I got to America West Arena almost two hours early last Saturday night. It was the opening of the Charles Barkley era in Phoenix Suns' basketball.

Outside, the sidewalk was jammed with fans. Traffic crept and horns honked constantly as the garages and parking lots filled. It was a carnival. Expectations are so high. Perhaps they are too high. The Suns' season-opening game against the Los Angeles Clippers was already a sellout. I was amazed. Who wants to pay money to see the Clippers when the game is being televised? Lots of people, it turned out. Scalpers stood openly on the pavement hawking tickets for $150 each. And they had no trouble selling them.

I saw women line up excitedly at a makeshift stand to have their faces decorated with Suns' emblems. Street entertainers performed acrobatics. All that was needed to make it look as wild as the Pompidou Center in Paris was a half-dozen fire-eaters.

Wherever Jerry Colangelo walked, people stopped the Suns' president to grab his hand and express their congratulations. Jude LaCava, the sports personality for KTAR-AM, directed one of those self-important questions at Colangelo. LaCava sounded like the master of ceremonies at a weekly Rotary Club meeting: "Here is the man behind the energy," LaCava said. "Jerry, is this a special night for you?"

"I had a dream . . . ," Colangelo began, solemnly. Unfortunately, the remainder of his remarks were drowned out by a burst of applause and the blowing of trumpets nearby.

A night like this brings out people's secret yearnings for the spotlight. I spotted Henry Florence, self-proclaimed the town's richest drug lawyer, marching to his seat with the season ticketholders. The strange thing about Florence is that no one has ever seen him go to trial. But there is no doubt about his wealth. Florence drives a Rolls-Royce and spent $1 million on his home, which he boasts has the thickest walls of any house in the city.

Bill Frieder, Arizona State University's basketball coach, arrived wearing a bizarre satin sweat suit. He quickly took possession of a spot on the basketball floor near one of the baskets. Frieder began talking to Bill Walton, the old basketball star with the bad feet, and anyone else he could buttonhole. This vantage point gave Frieder the chance to wave at the many judges in the stands who had presided over the sentencing of so many of his ASU players in recent months. This was an astute tactic. The way Frieder recruits athletes, he will be doing business with these people again.

Mayor Paul Johnson, tall and gangly enough to play in the NBA himself, walked proudly down the aisle to find his seat. He and Colangelo would toss up the ceremonial first ball.

There was a pregame tribute to four outstanding Suns players of the past. Their numbers have been placed in a prominent place high up on the facing of the balcony. They are Connie Hawkins, Paul Westphal, Alvan Adams and Dick Van Arsdale. All still work for the club.

They were all fine players, but Hawkins was special. Along with Julius Erving and Michael Jordan, he possessed unnatural skills that put him on a separate level. Many players in the NBA have displayed great skill. But "The Hawk," "Doctor J" and Michael are in a league of their own.

@rule:
@body:Sitting directly in the row in front of me in the press box was Al Bianchi, former Suns assistant coach and former general manager of the New York Knicks. I had a flashback. I remembered another basketball opening night back in Chicago. It was 1966, the first home game in the history of the Chicago Bulls. They played it in the old Chicago Amphitheatre, near the stockyards, and the smell of cattle wafted over the place so that it got into your clothes.

The Bulls drew slightly more than 3,000 people that night. Bianchi and Johnny Kerr were co-coaches. Big Al is now a Suns scout. Kerr is a Bulls television announcer. Bianchi sits next to Colangelo, who was also there in 1966 as a member of the Bulls' sales staff.

Colangelo, who had been the basketball-team captain at the University of Illinois, had just left the tuxedo-rental business to take a gamble on the business side of pro basketball.

Things were loose in those days. I remember going out to the Bulls' training camp at Northern Illinois University in De Kalb a week before the season opened.

After practice I went to the hotel room occupied jointly by Bianchi and Kerr. There were two quart bottles of labeled Scotch on a table. Empty.

