TAMPA – Former NBA star Charles Barkley was passionately rooting for Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin to reach the NHL conference final “because he’s on that list that I’m on.”

Ovechkin is one of the greatest NHL players to never win a championship. Barkley has a similar status in the NBA. Barkley at least made it to the NBA Finals. Ovechkin never reached the conference final before this season. The Capitals are up 1-0 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the best-of-seven series, which resumes Sunday night in Tampa.

“I wanted Ovechkin in the conference finals so I could quit hearing that stat every year,” Barkley told USA TODAY Sports

But Sir Charles has traveled as far as he’s going on the Ovi bandwagon because “I root for the Tampa Bay Lightning because (coach) Jon Cooper is a good friend of mine.”

The two men met by chance at the Marina Del Ray Ritz-Carlton bar a few years ago and hit it off before Barkley even knew who Cooper was.

“He was there with his dad, and we talked about hockey and basketball and everything else for three hours and he is one of the most mild-mannered guys in the world,” Barkley said. “At the end of the night, he hands me his card and I look at it and said, ‘Dude, you are the coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning? You should have started the conversation with that.’ We’ve been friends ever since.”

Cooper confirmed the story, laughingly adding that they didn’t “meet at a conventional time, like 1 in the afternoon, it might have been 1 in the morning.”

As Cooper recalls, Barkley, his agent and a buddy were the only people in the bar, when he came in with his family.

More: Jets jump on Golden Knights early, open Western final with 4-2 win

More: Expansion Vegas Golden Knights thrive with team of ‘misfits’

“We’re like, ‘Holy cow, that’s Charles Barkley,’ and I don’t remember who spoke to him first, whether it was brother or dad, but I remember we migrated together and had a blast,” Cooper recalled. “We had so much fun, the night got away from us.”

Barkley had long been an NHL fan. He’s friends with several former NHLers, including Jeremy Roenick and Rick Tocchet. But after meeting Cooper, the basketball Hall of Famer probably became the Lightning’s most famous fan.

Even when Barkley is working on television as a basketball analyst, he has been known to have one of his televisions tuned to an NHL game.

“We text all of the time,” Cooper said.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper admires that Charles Barkley is a “genuine person.” (Photo: Reinhold Matay, USA TODAY Sports)

Cooper brought out his phone and scrolled his Barkley messages to show there is a steady stream of contact.

“I will mock his commercials, and I will always get a smart aleck answer back,” Cooper said.

Barkley loves overtime playoff hockey, and as soon as Dan Girardi scored an overtime winner against the Boston Bruins in the second round, he sent a congratulatory text.

When the Lightning acquired Ryan McDonagh on the trade deadline day, Barkley poked fun at himself for being caught up in trade deadline chatter.

“This is sad,” Barkley wrote to Cooper. “I’ve was watching trade day shows. Laughing out loud. I hear you had a great day, congrats to you and (general manager) Steve (Yzerman).”

On the day after the Humboldt Broncos bus crash, he texted to Cooper that sports is a tight fraternity and that his thoughts and prayers were with the Humboldt family.

More: Humboldt Broncos plan to return next season after bus crash

In 2015, Cooper said Barkley “held court” in the Lightning dressing room after they won a Game 7 in Madison Square Garden. “He was awesome,” Cooper said.

“He’s a genuine person,” Cooper said. “I’ve told him this: He is one of the only guys I ever met who can say whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted. For everyone else, it would be offensive, but coming from him, the person leaves loving him more than he did. I don’t know how he is does it. It’s a gift.”

Autoplay

Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

Last SlideNext Slide