TRUMPETING THE SUNS

Strange. They are such public figures. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. They are quoted constantly. But we don't really know them.

For us they are defined by their latest television commercials. They are in black and white. The messages are grim. Barkley says he doesn't want to be a role model. Jordan talks about what it would be like if he wasn't famous.

They can't help themselves. They are trapped now in their celebrity. And now they must battle against each other. Not one of us can imagine what the pressure must be like.

This was the moment. Jesse McGuire held the glistening trumpet in his hands. He was standing in the middle of the basketball court at America West Arena just before the start of the Phoenix Suns' seventh game against the Seattle SuperSonics.

The instant McGuire began playing the national anthem with that great trumpet, I sensed the Suns would win the seventh game against Seattle.

Sonics coach George Karl still managed to maintain that almost constant sneer on his bloated face. But listening to the trumpet, Karl must have known he was in trouble.

McGuire is as good at blowing his trumpet as Charles Barkley is at either blowing his own horn or grabbing the basketball and driving to the iron. No one who has ever heard McGuire's trumpet doubts that his playing has the power to inflame. And that's what it did to the crowd of 19,023 regulars. It was a crowd both sentimental and emotional, anxious and jittery. This game was like the last episode of Cheers. The fans had been hanging around all year, and this might be the night the saloon would close down. Many had been to every one of the 41 regular-season home games and to every one of the ten home playoff games against the Los Angeles Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Sonics.

The fans had been there on November 7, when Barkley played his first game in America West Arena against the Los Angeles Clippers. Sir Charles outscored and outrebounded everybody on the floor that night. Then, when it was over, he tossed the game ball high into the stands to celebrate the first victory of his team.

These fans had been there for the second home game of the year, against Seattle, too. That was also way back in November. The Suns seemed unbeatable in those days. Time has passed. Fall . . . winter . . . spring . . . summer. And still the season presses on. So many victories--62 of them in the regular season--that the wins were sometimes taken for granted. No one has forgotten the brawl with the New York Knicks in March, which Kevin Johnson started by flattening Doc Rivers with a forearm shiver. Nobody has forgotten Greg Anthony coming off the bench in a multicolored shirt to sucker-punch KJ in return. And everyone still remembers Barkley playing the role of peacemaker on that occasion.

But a few resounding defeats still stand out. They still rankle. Nobody forgets what Michael Jordan did to the Suns on his trip here in November. Cedric Ceballos was guarding him, and Jordan turned the game into a clinic. Cleveland did the same to the Suns in February. The New Jersey Nets delivered an unmerciful pounding in March.

It was after that game that Barkley himself began complaining that the Suns were too small to play against some teams. But for most of the season, it was night after night of triumph. The Suns led the entire National Basketball Association. Barkley became the star of the All-Star Game and the league's Most Valuable Player. People's lives became submerged to the single-minded quest for an NBA title. Still it goes on. Barkley, like Captain Ahab, and the Suns, like the men of the doomed Pequod, still seek the White Whale. During this mystical run, the fans had heard many--too many--versions of the obligatory national anthem. One night Suns owner Jerry Colangelo's vaunted sound system gave out, and the crowd of 19,023 mercifully sang along with the unfortunate tenor who remained tethered to the dead microphone in the middle of the basketball court.

But none of those many versions compared to the highs McGuire reaches on his trumpet. For a singer, those final high notes are a nightmare. For McGuire they become a triumph, and for the fans a confidence booster. It's no wonder they used trumpets to lead the Charge of the Light Brigade.

McGuire played his trumpet during the regular season, too, and for the deciding fifth game of the Lakers series. Now he was back for the seventh game against the Sonics. He proved the critical "extra" element. But not the only one. What can you tell about how a player will perform just by watching him shoot lay-ups before a game begins? If it's Barkley, you can tell a lot. There is a look that comes into his eyes. A controlled air of suppressed violence comes over him for a big game.

Then the arena lights go out. The starting five is introduced. The spotlights play on their faces. Kevin Johnson smiles . . . Dan Majerle . . . Mark West . . . and, for this one time all season, Tom Chambers.

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