By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"The way I got it figured, there'll never be another player like me again. There'll never be another player who is six feet four inches and averages more than ten rebounds a game, scores inside whenever he wants to against bigger opponents and is quicker than most everybody he plays against. I'm the Ninth Wonder of the World, but I always knew that I was going to have to pay a price for the way I play."
Since coming to Phoenix, Barkley has grown more reflective.
"I am just learning who I am," he told the New York Times. "I haven't had a chance to grow up and mature. I've been in the so-called limelight since I was 18 years old. People tell you: 'You're great, you're great.' Then, all of a sudden, you've got all this money, you don't think you need anybody. You get caught up in it, and it's hard to get out."
Barkley respects Paul Westphal, the Suns' first-year coach, who was himself an NBA All-Star as a player. Barkley also remains close to Cotton Fitzsimmons, who engineered the trade that brought him here from Philadelphia.
During the Suns' winning streak, the biggest concern voiced by the fans who populate the balcony seats had been whether Kevin Johnson's return to the lineup after being on the injured list might actually hinder the team's offensive balance.
"Ridiculous," wrote the jaded mandarins of the daily press. "Kevin Johnson is one of the best point guards in basketball. His return has to help."
Paul Westphal, the Suns coach, echoed their sentiments. "Kevin's return can only make us stronger," he snapped. Westphal expressed impatience with those who feared KJ's style at point guard might diminish the effectiveness of the Suns' half-court offense, which had been centered on Barkley.
Westphal was in a delicate position. Certainly, he had to encourage KJ and welcome him back. But Westphal had to know that the steady ball handling turned in by others in KJ's absence had been of great help to Barkley. Negele Knight and Frank Johnson, as well as Danny Ainge and Dan Majerle, who sometimes played point guard during that period, had constantly searched out Barkley in the area down low near the basket. That and Barkley's willingness to distribute the ball after getting it were the keys to the team's winning ways in December.
All four recognized that the most important thing they could do was to get the ball to Barkley.
"Good things happen when you get the ball in to Charles," I heard Cotton Fitzsimmons say one night. The former Suns coach, now a broadcaster, was right.
After the San Antonio loss, Westphal admitted there might be a problem.
"I still think this is an adjustment period with Kevin back. We're still getting used to him, and him to everybody else, because he runs things a little differently."
This, in itself, is the first admission there is a problem. The Suns can no longer run it the way they did before Barkley's arrival. This time KJ will have to adjust his own style to one which has proven to be a winner.
The obvious reason for the Suns' success while KJ was recovering from both a hamstring pull and an injured groin muscle was Barkley's prodigious performance. He had done all the heavy lifting. In a memorable month of mano a mano performances, Barkley had taken on some of the strongest players in the league and outplayed every one of them.
Barkley had outrebounded bigger men like Larry Johnson of Charlotte, Vlade Divac of the Lakers, Shaquille O'Neal of Orlando, Dikembe Mutombo of Denver and even Hakeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe of Houston.
A man asked Barkley at that final meeting in the clubhouse, before the Suns' departure on the road trip, whether he thought there might be some trouble now adjusting to Kevin Johnson's style.
"I don't worry about adjusting," Barkley said. His answer was delivered in a matter-of-fact tone.
"I just play," he said. "I just do what I do, and hope it all comes out together and we'll win."
Before coming to Phoenix, Barkley always said there were several things he needed in order to play his best basketball.
"I need to play fewer minutes," he said. "And I need to play with at least two other guys who can score, at least one more serious rebounder, a point guard who knows how to play and guys on the bench who can give the starters a rest without allowing the opposing team to gain any ground."
Looking over the Suns' performance to date, Sir Charles came to exactly the right place. All we need now is the cooperation of Kevin Johnson.