"Goddamn that Dick Kline," Kerr said. "He wouldn't let us get to sleep until we finished both bottles."
Dick Kline was the Chicago Bulls' owner.
Here's how unsupervised the players were. Barry Clemens, a Bulls player from little Ohio Wesleyan University, didn't get much playing time that first season. On a West Coast trip, Clemens went to the beach in L.A. to shoot baskets. He was invited to play in a recreational-league game that night. The NBA had developed so little fan interest that nobody knew who Clemens was. Clemens played and scored 51 points. The following day, there was a brief account of the rec-league games in the Los Angeles Times. There was a notation about Clemens' 51 points, but they were credited to the name of the player Clemens substituted for. He carried the clipping around in his wallet for months as evidence of his skill.

@rule:
@body:But these fans didn't come here tonight for nostalgia. I credit Laura Greenberg, the Phoenix magazine writer, for spotting the trend before anyone else.

"Don't you get it?" Greenberg said. "NBA basketball is going to be the rock n' roll of the Nineties."
She's right. There's a lot of noise, dancing girls, the Gorilla, television screens, light shows, the whole works. But during the warm-ups, all eyes were on Sir Charles Barkley, the Suns' new superstar. The crowd continued pouring into the big building. The lines for hot dogs and beer were long. So were the lines at the souvenir stands. For $15 you could buy a tee shirt that says you were at the first game in America West Arena.

But all was not bliss. Some season ticketholders had complaints. They were finding it difficult to adjust to this new arena.

"We have been season ticketholders from the start," said an attractive, well-dressed woman.

"I didn't even know there were three refs until the second season. But what is it with this place? "The seats are terrible. They're uncomfortable. They aren't pitched right. It's like Colangelo is trying to jam us in. The seats are also narrower than the old ones. So are the aisles. If someone has to go to the john, everyone in the aisle has to stand up. "And then, when you get to the bathroom, the stalls are so narrow. It's nice that they provide those seat covers for the toilet. But do you think women want to sit on the toilet and hear the voice of Al McCoy booming out all over the room? It's terribly disconcerting." Another woman season ticketholder had fond memories of the Coliseum. "I watched my youth come and go in that place," she said. "Hot pants, miniskirts, and now I'm just an old woman who dyes her hair."
Another season ticketholder complained about the sound system.
"It's so loud. I noticed everyone in the row in front of us stuffed cotton in their ears. Someone in our row didn't understand at first.

"Do you suppose those people all caught a virus and it will soon spread to this row?" she asked.

Women fans have made it their business to learn a lot about Barkley.
"Charles bought a house in Paradise Valley, off Tatum Road, for $539,000," one said. "I remember that area when the demonstration homes were first built. It was called 'The Street of Dreams' back then."
Charles reportedly makes more than $3 million per year. But his business agent persuaded him to buy what for him is an inexpensive house, so he won't be stuck with the property if things don't work out in Phoenix. @rule:

@body:With his shaved head, huge torso and incredibly thick thighs, Barkley would be hard to miss. Part of the wonder of Barkley is his mouth. What would it be like, I wondered, if he did not talk?

What was Charles like before he became Sir Charles? He crossed swords with Bobby Knight at Indiana University. He tried out for the United States Olympic Team the year Knight was the coach.

Knight saw Barkley as an undisciplined player who wouldn't take direction. Knight also wanted to create a place on the roster for one of his own players from Indiana. Charles was the last player cut.

Probably, he was not much different. It is said that Knight cut Barkley because Charles had the effrontery to ridicule the style of the shoes that Knight wore. They were the kind of shoes with the tiny holes on the top that all the FBI men wear for their undercover roles.

What's so special about Barkley?
Based on one game, it's difficult to put into words. But he is a real presence on the court. He is more like a rock star than a basketball player. He has great hands, excellent balance and an instinctive sense of where he is on the court at all times.

But in addition to that, he seems to have the ability to explode upward from the floor toward the basket. When he does, his strength and 260 or so pounds make him unstoppable.

Before the night was over, he scored 37 points and grabbed 21 rebounds. When you consider that he was going up on the boards against two Clippers who weighed 300 pounds each, those rebound figures are incredible.

There was one unforgettable sequence under the offensive basket. Charles tipped a rebound that missed. He got up to get the second rebound and missed. He got up to get the third rebound and missed. Then he got up to get the fourth rebound and tipped the ball perfectly to Dan Majerle, who promptly sank a jump shot.

