Charles Barkley strolled underneath the stands to the Phoenix Suns' dressing room. Barkley appeared nervous. He was ill at ease. Like a rookie before his first big game, he seemed tentative.
A sportswriter from a daily newspaper who covers Barkley regularly attempted to make small talk. He spoke innocently. But his words were subject to misinterpretation.
"Hi, Charles," he said. "Are you finally going to start earning your pay?"
Barkley seemed to raise his chin and shoulders at the same time. He roared as he moved down the remaining 15 feet of the corridor to the dressing-room door.
"I earn my money," Barkley bellowed. "Just take a look at the books. I earn what I get."
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And then Barkley was gone.
This was last Saturday night, before the San Antonio game that would mark Barkley's return to action. He had missed the first ten games of this season because of a mysterious abdominal injury.
It was a malady that developed after Barkley had reported to training camp in Flagstaff, pronouncing himself to be in the best physical condition of his entire career.
We should have become concerned something was amiss upon hearing that announcement. Why was it necessary for Barkley to make so much of his great physical condition? Who was disputing it?
Perhaps Barkley himself is racked by doubts that he won't be able to carry through with a long season that lasts well into the heat of summer.
In his playing days at Auburn and with the Philadelphia 76ers, Barkley never concerned himself about such things as weight control or conditioning. He was young and invincible. He ran and rebounded superbly, even though close to 300 pounds. He answered good-naturedly to nicknames like "The Round Mound of Rebound."
But he is older now, and far more brittle. All summer, reports filtered back from Philadelphia that Barkley wasn't really following the special exercise program designed to cure the back pains that hampered his play last season.
Barkley has hinted many times there was always the possibility that, rather than play with pain, he would retire from the game.
So it is more than just an educated guess that Barkley's physical condition is what caused owner Jerry Colangelo to acquire both Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale to play Barkley's position.
To date, Manning has been everything advertised. Tisdale has demonstrated only a big smile and was himself sidelined by a sprained ankle.
The fans noticed Barkley as soon as he arrived on the court to begin his warm-up. He even did some stretching exercises.
But when the game started, Barkley took a seat at the end of the bench. With 6:49 left in the first quarter, coach Paul Westphal sent Barkley into the game. His appearance called for a standing ovation.
Charles Barkley will never lose the charisma. Even when he is 50 years old, he will be able to walk out to the center of a basketball court and make a crowd take notice.
He is a star and has been since his final season in high school. That was when he had grown four inches over the summer and suddenly was able to dunk the ball and shatter both backboards and opponents. Success came all at once, after Barkley had struggled as a five-foot, ten-inch guard who was not even considered a college prospect.
If you watch tapes of Barkley playing in high school and college, you will be astonished by his speed down the floor and the amount of spring in his legs. He was awesome. His favorite play was intercepting a pass and dribbling the length of the floor for a slam dunk.
No one could stop the young Barkley. He was like a runaway train. When he came within range of the basket, he would simply explode into the air, taking any defensive player with him.
Last Saturday night, we had a chance to see that again. Several minutes after entering the game, Barkley intercepted a pass and headed down the floor. But he was not as quick. And this time, with San Antonio's Sean Elliott defending, Barkley didn't even try to dunk the ball. He settled for an underhand shot, attempting to slip the ball into the hoop. It was the kind of move you might expect from a point guard, not Charles Barkley.
How did he play?
There is only one answer to that. Barkley played hard. That's the way he always plays. To him, everything is a physical challenge. He must prove that he can leap higher, run faster and shoot straighter than anyone else on the floor.
There was a time when all this came naturally. Now, he is admittedly out of playing shape.
It is an effort for Barkley to run or leap or shoot. Several of his shots were air balls. His confidence was so low that he raised his eyes to the ceiling in a prayer of thanksgiving after making free throws.
But the old Barkley personality was there. He jawed with David Robinson, Chuck Person and his aging mentor, Moses Malone. Sometimes, the game took on the aspects of one of those old-timers' affairs they put on at All-Star games. The players are all a little too friendly.
