Early Saturday morning, Shirley Wang rested beside her mother and the family dog, a Shih Tzu named Junior, and quietly listened to Iowa Public Radio as it aired her now-viral story involving the friendship between Charles Barkley and a cat litter scientist from Iowa who happened to be her father.
Wang, a 22-year-old journalist who recently graduated from Tufts University, didn’t know what to expect as she listened quietly to her nearly 15-minute piece, which features recordings of her father, Lin Wang, and Barkley talking about their movie-like meeting at a Sacramento hotel bar, and the unlikely relationship that spawned as a result.
“It was, like, one of the most random things,” Barkley said of the friendship recounted in the piece, which was produced for Only a Game at Boston’s NPR station, WBUR, and syndicated across the country.
The story, an emotional tetherball of love, sadness, and kindness involving one of the most famous athletes of a generation, quickly became a must-read piece over the weekend. It was shared widely on social media, promoted by popular figures in and out of sports, including NBC talk show host Seth Meyers, actress Gabrielle Union, and sportscaster Ernie Johnson.
“And THIS folks is all you need to know about Charles Barkley,” Johnson wrote on Twitter about Wang’s story.
As of Monday night, the story had garnered about 1.7 million visitors, with an average engagement time of 16 minutes, according to WBUR’s managing director of digital, John Davidow. It’s already become the most-read story ever on WBUR’s website, which Davidow said generally gets about 2 million visitors a month.
“I don’t understand how any of this happened, honestly,” Wang said in a phone interview. “The internet is a weird creature.”
Wang said she’s heard from journalism icons to past friends and co-workers of her father, who have reached out with their own stories. One person shared a picture of his hedgehog Nugs, who uses the cat litter her father created.
“It was details, like the fact my dad wore khaki shorts and polo shirts, that resonated with lots of people,” Wang said. “It’s really lovely, the small things that people related to in ways that reminded them of their own parents.”
Wang recorded the first version of her story last year, after her father was diagnosed with cancer. She interviewed him on their couch, where he revealed the details of his unlikely friendship with Barkley, an 11-time All-Star who works as an NBA analyst on TNT.
“It hit me while he was sick that I might not have any more days with my dad to hear his story,” Wang said, who admittedly wasn’t a basketball fan and had never heard of Barkley. “So I really needed to just sit down and record, and then understand, what was actually going on.”
Many details were left out of the final piece, like the fact that Barkley would sign Air Jordan sneakers her father mailed to him so he could give them to friends and family as Christmas gifts. They were the fanciful stories she’d heard her father repeatedly tell at family gatherings, which Wang often dismissed as far-fetched.
After her father passed away from cancer in June, Wang boarded a plane to China to learn more about his life.
“I was sort-of done telling that story,” Wang said of her father’s relationship with the former NBA superstar. “Then during the funeral Charles Barkley shows up. And I realized, ‘Oh, wow. There’s just so much more to tell.'”
So Wang introduced herself to Barkley at the funeral, told him about her story, and the two later spoke on the phone more than an hour. Among the stories Barkley revealed was that in 2015, Lin had traveled to Leeds, Ala., after Barkley’s mother died.
"It ain’t easy to get to those places. I’m from a very small town,” Barkley told Wang. "For your dad to take the time to come to the funeral meant a great deal to me.”
Wang said it’s important for her to have a relationship with Barkley moving forward, if only to get more insight about who her father was.