In Philadelphia, Barkley joined established stars Julius Erving and Moses Malone. He did well in his first season, averaging fourteen points and 8.6 rebounds per game. During the next two seasons, he evolved into a starter for Philadelphia and became the shortest player to lead the NBA in rebounding. In 1987 Barkley was named to the All Star team for the first time. Some analysts have connected Barkley's playing success with his unusual physique, saying that he was able block with his wide body and outrun bigger opponents. Barkley, however, credits his success to his greater competitiveness and emotion on the court.
Emotion, however, would sometimes get Barkley in trouble. He began to complain about his teammates, whom he lumped together as "a bad team that has to play perfect to win." The comment resulted in a $3,000 fine. During the 1991-1992 season, Barkley tried to spit on a heckler who sat court-side, but missed and hit a little girl. He apologized to the girl and gifted her family with season tickets, and was fined again. That same year, he was arrested for punching a man in Milwaukee, but was acquitted when a jury decided that the other man had started the fight. Amidst media coverage of such events, Barkley was chastised for not serving as a better role model for children. He responded that playing basketball well does not automatically make someone a hero. Felons and drug addicts can dunk, he pointed out. His own heroes were his mother and grandmother, whom he credited with showing him how to work hard.
Barkley continued to improve his game, but the Philadelphia team often struggled. In 1989 former Detroit Piston "Bad Boy" Rick Mahorn joined the 76ers and became part of a "Bump and Thump" partnership with Barkley. They helped the 76ers win the Atlantic division title, but the team lost to the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan in the second round of the finals. When Barkley missed fifteen games in 1990-1991 season, the team fizzled and missed the playoffs.
In 1992 Barkley was named to the "Dream Team" representing the United States in the Olympics, when the rules were changed to allow professional players. At the competition in Barcelona, Spain, he led the U.S. team in scoring but was also a source of embarrassment when he elbowed a thin player from Angola and then threatened to boycott the awards ceremony. Along with Michael Jordan, he objected to wearing uniforms made by Reebok when he was a paid spokesman for Nike.