Last Sunday, Marv Albert, the television announcer with the lamentable toupee, pronounced the collapse of Charles Barkley as an NBA force even before the start of the game between Phoenix and Orlando.

Unfortunately for Albert, he was quite wrong. Charles Barkley turns out to be alive and well.

Albert's moaning and groaning began at the outset of the broadcast:
"Shaq or Sir Charles," came the ominous words. "Who will win out . . . youth or experience?"
Albert is a shameless shill. Rather than a skilled play-by-play man, he is, instead, the public relations voice for NBA Commissioner David Stern. Albert can't be trusted as a reporter because his views are colored by his desire to please Stern and sell the product.

Albert's color man this season is the bland and boring Matt Guokas. Even though Guokas was once Barkley's coach at Philadelphia, he has nothing to offer about what it was like to coach Charles.

Don't you find that strange? In fact, Guokas has nothing to offer about anything.

You wonder how he could spend all those years playing and coaching in the league without learning anything about the game. Or is Guokas merely afraid to tell what he knows for fear of losing his cushy job?

But Guokas did know enough to follow the company line. He let his listeners know immediately that Barkley was "suffering from a lack of conditioning . . . and coming off a lackluster performance against Miami."

Guokas clearly understood that his job was to demean Barkley, if possible, and to build up Shaquille O'Neal, the league's new star.

Throughout the game, Albert and Guokas kept finding different ways to send us the message that Shaq is "the most dominant player in the league."

Shaq is not the dominant force in the league. He is merely a high-scoring player and the league's newest behemoth.

Where is Shaq's game? Where is his finesse?
Shaq is a mirage. He is a seven-foot-tall player who can dunk the ball. Does that surprise you? He weighs more than 300 pounds and can push people around. Does that surprise you?

Shaq lopes up and down the court. Of course he scores lots of points. Why wouldn't he? But can a team win with him alone? The creation of Shaq as the nation's newest hero is much like the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus coming to town and selling everyone on the necessity of buying tickets to see the Cardiff Giant.

Once you get inside the tent and see the giant, you realize that there is nothing to his act.

@body:After years of struggle, the NBA became the dominant fan favorite because of the sudden emergence of two young players gifted with total games. They were Larry Bird of Indiana State and Magic Johnson of Michigan State.

Bird and Magic were quickly followed by Michael Jordan from North Carolina and Charles Barkley from Auburn. Barkley reached the pinnacle of his career only last year with the Suns.

Three of those great players have already departed from the scene. Barkley says he is on his way out. Injuries have prevented him from playing at the top of his game this season.

The league desperately needs a new superstar to carry it. But Commissioner Stern and his cohorts are tragically wrong if they expect Shaq to carry the NBA.

Shaq plays the kind of bruising, no-finesse game you might expect from pro football players keeping themselves in shape in a church league during the off-season.

Shaq's whole game is based on his bulk. If Shaq is the best thing the NBA has to offer us for the future, it is about to suffer a television-ratings nose dive.

Nobody in his right mind will stay indoors to turn on his television set to see ponderous behemoths like Shaq perform week in and week out. Even golf is better than a steady diet of Shaquille O'Neal.

The fans fell in love with Magic, Bird, Jordan and Barkley because they all were capable of putting on varying and sensational performances. They had the ability to surprise. They were not one-dimensional. Shaq most certainly is.

He catches the ball. He turns and drops it into the hoop from within six feet. What is the skill level involved? Where is the excitement? Watching Shaq play is like watching the old films of Primo Carnera boxing for the heavyweight title.

Do you remember Michael driving the length of the court and hanging in the air in the final minute?

Remember Magic stealing a pass, dribbling and then passing behind his back to an open man?

Remember Bird getting the hot hand in the final minutes and tossing the ball through the hoop from every possible angle? Where do you think the phrase "nothing but net" came from?

Remember Barkley in the playoffs last year against San Antonio? Seconds to go. He demands the ball on the outside. David Robinson comes up to cover him. Barkley tosses in the game-winning shot. Nothing but net.

And just this past Sunday. Here was Shaq lined up for a jump ball against KJ. He is almost a foot taller than the Suns' point guard. But you can tell by the way KJ is flexing his muscles that he intends to make an attempt to outjump Shaq.

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