AN OPEN LETTER TO CHARLES BARKLEY
This is the perfect time for you to retire from the National Basketball Association. Your stock both as a player and a publicly revered personality will never get any higher than it is right now.
Those of us who watched you perform for two seasons with the Phoenix Suns will never forget your heroic performance in the season's final game against Houston. We all could see how much you were hurting every step of the way. But we also saw the raw courage with which you battled against the pain.
When it was over, you expressed no regrets. You didn't have to. You had played your heart out. You had left everything you had to give that day out on the floor. That was the way you played the game.
You have left us with so many treasured visions, beginning with that very first Suns home game in the brand-new America West Arena against the Los Angeles Clippers. When it was over and you had led everyone in scoring and rebounding, you tossed the ball high into the stands as an opening-night greeting to the fans.
They cheered you on and marveled as you battled the referees. Once, in New York, you even leaped over the scorer's table and chased the refs to their dressing room.
We remember the final game of the playoffs against San Antonio in your first season. With the last seconds ticking away, you called for the inbound pass. You dribbled the ball twice and then let fly with the outside shot over the extended arm of seven-foot David Robinson to win the game and the series.
Who can forget your performance in the seventh game of the Western Conference finals that season against Seattle, when you scored 44 points and seemed to battle for and collect every Suns rebound?
People who love basketball should all own a taped copy of your 56-point performance in this season's playoff game against Golden State. Who can ever recall the equal of your first-quarter performance in that game in which every shot seemed to find its mark no matter how difficult the angle?
What made it particularly unforgettable was the total joy you seemed to derive from it. For a few brief moments, every element of your game came together. Every skill which you had practiced years to develop was at a high point. It was one of those flawless periods of play when you could not miss. Every move you attempted turned out to be the exquisitely correct one.
We didn't notice the tribute that was unwittingly given to you by your opponents and the opposition fans after that performance.
None of them ever attempted to downgrade it by saying that you had a lucky game. To a man, they all explained it with the same answer that varied only slightly depending upon whom you were talking to.
"What else do you expect?" they said. "That's Charles Barkley."
Charles, in two remarkable seasons with the Phoenix Suns, you have become the single player in the NBA every fan wants to see perform in person. People who have been watching the game for decades freely admit there has never been a player like you before.
What they forget is that there actually have been very few professional athletes in your class in any of the major sports. In my memory, there have been only three who brought the same mixture of charisma and ability to the table that you possess: Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan.
Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson. They are all fine basketball players. They are a divertissement to watch fitfully on television. But Charles, only you have been able to bring the combination of talent, personality and unpredictability that can transform an NBA game into genuine theatre.
No one can remember a power forward as "small" as six feet four inches who could dominate either the offensive or defensive backboard at will. They can't remember seeing a player of more than 250 pounds who could shoot as well from the outside. No one remembers seeing a player of your bulk and power running as fast or jumping so high. There were nights when your back wasn't hurting that you didn't just jump off the floor, you exploded high into the air. It was then that it became so clear that you brought natural skills to this game that others could only dream about. And who can remember, going all the way back to Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes, a player who averaged more than 20 points per game and was also the team's most unselfish player and best passer? Wilt Chamberlain was a great scorer. Bill Russell was a great rebounder. Jerry West was a great pure shooter. So was Larry Bird. Kareem and Magic were great, too. And Michael Jordan was Michael, who didn't realize how much he truly needed to be in the limelight until he quit the NBA.
Charles, it turns out that you brought something more to the game than all of them. There was a sense of joy. No matter how intense the contest, with you, it was still a game. When it was over, people went away feeling better for having seen you play in it. If anyone ever had any doubts about your effect on the fans, he only needed to see the outpouring of devotion toward you from the Philadelphia fans the first time the Suns went back there to play.
You have played only two seasons with the Phoenix Suns. It has been such a great ride that it is hard to remember what it was like before you arrived.
Charles, the medical men are not going to be able to fix your back so that you can play without pain. And you have come too far and contributed too much to hang on and play at less than your best.
In some ways, this is the most crucial moment of your career. The hardest thing to do is walk away when you are still on top. Bird didn't do it. Neither did Kareem, Julius Erving or Moses Malone.
Don't let them talk you into playing another season. The temptation will be great. There is all that money. And they will promise you that you can play a reduced schedule and just keep yourself in shape and wait for next year's playoffs.
Don't listen to them, Charles. This is the time to retire. Go out with your head high and the game in your control. Don't stick around another minute. Yours truly,
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