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.

@rule:
@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.

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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