Without Charles Barkley, the Suns would not have won the game. It's that simple.

But his presence has totally changed things. The chemistry that existed last year no longer exists.

Everyone's importance has been downgraded because of Barkley's arrival. In the meantime, a new ball club with a new chemistry must be created. This is a process that can't even begin until Kevin Johnson gets over his groin injury.

But this is all new. Last year everyone worried about the Gorilla, about why Kurt Rambis wasn't playing and about whether Tom Chambers was over the hill.

Forget it. The Gorilla no longer seems important in this era of sound systems and dancing girls. Rambis played two minutes and disappeared. Chambers will be a part of the offense only if Charles wants him included.

Late in the game, Barkley deliberately took a charge from one of the Clippers' 300-pound behemoths. Curiously, this fellow's nickname is "Hot Plate."

Barkley was rocked back on his heels. He crashed on his back. His shaved head hit the floor. But he had given himself up to prevent a potential game-winning basket from being scored.

For an instant, he remained flat on his back. It was like the aftermath of a battle between two bull elephants. All the Suns players on the floor rushed to see if Barkley had expired. But he was all right.

Not a single game had been fully played, and it was obvious that Sir Charles Barkley was already the team's indispensable presence.

Barkley scored the Suns' first basket of the night on a tip-in. In the final seconds, he dribbled half the length of the floor and dunked the ball, resoundingly. He clearly did it as a statement. The crowd loved it. They loved every minute of it. They even loved a crucial moment in the fourth period when Charles held the ball out too far and let a Clippers player steal it and score an important basket. When the game ended, Barkley had the ball in his possession again. He looked up to the top of the stands. Smiling, he seemingly attempted to toss the ball to the roof.

The ball went high in the stands, but it didn't reach the roof. It was the only time he came up short all night.

@rule:
@body:Sir Charles has set himself a mighty task. Not only must he perform well, but he must also be ready to talk entertainingly when it's over.

After the game, which Phoenix won, 111 to 105, Barkley went out to the center of the floor to speak to the fans via microphone with Suns announcer Al McCoy. This is not like the old days at the Coliseum. Remember self-effacing players like Walter Davis and Jeff Hornacek? They would score more than 30 points and come out and murmur a few modest words and then retire to the clubhouse.

Not Barkley. He is an accomplished motor-mouth. More than 5,000 fans waited to hear him speak after the game ended. And when he was finished with the fans, he headed for the locker room, where the media still awaited. One wonders what else there was for him to say.

Barkley sat patiently in front of his dressing stall. There were television cameras and microphones all around him. The reporters came in waves. Some would stay for a few minutes and get enough quotes so they could leave.

It wasn't so much that Barkley was giving them a spontaneous response to his experiences on the court that night. It was a skilled acting performance. He might have been with Jay Leno or on the Arsenio Hall Show.

Obviously, he strives for shock effect. For a week before the opening of the regular season, Barkley had been saying that exhibition games were played only to rip off the fans' money.

This night, Charles explained the rules under which this new Phoenix Suns team will operate. It will be run by him and a group of players he chooses to make it a going enterprise.

"You see," he said, "the coach don't have as much control as people think."
Who knows what reaction Westphal, newly enshrined on the Suns' wall of fame and a rookie coach, will have to this revelation?

Barkley moved to cover his tracks quickly.
"It's what Paul says himself," Barkley added. "He can scream and scream at us and it can't make no difference. We have to do it ourselves."
Barkley explained what kind of a Suns team it will become once KJ is back and in the flow.

"We are gonna compete. They are not gonna be brutalizing us when we go down the lane. If somebody hits us, we're gonna hit back."
A man asked Barkley how it will be on the nights that the Suns don't win.
Barkley thought about that a little bit. He rubbed one of his huge, brown thighs.

"Well," he said, "I'm gonna play as well as I can. That's all I can do."
He shook his head.
"I can't do any more than that."
Then he smiled.
"Besides, if we don't win, it won't change the world in any way."
Then the man they call Sir Charles smiled.

He said something he seemed certain would both amuse and reassure readers all over.

"There's no better feeling than winning, except when you have an orgasm," Charles Barkley said.

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