I wonder if we ever will see the Charles Barkley who carried the Suns to the Finals against the Chicago Bulls two seasons ago. That was the year Barkley was the Most Valuable Player in all the NBA.
Almost single-handedly, he beat the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics. In that period of several weeks, Barkley played like a man possessed. He made the big shots, took down the key rebounds and came up with the big steals at crucial moments.
Without Barkley, the Suns would have been eliminated in the first round of play. He took them to within a hairsbreadth of beating Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
When the San Antonio game ended last Saturday, they brought Barkley out to talk to the fans over a microphone.
"I was pressing," Barkley said. "I was rushing my shot instead of letting the game come to me. I was really nervous and hyper before the game."
Barkley admitted he had gained 12 pounds while missing practice. He had to wear a special girdle to protect his back and abdomen.
Barkley looked up at the crowd. "I've never been in a situation where the fans are so supportive," he said. "I don't want a championship for me as a personal thing. I want it for the fans. They deserve a world championship."
Then Barkley waved to the crowd and walked off the court and into the dressing room.
But on the following night, Barkley was unable to play against the New Jersey Nets. The pain was back in his abdomen.
Who knows when he will be back? It does not look good. Given the evidence to date, Charles Barkley does not figure to complete the season.
When you consider the enormous odds, it's miraculous that anyone makes it to the NBA. To last for a decade as one of the game's greatest players, as Barkley has, is an astonishing feat.
Even the most talented and physically gifted athletes require a small miracle even to make an NBA roster. So many things stand in the way.
Academics takes its toll, knocking some of the best players out of a chance at playing college ball. Serious injuries strike when least expected at both the high school and college level. The wear and tear on a player's body is immense.
Watch the heartbreaking film Hoop Dreams, about high school players in Chicago. Read Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, the book, written by Darcy Frey, about ghetto players in Coney Island, New York City, breaking their hearts while battling for a career in the pro league.
Frey tells of Donald Marbury, a ghetto resident, and his four sons. They are arguably the most gifted family of basketball players in all New York City. They live in a high-rise building that looks down on a concrete playground basketball court that is in use every day weather permits.
All of the Marburys have been star players at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, located not far from the projects where they live.
Eric, the oldest, made it to the University of Georgia, where he starred on the team but failed to graduate. He is now back in the ghetto.
Donnie, the second son, was considered an even greater college prospect. But he failed to make the necessary grades in high school and was forced into playing two years of junior college ball. Donnie eventually made it to Texas A&M, where he was the leading scorer of the Southwest Conference, but was passed up in the NBA draft.
Norman, the third son, was, for a while, the hottest prospect of all. He was the first player in memory to make the All City team in New York three years in a row.
Some claim the SATs are culturally biased. I find that hard to believe. A student earns 400 of the necessary 700 points merely by signing his name correctly. The only realistic way an applicant can fail is if he doesn't know how to read and write.
The subpar SAT grades of high school basketball players all over the country should be an ongoing humiliation to educators. The evidence of the tests demonstrates that students are moved ahead to the next grade no matter how poorly they do in class. This is not education, but a warehousing system designed to keep teenagers off the streets.
At the time Frey researched the book, the youngest son, Stephon, was already the star point guard at Abraham Lincoln, although only a freshman.
One day Stephon tells of his ambition for the future.
"When I go to college," he says, "I'm going to Syracuse or Georgia Tech. At Syracuse, you play in front of 32,820 people every game in the Syracuse Carrier Dome. And Georgia Tech knows how to take care of its point guards."
Although Stephon reads little, he has memorized the attendance capacity at Syracuse. He knows about Georgia Tech because he is already being compared to Kenny Anderson of the New Jersey Nets. Anderson, another New York high school great, left college after only two seasons to sign with the NBA for $14.5 million.
In perspective, the journey of Charles Barkley from a little town like Leeds, Alabama, to the top of the NBA was like an ascent of Mount Everest without a cadre of Sherpa guides. Having overcome such odds, it's no wonder Barkley assumes his next full-time job will be governor of Alabama.
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