DARK DAYS FOR THE SUNS

The electricity is gone. At this time a year ago, all they had to do at America West Arena was turn down the lights and put the spotlight on the Suns. The crowd would go crazy with expectation.

On the sidelines, the Suns subs were on their feet, waving towels and cheering. It was a team you could never count out of a game. Most nights, if they did lose, it was only because they ran out of time.

Now, when they lose, it is because their time has run out. They have lost that indefinable something that makes a winner.

That's not surprising. A single year can be an epoch in the National Basketball Association. A team can be dominant one year and an over-the-hill gang the next.

America West Arena fans have become as spoiled as the Suns that they grew to love. Suns fans became so addicted to the frenzy of the playoffs against the Lakers, Spurs, Sonics and, finally, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls that ordinary season games are no longer satisfying.

They are waiting for the miracle in June.
The fans are not alone in their languid attitude. And why not?
In those glory days last season, Charles Barkley was playing like a mad dog, propelling the Suns to victory night after night by the sheer force of his own will and the strength of his shoulders.

Barkley swept both boards. He stole passes. He raced from one end of the court to the other to block shots. He made uncanny passes. He came through with the clutch shot. He was the warrior of warriors.

He was the best there was, and for it, they named him the most valuable player in the league--even over Michael Jordan.

And it didn't matter who the Suns were up against. It didn't have to be New York or San Antonio or Seattle to bring Barkley's game to the top level.

Bring on the lowly Los Angeles Clippers, Minnesota, or even Sacramento. Sir Charles would do a few deep knee bends before the opening tip and then charge in to steal the ball. And he would not stop there. He was a bundle of terror and energy who created havoc all over the court on a nightly basis.

This year, we have not seen that Charles Barkley. And only a small part of this transformation is because of injury.

When Jordan became the game's most famous player, he took to hiding from the media, ducking in and out of hotel rooms. Barkley has attempted to handle the same level of fame by attacking it.

So we have seen and heard much too much from Charles in far too many television commercials and on a myriad of tell-all interview shows. He is running for governor of Alabama. He is going to retire from basketball. He is not going to retire. He likes Cotton Fitzsimmons. He does not like Cotton Fitzsimmons.

There is a continuous cacophony coming from his mouth at all times. Give it a rest, Charles. It's really time to start playing ball. Wait until June and you will find that you have already been eliminated.

Television devours personalities. Even the greatest of them. That's what it is doing to Charles. It has transformed him from one of the most original and endearing personalities ever in American sports to a mere bookend for Tonya Harding.

The thing is that television can't tell the difference between the two of them. And if Charles keeps letting it use him to merely fill air time, we won't know anymore, either. And that's what is so sad about all this.

You want to know how good Barkley actually is this season?
Look closely at those commercials where he sits at a table clowning it up for the shoe company. This is the company, incidentally, that exploits its female slave labor in Thailand for less than two dollars a day. The shoes which bear Barkley's name are made at a cost of less than five dollars, but black children in the ghetto murder each other to possess them.

How much more irony and pathos do you need?
Watch your television set as Charles exchanges those inane, scripted quips in the commercials with the retired Jordan.

Do you want an approximation of what Barkley thinks?
Turn on the Charlie Rose or Roy Firestone shows. Charles has plenty of time and energy to devote to them and their ilk. But it's too bad that leeches like Rose and Firestone have become a greater priority for Barkley than being on the practice court with the Suns.

The awful truth is that Barkley doesn't work at being a professional basketball player anymore, and it shows. He has become a very rich and independent young man approaching middle age, and that shows, too.

He has become what that noted historian Dr. Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune calls an executive power forward. As such, he has all the perks. And so he steps on the floor and turns it on only when he deems a game worthy of his supreme skills. On all other occasions, Charles spends the night grousing at the officials or, as happened last Sunday, engaging in a childish slapping incident with the Knicks' loutish Charles Oakley.

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