CHARLES BARKLEY'S BASKETBALL SEMINARS
And--and--what comes next?
--Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann
Sir Charles Barkley smiled. His eyes twinkled. That fierce warrior look vanished. But that does not mean his guard was lowered. "You guys don't know anything about basketball," Barkley said. "And it's you people, who really know nothing, that are picking us to win the NBA championship. That, to me, is just stuff you put in the newspapers. It's all pure hype."
Barkley was once again holding forth from his bully pulpit, the chair in front of his dressing-room stall. He was surrounded by a gaggle of sportswriters. As usual, they hung on his every word.
"We better quit reading about how good we are supposed to be and come out and start playing like it," Sir Charles decreed. He looked around the room ominously.
"Some guys here better take a good look at themselves in the mirror."
Read about the New York Knicks in the paper and you get the score and what Pat Riley thought of the game. Look up the story about Golden State and you get Don Nelson's reaction to why his team won or lost.
The most fascinating result of Barkley's overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception by the local press corps during his first full month as a member of the Suns has been that every game is now reported as if through his eyes.
One time, Barkley even delivered a critique of Coach Paul Westphal's performance as a bench coach in that night's game.
"Paul's gotta scream at us," Charles said. "Tonight, he was pissed. He can't worry about being our friend. If we need a friend, we'll get a dog. He's got to stay on our case. If you don't play, sit down. Tonight, he took the initiative and went berserk a couple of times. That's the way it's got to be. All great coaches are strong disciplinarians."
This season, on the day after each Suns win or loss, we are given the number of points Charles scored, how many rebounds he made and whether or not he was pleased by the team's performance.
After waiting since 1988 to assume the head-coach's mantle, Paul Westphal has had to settle for being second banana in the postgame-comment derby.
Writers sit and listen to Westphal respectfully in the interview room. They should. Westphal is intelligent and self-deprecating, and his old player's number hangs in the rafters of America West Arena. He once averaged 25 points a game as a Suns player. But Westphal's remarks must, of necessity, be tempered. If he spoke out as freely as Barkley, his team would end up in emotional tatters.
Knowing what is in store for them, the writers hustle from the meeting with Westphal and into the dressing room to await Barkley's emergence from the shower.
There, carefully covered in two huge, white towels, Barkley hunches over like a modern reincarnation of Othello and spins decrees to the troops and a series of one-liners as to how the battle went.
The Suns' performances, as well as his own, are rated by Barkley with amazing frankness in these postgame soirees. This is why the writers rely so slavishly upon Barkley. In addition to being refreshingly candid, he is marvelously entertaining. There was some thought after Outrageous, his ghosted autobiography, was published that the book was so readable only because Charles' ghostwriter had supplied the humor.
But Sir Charles is a genuine comic in his own right. You don't have to be around him long to realize how genuinely entertaining he can be. Night after night, he never lets you down.
"I don't want to be like 99 percent of the players in the world. I want to be better," he explained one night.
Asked about Cincinnati Reds' owner Marge Schott's racial slur about blacks:
"If you hug your players every day and then call them niggers behind their back, that makes you a hypocrite, worse than the Ku Klux Klan."
Talking about NBA players as being representative of black society, he said:
"Black society is in the ghettos. People look at me and Kevin Johnson and they don't see black society. And that's the bad part of it."
There was a report in Peter Vecsey's NBA gossip column in USA Today that Barkley had referred to teammate Jerrod Mustaf as "the second coming of Armon Gilliam." Only if you remember Gilliam in a Suns uniform can you understand what a devastating remark that is. Another time he said:
"The NBA means, 'No Babies Allowed.' Every night, if you don't play, you're gonna lose."
At an earlier time, he was asked whether he was sorry he had hit a heckler in an incident in Milwaukee:
"I wish I'd hit the motherfucker twice," Barkley said succinctly.
Does he worry about bad press?
"Any time you're exceptional at something, you're going to take criticism. People are jealous. People in the media are jealous. Some of my teammates are jealous. That goes with the territory of being top dog."
Cameron Stauth wrote about Barkley in the current book on the United States Olympic team, The Golden Boys. Stauth followed Barkley through the Olympic Trials and the Games:
"I couldn't help it," Stauth wrote. "I liked Charles. He was an African-American warrior and the meanest son of a bitch in basketball. I liked him. So shoot me."
Perhaps George Bernard Shaw, who wrote about something he called the "life force" in Man and Superman, would understand how Barkley has come to dominate all local talk concerning professional basketball since his arrival in town.
Barkley has now completed one full month as leader of and spokesman for what Al McCoy likes to call "Your Phoenix Suns."
During that time, the Suns have won seven of their first 11 games. Even when they lose, they are exciting. They look like a good basketball team, not yet a great one. They may not attain that level. But with Barkley onboard, they will be fascinating to watch.
