Shaq gets nervous. And then, from behind, Barkley starts pulling at the bottom of Shaq's pants. The message is clear. If Shaq leaps as high as he can, Barkley intends to pull his pants down right there in front of 20,000 fans.

Shaq loses his composure. When the ref throws the ball in the air, Shaq swats it as hard as he can. The ball slams against the backboard. A.C. Green of the Suns retrieves the ball and scores an important basket to put the Suns ahead, 49 to 48.

Do you now understand why players like Barkley come along only rarely?
One wonders what Stern is thinking about. Shaq is actually the kind of player fans love to hate. He is not only big, but he has a tendency to either be, or appear to be, a bully.

How do you think Albert and Guokas would have reacted Sunday if Barkley had thrown a deliberate elbow at a player six inches shorter and weighing 50 pounds less than himself?

But that is obviously what Shaq did to Barkley, and the television replays clearly show it.

You can hear Albert now:
"This kind of strong-arm performance by Barkley is simply not good for basketball. It is not in the best interests of the game. Something must be done."
Just two weeks previously, Barkley had thrown a playful half-slap at the Knicks' Charles Oakley, a player his own size. Barkley was banished from the game and fined.

Shaq hit Barkley so hard that Sir Charles was immediately rendered unconscious. The Suns' trainer had to administer smelling salts to rouse Barkley and lead him back to the bench.

But we never heard a word of censure from Albert or Guokas.
Why?
Shaq is too valuable a piece of property for the NBA. No one dares criticize him. His value must be built up at every opportunity. If Shaq goes down, so does the league. How ridiculous can it get?

Television is stocked with all those commercials made by Barkley and Jordan that seem out of date.

It is stuck with all those poorly conceived commercials of a glowering Shaq. There is the one in which Shaq tries to snatch a bottle of Pepsi-Cola from a small boy. This is a shameless replay of the Coca-Cola commercial made years ago by Mean Joe Greene of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In every other commercial, Shaq comes across as an overbearingly ominous presence. The NBA has clearly bet on the wrong horse.

Shaq will never sell products. He is frightening rather than likable. Fans will root against him. It was the other way around with Magic, Bird, Jordan and Barkley. The fans fell in love with them. They wanted them to succeed.

Because of Shaq's menacing presence, every other team in the NBA becomes an immediate underdog and fan favorite when it plays Orlando. Did you ever think you'd see the day when Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon would be objects of the fans' devotion? But that's what happens when they are matched up against Shaq.

@rule:
@body:Last week, with the Suns in a downward spiral, I suggested to Jerry Colangelo that he fire Paul Westphal.

I now admit my solutions were too radical. And I expended all that energy in finding fault with Kevin Johnson, and then KJ comes back against Orlando and plays one of his best games of the year.

I also demanded that Charles be placed on injured reserve until he proved he was in condition to play. Colangelo and Westphal ignored my advice. Barkley came back Sunday and scored 30 points and collected 20 rebounds.

You know what? I still don't think Barkley is at full strength. I would estimate that right now he is at about 65 percent. If Charles regains his ability as a leaper around the boards, the Suns still have a chance to win it all.

All of this is quite distressing. I may not be as big an expert as I thought. Right now, only the radio blabbermouth, Arnie Spanier, ranks lower than I do on the expert ladder.

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