THE MOST POPULAR MAN IN PHOENIX

I remember:
All season long, the writers came from all over, from Germany and France and even New York City. They came from the New York Times, The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Newsday and the Chicago Tribune. In the NBA, it was like a visit to Mecca. They all ended up at Charles Barkley's cubicle.

And it was almost always the same. Barkley sat there with a big, white towel wrapped around him. He was always polite. Each night he tried to top himself by saying something even more outrageous than the time before. Most NBA players think they make too much money to bother talking to the writers anymore. "What can they do for me?" they say.

They think talking to writers can only get them in trouble. The only time they like to talk is for national television. The rest of the time, they answer one or two questions and are heading for the door: "Is that enough?" they ask.

There are only two players in the NBA who make it easy for writers to talk to them. One is Michael Jordan. The other is Charles Barkley.

"Hey, guys," Barkley says. "Let that little girl through so she can hear me, too." People step aside so the woman sportswriter can get within earshot.

A small child is brought in for an autograph. Barkley holds up his flow of conversation to sign the autograph. He pats the boy on the head. He is very good with children.

Early in the season, there was a picture of Barkley's daughter on the wall on the back of his cubicle. The number of photos of his daughter kept increasing throughout the season until they almost covered the back wall.

@rule:
@body:The other night, while listening over the radio, I heard Cotton Fitzsimmons toss off a line indicating he didn't get along with Barkley. Within minutes, people were calling into the station complaining about Cotton's remark.

Obviously, nobody out there has a sense of humor anymore. Cotton idolizes Charles. I think Jerry Colangelo does, too. Even a grizzled veteran of the wars like Al Bianchi, the former assistant coach, thinks Barkley can do no wrong.

Who knows if this will ever change? Barkley says he wants to quit playing before he slows up so much that his skills have eroded.

They all say that. But then they all try to make comebacks. Kareem stayed too long. Julius Erving--Dr. J--stayed too long. So did Larry Bird and Kevin McHale. Only Magic quit when the skills were still there. But he didn't have a choice.

Who thought it could possibly turn out this well with Barkley?
For one thing, Jeff Hornacek was a genuine favorite with Suns fans in the old Coliseum. Remember how he hustled, how he came to play every night, how he shot the three-pointer in the clutch?

But Colangelo wanted Barkley. He would gladly have thrown Kevin Johnson in the deal, but Philadelphia wouldn't go for it. KJ's bad wheels are not exactly a secret around the league. So it was Horny who had to go.

How would the fans take to Barkley? He had so much baggage. And it all sounded so much worse than it was when you read about it from a distance.

Charles carried a pistol in his car. He once spat at an obnoxious fan and hit a little girl. He punched out a loudmouthed weight lifter in a bar. He even took a punch at Bill Laimbeer of the Detroit Pistons. He went to the Olympics and created an international incident by elbowing a skinny little guy on one of the other teams.

Charles was unpredictable. He often did things that were unseemly.
But maybe if he played well enough, he could help the Suns win a few games.
Was he good? He was far and away the most valuable player in the NBA this year. Without Barkley, the Suns were an ordinary team. With him they won 62 games, more than anyone else in the league. It was more wins than they had ever had in their entire history.

It's as simple as that.
Barkley's reputation for being a villain turns out to be unfair. He was actually the most popular member of the Dream Team with the fans at the Olympic Games. When Barkley and the Suns played their only game in Philadelphia, the place was sold out. Late in the game, a fan ran out onto the floor while Charles was taking a free throw to pat him on the shoulder and shake his hand.

@rule:
@body:There was opening night in America West Arena, when the Suns started the season against the Los Angeles Clippers. It was the first of an entire season of sellout crowds.

Barkley led all scorers and all rebounders. At the conclusion of the game, he tossed the game ball high into the stands as an offering to the fans.

The only time all season that he was upstaged was when Shaquille O'Neal of Orlando came in and tore down the backboard. And Barkley made up for that in the fourth quarter by going head to head against O'Neal.

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