And even with rough edges, they still could take it all.
If you've seen the television commercial in which Barkley battles Godzilla, the movie monster, you have a fairly accurate characterization of an average Barkley performance.
In the commercial, Charles tosses Godzilla aside, destroying a tall building in the process. After the battle is decided and Charles is triumphant, you see Charles stroll off the battlefield with his arm around Godzilla's shoulder in a gesture of comradeship. They are two warriors headed for a cold beer.
That's the way Sir Charles plays the game night after night. He battles referees. He wrestles for the ball, sprints the length of the court and dives on the floor for loose balls. He tips in rebounds, fires up three-pointers and waves his arms above his head in triumph or hangs his head in despair. Charles Barkley is sui generis. He is like the villain you love to hate in a wrestling match.
His old coach with the Philadelphia 76ers, Matt Guokas, once said about him:
"A game is a passionate experience for Charles. I've never seen anyone so ferocious in wanting to prove he's better than his opponents."
For speed plus strength, no one in the game matches him.
He also has the gift that all great players have. He sees the future. He sees things before they happen on the court.
Magic Johnson had that gift. So did Larry Bird. So do Chris Mullin and Michael Jordan.
Bird once described the ability as breaking free of the sense of time and seeing things in slow motion. It is an asset that is of incalculable value in critical moments.
For Barkley it means he can anticipate where the rebound will bounce and get to it first. Dribbling up the court at full speed, he can both see and anticipate where all his teammates are at once.
What people don't realize about Barkley is that growing up in Leeds, Alabama, he was an under-six-foot backcourt player until his junior year in high school. Then he shot up five inches before his senior year. So he learned the game not as an inside player banging constantly under the basket, but as a guard like Mullin.
That's why Charles plays with a style so startlingly different from all the behemoths he must battle against these days in the NBA. Charles dominates his foes because he is quicker than all the big men and he is stronger than anyone his size.
Watch him regularly and he never fails to show you something remarkable, a move you have perhaps never seen before.
When the Suns win big games, as they did up in Utah and at home against Portland, they have won despite an obvious lack of cohesiveness, a trait which may be overrated.
When losing at home, as they did to the Chicago Bulls, the Suns seemed like a club coached by the president of Mexico. No team with pretensions to the championship should play so badly at home that the fans are rushing to the parking lot with five minutes to play. In the immortal words of Cedric Ceballos, that great student of the game: "Sometimes, the rest of us are out there running around like chickens and just watching Charles."
Who can tell why these things happen? Perhaps it's just one of the vagaries of the NBA. You can never know who will win on a given night.
@body:November was the cruelest of months for Kevin Johnson. Held out at the start of the season because of a groin injury, he may have forced himself back into the lineup too soon in order to play in the big Sunday-night showdown here at home against Michael Jordan November 22.
With KJ directing the attack, the Suns lost two games in a row, to the Clippers and then the Bulls. The question no one seems to ask: Would the Suns have beaten both the Clippers and the Bulls if Negele Knight had not been removed from the lineup in favor of KJ?
One wonders why it was so imperative to rush KJ back into the lineup. And why play him 41 minutes in his first game back? And so now, KJ has suffered still another injury. This time it is a pulled hamstring muscle. When healthy, he is one of the best point guards in basketball. But great point guards must play every night.
@body:One night, 90 minutes before the game, I sat in the empty stands watching reserve point guards Frank Johnson and Knight warming up together.
First, Knight would take the ball and attempt to dribble past Johnson to the basket. If he couldn't get past Johnson, Knight would pull up and take a jumper.
Then it would be Johnson's turn. He is smaller than Knight, but he has the rippling muscles of a weight lifter.
Knight has been injured for the better part of a year. His durability is in question, just as is KJ's. Frank Johnson, a first-round choice out of Wake Forest in 1981, was the 11th pick in the draft. KJ was a first-round pick of Cleveland and the seventh pick in the draft of 1987.
Frank Johnson has been playing in Italy the past two years. Before he went to Europe, he played for Washington, where he was one of the top rookies in the league. He is now going on 34 years of age, but has not seemed to lose a step. In the two games against Golden State in November, Johnson was the best point guard the Suns have seen to date.
Even against Chicago, Johnson bolted onto the floor and, at six feet tall, provided the most dogged defense against Michael Jordan displayed by any Suns player that night.
Once the fans know his story, they will come to love him. He is the quintessential underdog, the gutty overachiever everyone with athletic pretensions pictures himself as being. If KJ has reached a stage in his career where he is going to be hampered through every season by nagging injuries, Knight and Johnson will be the keys to the team's ultimate success or failure.
As the season unfolds, discussions will arise as to the wisdom of the trade which dispatched Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang to Philadelphia for a franchise player like Barkley.
My mind is made up. How on Earth could Philadelphia make such a bad deal for themselves?
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