barkley helped her family see her dad in a new light.
“We got to talk about my dad differently, and question their understanding of him at the funeral,” she told the Globe. “It brought a lot of open-mindedness to be able to share stories in a more profound way instead of just hearing memories about my dad. It brought a whole new understanding.”
She said she was most surprised to learn in a conversation with Barkley after her father’s funeral that the men’s conversations had mostly centered around their children.
“It seems like we would be the least interesting thing to talk about with Charles Barkley,” she told the Globe, referring to herself and her brother. “I always thought they talked about sports. It made me think about my dad quite differently to know we were always on his mind and that he was so proud of us.”
In her NPR article, she wrote that Barkley told her: “As an adult — and you’re too young to understand this now — all you want is your kids to be happy. That’s what you work for. To give your kids everything in life.”
Barkley also told Shirley he was drawn to her father for his unwavering positivity, calling him “one of the happiest people” he’s ever met.
While speaking at Lin’s funeral, Barkley said, “The world is going to be a little less happy because Lin’s not here. We were laughing the whole time. We’re always going to have great memories.”