SOMETHING TO INFURIATE EVERYONE

Notebook:
Last year was fun. It was full of constant surprises. There were miraculous shots that won games. Almost every night at America West Arena was a combination of Christmas and the Fourth of July.

When Charles Barkley wasn't dominating the backboards, he was stealing balls and thundering three-quarters of the court with stolen passes to make slam-dunk shots. He bounded over the scorer's table in New York to chase down the referees. Night after night, Barkley faced up, one on one, against the very best players the NBA had to offer. Most nights, he bested them. And on the rare occasions when he didn't, he came close.

Barkley was magnificent. It was an unforgettable season. Perhaps we will never see its like again. If Barkley were a bullfighter, he would have been led back out onto the floor following the final game against the Chicago Bulls and awarded two ears and a tail. Instead, he had to settle for being the Most Valuable Player in the NBA.

Now I wonder if the magic is over.
We saw Barkley outplay David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, and even make the game-winning shot off Robinson in a classic, street-game final second of play. Barkley deliberately stomped on a prone Vlade Divac of the L.A. Lakers and outleaped the magnificent Shawn Kemp of the Seattle SuperSonics. Barkley took Shaquille O'Neal to school on a memorable afternoon, during which the big rookie's most impressive moment came when he pulled down the backboard.

With Barkley leading the way, it seemed the Suns were capable of beating anyone on a given night. Charles tossed balls up into the crowd. He growled at opponents, exhorted the crowds and hugged small children. He bullied his way through the season, deliberately building a persona as the ultimate, ruthless warrior. He was Superman, Batman, Sly Stallone and Sir Lancelot all wrapped into one neat package.

And the Suns came within ten seconds of taking Michael Jordan and the Bulls into a seventh game and themselves to a possible NBA title.

Now, because of Michael Jordan's retirement, Suns fans expect an easy run to the title this year. That is not going to happen, and tomorrow night's exhibition game against the New York Knicks will be an indication of how impossible that road may be for this year's Suns.

First of all, the Suns have just returned from an ill-advised trip to a schlock tournament sponsored by McDonald's, in which they should never have been involved. What did they achieve by winning at Munich? Nothing.

Because of the disruptions of travel and the tournament, the Suns are about to begin the season on tired legs and without even having conducted a proper training camp.

We forget what a close call it was last season, making it to the final round. The Suns were inches away from being taken out in the first round by the Lakers. Do you remember when Suns coach Paul Westphal, trailing 0-2, said the team would go to L.A. and win two games and come back home and win the third?

San Antonio was on the way to beating the Suns until Antoine Carr went down with a leg injury. It was only a few miraculous performances by Barkley that edged out Seattle in seven games.

Things might be ready to go downhill. We are going to know shortly, perhaps as soon as tomorrow night, when Pat Riley and the Knicks come to town. This will be the first appearance here by the Knicks since Kevin Johnson blindsided Doc Rivers and precipitated the biggest brawl of the season. So this won't be an ordinary exhibition game.

I am afraid this will not be a happy season for Barkley. This time last year, he was talking about winning an NBA crown. The only thing he complained about was a lack of rebounding power. He has that now with the additions of A.C. Green and Joe Kleine.

But Charles isn't counting his blessings. All he talks about are his aching back, his forthcoming retirement, his aching leg and what a problem it is giving all those TV interviews now that Jordan has retired.

Last year, Barkley was his own man. He was big enough to take down Godzilla and face down the crowd and tell it not to expect him to be a role model.

Charles, no one expects you to be a role model. We don't expect you to replace Michael. Being Charles Barkley is plenty good enough.

So let's quit the histrionics. Get on with it.
@rule:
@body:More notes on the Suns:

At the first exhibition game, Henry Florence, the lawyer, told me this story. The moral: How times have changed.

"I've been a season ticketholder since the second year of the franchise," Henry began. "At the end of one season, Colangelo made a trade with the Boston Celtics that infuriated me. He sent a truly fine Suns player named Charlie Scott to the Celtics for Paul Westphal.

"So I wrote Colangelo a personal note telling him I was canceling my season tickets. I didn't want anything to do with a club that would trade a Charlie Scott for a white guy like Westphal, who was sitting on the Celtics' bench.

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