WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR

A moment frozen in time:
The clock shows there are still 3.9 seconds to play. The Phoenix Suns trail the Chicago Bulls, 99 to 98. So near and yet so far. There are 19,023 Phoenix Suns fans on their feet in America West Arena. They are screaming . . . chanting . . . stamping their feet . . . pleading with and for the Suns. There has never before been such noise in an enclosed arena in the state of Arizona. Kevin Johnson stands with the ball held high above his head. KJ is poised, collected . . . ready to throw the ball into play from the side of the court. For this last play, he is set up directly across the floor from the Suns' bench.

Paul Westphal, the Suns' coach, is on his feet. Westphal wears a light-colored suit. His jacket is unbuttoned. His hands are open, too, and held chest-high. It is almost as though Westphal is still playing in the backcourt himself. He seems prepared to catch KJ's pass and make the desperation, last-second shot himself, if necessary.

Every player on the Suns' bench is on his feet. Their mouths are wide open, agape. Their hands are tightly clenched . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . for . . . the miracle shot.

They are prepared to break into cheers for the winning basket they pray and believe is yet to come.

Strange how your mind works. I am reminded, at this moment, of the final scene in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Here's how the scene played:
Paul Newman and Robert Redford are both badly wounded and surrounded by a heavily armed group of South American soldiers who are bent on finishing their murderous task.

Newman and Redford charge out from their place of shelter with guns blazing, heading for their horses and a miraculous escape.

Then the film freezes. The color on the screen fades. The figures of Newman and Redford turn sepia, like those in an ancient photo album.

The last image you see in the film is Newman and Redford with their guns held high, charging gallantly into battle. Because you never see them actually killed, Butch and Sundance live in your mind forever.

That's the way I'll remember this year's Suns team . . . heading toward possible victory . . . still in the battle . . . with the clock running down.

@rule:
@body:I was too cowardly to watch the final seconds. The Suns had come too far to lose. I didn't want to see it end this way.

Not on this day, when the crowd in America West Arena had been deafening throughout the entire game. The fans came determined.

By now--after six games--I had come to thoroughly dislike Michael Jordan, the NBA's bàte noire. He is the greatest basketball player in the world . . . and the most arrogant.

After a full season of watching Charles Barkley, I rate Barkley with the greatest entertainers and athletes I have ever seen.

I compare him to three who I watched all the way: Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Muhammad Ali. Barkley is every bit as skilled in his sport as those players were in theirs. And he has a better sense of humor than any athlete I have ever encountered. Barkley should be writing material for Jay Leno.

I now know what Barkley meant when he refused to admit during an interview with Bob Costas that Jordan was a better player than he was.

You want to choose up sides? Fine. My first pick every time would be Sir Charles. Jordan wins because he's a superb player. Barkley wins because he makes everyone on his team a better player. He makes everyone around him perform with courage.

And after watching KJ in the last four games, I would make him my second pick. I am now willing to admit that Barkley was right. The Suns can't win without Kevin Johnson performing at his best. So it was only fitting that KJ was greeted at the start of Sunday's game with a thunderous round of applause.

This is the way I will remember this year's Suns team. KJ has the ball. Waiting for him to toss it into play are Barkley, Danny Ainge, Dan Majerle and Oliver Miller.

There is still time on the clock . . . still a chance to win.
Majerle, Barkley or Ainge will perform one final act of valor. Someone will deliver the final shot that will drop through the rim, swishing through the net. The Suns will triumph. And that's the way I will remember the end of this sixth game of the NBA Finals against the Bulls.

For me this season will never end. It will remain frozen in time. Hope will triumph over gloom.

@rule:
@body:By the time I reached the ground floor of America West Arena, the Suns players were walking slowly through the corridor to their dressing room.

Frank Johnson's thoughts were his own. The reserve point guard did not make eye contact with any of the dozens of people lined along the walls.

Was he blaming himself for missing that key basket in the final minutes? He shouldn't have been. Frank Johnson, or "Fourth Quarter Frank," as they call him on the radio, had made too many big shots all year long.

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