TWILIGHT OF THE GOD

And the days dwindle down to a precious few. . . .
--song from the Broadway show Knickerbocker Holiday

For Charles Barkley, these are the precious few final days. Barkley plans to retire from the NBA at the end of this season even if the Suns are unable to win an NBA championship. Nothing will change his decision, he insists. This is written in stone. The grind of the 82-game season is getting to him. The sameness. The long and boring season. He claims his body is wearing down. But anyone who saw him play against Golden State last Friday and again on Sunday could see he is playing as well as ever. His skills are undiminished to the naked eye. He is still an all-star, one of the handful of truly great players in the game. He is also the game's greatest personality. No one comes close to him in this area.

Despite his own protestations, Barkley's skills are not diminishing. The explosive leap to the basket is still there. The burst of speed that carries him around his defender is still part of his repertoire. The magical soft hands have not failed him. Neither has the bearlike strength that enables him to push his way toward the ball whenever necessary. Barkley is obviously bored by the extraordinarily long regular season. And yet, it is that part of the year which pays the players' enormous salaries. There was a time for him when it was fun to get on a plane and go to New Jersey, Minneapolis and Denver. But those days are long gone for Barkley. Barkley has now co-authored a book with Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated. It is called The Wit and Wisdom of Charles Barkley. The last time Barkley was involved in a book project, it was his autobiography, and when it was published, he claimed he was misquoted. Let's hope he does better with Reilly.

At any rate, he told Reilly why he was tired of regular-season playing dates:
"None of this Salt Lake Thursday, Sacramento Friday, Houston Saturday grind. I did my time. I'm tired of having people know exactly what hotel I'm going to be in on exactly what day."
However, he is still energized by the playoffs. No one could watch Barkley dominate Golden State in the first period last Friday night and then come back in the fourth period to make the critical plays that sealed the Suns' victory without realizing he is still a great player.

Friday's triumph was topped by another masterful performance on Sunday which turned into a fascinating human drama dominated by Kevin Johnson's 38-point blast. This was a game in which upcoming Golden State stars like Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell completely lost their cool while trying to trash-talk Barkley into submission. It didn't work.

Barkley understands that Webber and Sprewell are part of the wave of the future in the NBA. New stars keep appearing. Nothing will stop that.

He once told the Boston Globe:
"There will be another Michael Jordan, another Larry Bird and another Charles Barkley. God is so good to us. If someone told you years ago that a six-foot-four, 250-pound guy would lead the league in rebounding, you'd say I was full of shit. If someone told you there would be a six-foot-ten guy from Nigeria, Hakeem Olajuwon, who would outrun guards, you wouldn't believe it. If someone told you there'd be a white guy, five-foot whatever, who could play like John Stockton, you wouldn't believe that, either. They just keep coming."
The structure of the playoffs is such that a team must win 15 games to win the NBA title. You must win three out of five in the first round and then four out of seven in the three subsequent series.

As of this morning, Charles and the Suns have won two games. They need 13 more to win it all. The road ahead is treacherous. No one can predict what dangers lie ahead or what part key decisions by referees or injuries to the Suns or other teams will play. Charles says he doesn't worry about refs.

"I don't listen to the refs or anyone who makes less money than I do," he insists. Charles also has another idea about why the overwhelming majority of the refs are white: "We don't need refs, but I guess white guys need something to do. All the players are black."
In the two seasons Barkley has played for the Suns, he has clearly been the team's leader. If you didn't know anything about the Suns, all you would have to do is watch the player introductions before the game to see how his teammates defer to him.

He respects them, too, and speaks out for them.
Here is what he said one time about KJ after Phoenix fans booed the Suns' point guard:

"I try to keep my distance from the fans. If they can turn on a guy who helped get us to the NBA Finals . . . it makes me wonder, if I struggle, would they do the same thing to me?"
Here's what he said about Danny Ainge:
"People don't know what toughness is. They think it's beating the crud out of people. Well, I can beat the crud out of people if I wanted to, but it's mental toughness. See, Danny Ainge can't beat my mother in basketball, but he's as tough as you can get."
On another occasion, he said of Dan Majerle:
"I thought he was a big country bumpkin, and I was correct. He should be from Alabama. I don't know how he got to Michigan. Majerle is tough. I'd get in a foxhole with him anytime."
Barkley even made a significant gesture of friendship to Suns owner Jerry Colangelo for getting him out of Philadelphia. When Barkley went to the All-Star Game in his first year with the Suns, he wore number 23, which was Colangelo's college playing number at the University of Illinois.

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