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.

If I were Rod Thorn, the NBA chief of operations, I would fine Barkley $250,000 or perhaps even more for his silly display. I would probably suspend him for five games, too.

He deliberately got himself tossed out of the game and personally destroyed any entertainment value the game held for a national television audience.

Because of Barkley's millionaire status, the big fine would not be excessive, merely appropriate.

Given his baronial lifestyle, it is probably the only thing that could get Barkley's attention for more than three minutes.

He might even like it. The size of the fine would get him interviews with David Letterman, Jay Leno, Bob Costas, Jude LaCava, Steve Pascente, Bill Denney, Mike Chamberlin, Gil Tyree, Carlos Burgos and even Rush Limbaugh, to talk about the injustice of it all.

Please don't make the argument with me that the refs were wrong for throwing out Barkley. They had nothing to do with it. He knowingly set forth on a course of conduct that left them no alternative.

Because it was alert to the possibility of bad blood between the Knicks and Suns, the NBA assigned referee Jake O'Donnell to the game. O'Donnell is as good at what he does as Barkley and, on top of that, is not constantly contemplating his retirement.

For the second half of that contest, any fans interested in Charles had to be content with a report from the locker room by Ahmad Rashad, certainly the most useless television reporter of the decade.

A few minutes into the half, Rashad confided to the audience that Barkley was relaxing in a hot tub watching the game on television.

Wonderful.
Last week, Charles was once again in court defending himself against charges by a New York firefighter that Barkley had slapped him in the face after a game in New Jersey last year.

Charles said the incident was not his fault. They never are his fault. No matter how many times Charles gets involved, nothing is ever to be blamed upon him.

I suppose the incident we all saw with Oakley was not of his own doing, either.
Outside the courtroom last week, Charles entered a new line of defense.
"I blame the media for all this," he told the assembled reporters. "It's because of the attention I get in the media that everyone wants to get famous off me."
Marvelous.
All right, Charles, I have a suggestion. Get together with your accountants. I assume you need more than one by this time. Look up your bank balance. When you have the numbers straight in your memory, hold a press conference and blame the media for that, too.

This is all rather sad. Charles can still be the most engaging figure in sports. He may still even be able to lead the Suns to a championship in the NBA this season.

But if he's going to do it, the time to start is now.
The season is getting away from the Suns. Right now they are a terrible team. They are totally selfish and do not deserve to win. The only one playing like the game was designed to be is Mark West, the much-maligned center, who still sacrifices his body every night and day for the Suns.

If the Suns are going to make a move, Charles must lead the charge.
Only if Charles begins to perform up to the top of his game will the other madness stop.

A.C. Green will be there ready and willing to help. He is averaging 16.4 points a game and close to ten rebounds while averaging almost 40 minutes. Green hasn't missed a game all year. But I rarely see him interviewed on television.

Dan Majerle is a man who has become possessed by the three-point shot. He keeps firing them up from farther and farther out on the court and with less and less justification. He is a gunner.

What happened to the Majerle who once played tough defense and was a valuable asset to the team? That Majerle is long gone. What we have left is a one-dimensional player who has lost his way.

Kevin Johnson is beyond redemption. What makes KJ's case more dangerous is that some people even think his total domination of the offense and constant histrionics actually help the team win.

Sorry, folks, KJ can only help the Suns win against a team like the Knicks last Sunday--a team that was incapable of shooting at even a mediocre level.

KJ may even be the biggest source of trouble this team has to cope with. The Suns won't win unless the ball goes through Barkley on the offense, and KJ has decided that he will control the ball at all times.

In case you haven't noticed, he also seems determined to grab as many microphones as Barkley. For example, how many times now have you seen KJ's postgame speech about his determination to win at all costs?

Oliver Miller, once a promising rookie, seems on the verge of eating himself out of the league. He has turned into a big, fat guy who can make an occasional good play. Aside from that, he is lazy and temperamental.

Danny Ainge has gone over the edge. There are too many turnovers and he can't cover anyone in the final five minutes.

Cedric Ceballos is a complementary player. He will be as good as Barkley makes him. Left to his own devices, Ceballos will do nothing but shoot. Combined with Barkley, he has the potential to become a 30-point scorer.

But neither of them will score unless KJ gives up the ball.
I used to think Paul Westphal was to blame because of the Suns' laid-back attitude on defense. It is much more than that. The league itself is to blame if it will only admit it.

There comes a time in life when things like tough defense and diving to the floor for the ball are beneath the dignity of players who make too much money.

Here are the annual salaries of this year's Suns as published in various pro basketball publications. I do not include Barkley's reported $10 million for national television commercials:

Charles Barkley, $2.4 million; Dan Majerle, $1 million; Kevin Johnson, $1.9 million; Cedric Ceballos, $1.2 million; Mark West, $1 million; Danny Ainge, $1.4 million; Oliver Miller, $750,000; Joe Kleine, $1.5 million; A.C. Green, $2 million.

Basketball was devised by Dr. James Naismith to keep teenagers out of trouble in winter. I don't think Dr. Naismith ever envisioned that it was complex enough to permanently capture the attention of grown men who are millionaires.

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