"I have no fear of getting old," Charles Barkley says. "I'm at peace as my skills decline."
It is an hour after an exhibition-game loss to the New York Knicks. Barkley is the only player left in the Phoenix Suns' dressing room. The writers for the daily newspapers are over in the press room tapping out their stories on their portable computers.
There is a resigned expression on Barkley's face. He sits in a chair in front of his dressing stall. He wears an oversize towel wrapped around his six-foot-six-inch, 255-pound body. He has showered and spent some time reclining in the Suns' swimming-pool-size hot tub to soothe the pain in his back and legs.
"You see, this happens," Barkley says. "I saw it in Philadelphia with Dr. J [Julius Erving], Moses Malone, Bobby Jones and Maurice Cheeks. I saw it here with Tom Chambers. It happens to everybody who plays the game."
Barkley has just completed a game in which he has scored 28 points in 29 minutes of play. He made 12 of 18 shots from the floor and all four of his free throws. On the floor, he looked every bit as quick and strong as he did last season, when he was chosen the NBA's Most Valuable Player.
But the thoughts about retiring from the league have been on Charles Barkley's mind ever since Michael Jordan stepped away from the game a few weeks back.
Barkley is 30 years old. Presently, he is the most dominant player in the game. If his back holds up through an 82-game schedule, Barkley could lead this year's Suns into the playoffs as favorites to win the NBA title.
Everything is going his way. There are no more critics dogging his trail. Charles Barkley has reached the point in his career when he is universally loved. No matter what he does on the court or off, his fans will find a way to find an element of charm in his behavior. His name on the marquee will sell out any arena in the world.
The only dark shadow has been cast by his back problem. The Suns admit Charles has already received several injections to lessen pain and allow him to move freely.
But arriving at the pinnacle of fame seems to gnaw at him. Instead of enjoying life at the top, Barkley constantly stares down into his own pit of personal despair.
"As you get older, this happens," Barkley says in the quiet dressing room. "If my career ends tomorrow, it would still be a hell of a ride for a little kid from Leeds, Alabama.
"When I made that statement about retiring, I assumed my back was going to get worse. I know it can't get better. I'm gonna have to have back surgery at some point. I'm just trying to do all the things that will keep the problem to a minimum.
"Hey, the skills are gonna go. That's it. But you have to be realistic. I have no problem knowing that my skills are deteriorating. Hey, my body's deteriorating."
When Barkley was a rookie, fresh out of Auburn, he played on a great Philadelphia 76ers team that boasted the presence of both Dr. J and Moses Malone.
"You saw Doc go through the same thing," a visiting writer says. "Did you learn anything by watching the dignity he displayed?"
The words hang in the air. Barkley considers them before answering:
"As a matter of fact, Dr. J played two years too long. I learned you got to give it up sooner rather than later.
"It's like Larry Bird. You can't be Larry Bird forever. And I can't be Charles Barkley forever. But I'm not gonna sit around and worry about it. You gotta recognize that getting old is a part of the game . . . part of life."
"But are you prepared to leave the game knowing you still have a lot to offer?"
"I have to be realistic," Barkley says. "I don't think I have a lot left to give."
"Do you ever contrast your situation with that of Michael?" a man asks. "He left the game when he still had so much to offer."
"I think Michael thought he was slowing down a bit. But that's only a part of the situation in his case, and I don't think that bothered him."
Barkley towels off his shoulders. He pulls on a white shirt.
"Look," he says, "if we play well, we're going to win, and if we don't, we're gonna lose. But you can't complain. My house didn't burn down.
"So I'm not gonna get upset about a basketball game. And my house didn't get flooded last winter, either. I mean, that stuff's real.
"Besides, I know how good I am. I never let the critics dictate to me how good I am. Hey, I'm just a little black kid from Leeds, and I made it to the NBA for a lot of years. If we win the championship this year, that's only icing on the cake.
"A lot of people came to see me play, and maybe I even inspired some other little black kids."
"Do you think you inspired someone like Larry Johnson of Charlotte?"
"You never know. I could have. I'll tell you something that happened to me when we went to Germany. The parents of Drazen Petrovic came to visit me in my hotel room late at night to give me the greatest compliment I ever got.
"They told me that I was their son Drazen's idol as a player. They made that trip to Munich especially to tell me that. Just hearing that one statement from them made everything I go through worth it. It was the best thing I ever heard. That makes up for all the bad articles."
Petrovic, who was an NBA All-Star for the New Jersey Nets last season, died this past summer in an auto crash.
Two small children suddenly appear. Barkley genuinely likes children. He inquires about their names. They are Larry and Rick.
"Do you want something to drink? Are you having a good time? Take a seat and hang around, okay?"
"I'm not trying to please everybody in this world," Barkley says. "I'm trying to please only myself, God and the people in my little circle. Some people don't like you because you're white, black, Jewish or Catholic or Democrat or Republican or because you are for or against abortion.
"If you try to please everybody, you will be one fucked-up individual. Some people don't even like God. That's how impossible it is."
Some say Jordan was forced out of the game because the limelight finally wore him down. He took his meals in hotel rooms and could not venture into the street without drawing a crowd. Barkley, on the other hand, seems to embrace crowds. He waves his arms over his head and joins in with them.
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"You haven't allowed yourself to be held hostage by your fans the way Michael was," a man notes. "You still feel free to go out whenever you feel like it."
Barkley picks up on that immediately. He grins for the first time.
"Sometimes, I just tell the motherfuckers to get back. It gets to a point where I feel I've had enough, and I just have to exert control. I don't turn people down. If I go to some nightclub and I give 50 autographs, then I cut it off. I ask them to back off. If they take that personally, then it's too bad. That's all right with me."
"You see, it's so easy for other people to criticize me. But they don't know what it's like. Nobody in this world knows what it's like to be Charles Barkley."
"What is it that you like the most about being Charles Barkley?"
Charles' face breaks into a broad grin.
"I like the money. That's the best thing. It gives me the opportunity to do nice things for the people around me.
"I'm not saying money is the most important thing, but it made it possible for me to buy a car and a house for my mother and a car and a house for my grandmother. It made them happy, and there's no price you can put on that."
He refuses to worry about the future.
"I could get killed tomorrow," Charles says. "I'm not saying that to be morbid. But I just think about tonight. I'm not even thinking about tomorrow.
"You play tonight's game, and you live your life out that way.