SUNDAY IN THE LOCKER ROOM WITH CHARLES

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
sign above Charles Barkley's dressing stall

Here comes Charles Barkley. He seems almost eerily calm. It is 90 minutes before the start of last Sunday's fifth and deciding game against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Suns' locker room is quiet. On the big-screen television, the game between New York and Charlotte is being played. The voices of the announcers and the crowd sounds from Madison Square Garden filter through the room.

Barkley is wearing purple linen slacks and a purple plaid shirt. He dresses like a movie star, and he can afford to. This year his income, including endorsements, will top $4 million. But you can't command this kind of money unless you deliver the goods each time you take the floor. For Barkley there can never be excuses. Next to Michael Jordan, he is the best basketball player in the world. But that comes with a caveat. Charles Barkley can never have an off day.

Despite the odds and the pressure, Barkley must perform for his team at a superlative level, no matter what the circumstances. His life is pressure-packed. The bigger the game, the better he is expected to perform.

Amazingly, Barkley seems to thrive in this rarefied atmosphere.
Now he strides the length of the Suns' dressing room toward his dressing stall at the far end.

On the way, he nods to Danny Ainge and Quinn Buckner, the NBC analyst. Ainge and Buckner were once teammates with the Boston Celtics. They are talking softly in front of Ainge's locker and watching the Knicks-Hornets game. Barkley nods also to Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers.

KJ is stretched out on the floor. His eyes seem glazed over. He seems to be meditating. Chambers sits, ashen-faced, in front of his locker. Chambers has already put his uniform on, but sits staring down at his shoes and socks.

The other Suns players are out on the floor, warming up. Dan Majerle is in the trainer's room being treated. He has been sick all night long. It is not certain whether he can play.

Barkley reaches his locker and quickly begins to remove his shirt.
"These games are no joke," he says. "Damn it, though, if you're an athlete, you've got to love this situation. You get to control your own destiny."
"Do you think you'll be relaxed out there today, Charles?" a man asks.
"I'll be relaxed," he says, "unless I miss my first ten shots." Barkley snorts.
"No guy who misses ten shots in a row can be relaxed."

Barkley shouts down to Ainge and Buckner, boasting about his golf game. Ainge is a seven-handicap golfer, but Barkley, a very average golfer, keeps insisting he is Ainge's superior.

"What are you looking forward to out there today?" a man asks.
"I wanna get it done," Barkley says. "I missed a whole bunch of shots in game two and three. So today, I want to get off to a good start. I don't want the Lakers to build up any momentum."
It was almost as though he was talking to himself now, measuring his determination.

"We'll play with more confidence and they'll play with less. But no matter what happens, I'm going to keep firing."
Barkley smiles.
"That's the only thing that separates the good players from the rest."
@rule:

@body:I walked over to the press room to look at the seating chart. There were media people from all over the country on hand. They were serving a light lunch. All the tables were filled. There was a time when I knew who all the syndicated sports columnists were and could spot them on sight. There really aren't any syndicated sports columnists anymore. The only figures who are instantly recognizable at these gatherings are the television people, like Dick Enberg and Hannah Storm.

The NBA provided everyone with complete records of everything that has taken place this season. They are so complete that a total stranger could walk in off the street and have enough information at his disposal to report on the game.

I looked over the season's records of the games between the Lakers and Suns. The Suns had beaten the Lakers all five games during the regular season. Barkley scored well against them every time. But I also noticed that Oliver Miller had done very well. I was curious about him because he had played especially well in game four of the playoffs. In the 13th game of this, his rookie season, Miller had scored 16 points. Toward the end of the season, Miller had played 35 minutes against the Lakers and blocked four shots.

I headed upstairs to my seat about 20 minutes before the scheduled start. There were 41 regular-season home games, and I had made it to 38 of them. But this crowd was different from all the others. The excitement was close to frenzy.

Everywhere I looked, fans were waving orange cards handed out at the door. There was a persistent hum throughout the huge building.

Tim Kempton, who had been on the Suns' roster all season long, was standing next to the team bench. He had been placed on the injured-reserve list and now he was wearing a green shirt and a pair of slacks. He is six-foot-ten and weighs 265 pounds, and now seemed like an amazingly hearty cheerleader.

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