There are a few moments when the mask of the professional athlete is snatched away. One such moment is immediately after a decisive defeat. On Sunday, the Suns players trudged single file underneath the stands to the dressing room. Their heads were down. Their faces were grim. No smiles. No waves. Each was a player alone with his own thoughts. They seemed so terribly vulnerable . . . and unsure of their future.

Rush Limbaugh wore a self-satisfied smirk. The country's most prominent right-winger stood with his back against a wall in the America West Arena interview room following the Houston Rockets' thrashing of the Phoenix Suns last Sunday.

Limbaugh, in case you don't know, is the rich, famous, very conservative talk-show host who has taken the political Neanderthals of America by storm. His books have sold in the millions. His radio and television shows are top-ranked. He dines every night at New York's 21 Club.

Packing 260 pounds or so on his five-foot, nine-inch frame, Limbaugh was dressed in a dark-blue suit with a white shirt and tie. With his pale face, Limbaugh looked like a man who always wears a white shirt and tie and rarely steps above the level of a basement bank vault. He appears to be every bit as respectable as a Cadillac dealer, a Louisiana senator or a preacher at the Capstone Cathedral.

Limbaugh had been invited to the game by Suns Coach Whataburger, who is one of Limbaugh's ardent political devotees. Limbaugh's theories, greatly compressed, are: Judge Clarence Thomas is a towering intellect; President Clinton is an adulterer who should be impeached; Richard Nixon was a political genius; there would be no homelessness if street people would just do an honest day's work; the "femi-Nazis" should go back into the kitchen; and, finally, the American economy would boom again if welfare mothers were starved into chastity and submission.

Limbaugh told his national audience last week: "I can't tell you how wonderful it has been to make such good friends as Paul Westphal. I went to the Suns' game down in Houston at Paul's invitation and I had a wonderful time going out to dinner with Paul and Jerry Colangelo. They're a fine bunch, and good conservative thinkers, too.

"I'll be going out to Phoenix again on Sunday. I expect we'll have dinner again. Maybe we'll even talk with Charles Barkley. I've been giving him a few tips about how to run for governor of Alabama when he retires from the NBA."
I wonder if Limbaugh has ever eaten a Whataburger. If and when he does, will he take the Suns' coach aside and give him some tips about the questionable morality of shilling for a food emporium in which he would never eat unless he were filming a television commercial?

Limbaugh, who delights in skewering callers who disagree with him on his radio show, was obviously pleased by Whataburger's peremptory handling of the press. I had always wondered why there are so few quotes from Westphal after a game. The answer is simple. He has very little worthwhile to say.

Whataburger's method of dealing with questions that might possibly elicit an honest but impolitic reply is to smirk and play the hip wise guy. That explains why he's so comfortable with lap-dog interviewers such as Brad Cesmat, host of KTAR-AM's Sportsline show, who is first-rate at the art of genuflection.

"What's wrong with Charles Barkley?" a man asked.
"Go ask Charles," Whataburger shot back. "Maybe he'll tell you."

@body:The stall where Barkley dresses was surrounded by dozens of media people and six television cameras. Barkley was still in the shower and from there he would go into a whirlpool and soak. It would be about 45 minutes from the end of the game before Barkley would appear.

The high point of the waiting period was the arrival of Hannah Storm, the courtside reporter for NBC, which had broadcast the game. Ms. Storm, wearing a bright-pink blazer and tan slacks, arrived with a full crew of corpulent, bearded sound men, camera men and field producers. They had NBC logos on shirts, hats and cameras. Like any self-respecting group of New Yorkers on a subway platform, the NBC crew began pushing and shoving its way through the mass of bodies to the front.

When Charles finally emerged from his heated pool, the camera must be able to make it appear that Hannah was doing this interview with him exclusively.

Off to the side, another crowd of reporters was interviewing Kevin Johnson, who had scored 38 points and been the Suns star for a day. KJ was all dressed up in his gray suit and white shirt and tie and on his way out the door before Barkley arrived at his locker with a towel wrapped around his waist.  

I thought it showed courage on his part to submit to the grilling to come.
Then I remembered something from Barkley's new book:
"Do you realize how many interviews I give in a week? I remember one time, after I'd answered the 1,000th stupid question from the 1,000th ugly reporter of the night. Danny Ainge came up to me and asked, 'Don't you ever get tired of it?'

"I said, 'Hell, yes, I get tired of it. But if I don't do them, they'll crucify me.' It's true. If you do interviews, they love you. If you don't do interviews, they kill you. They treat you like Steve Carlton. Or Barry Bonds. Look at Barry Bonds. He is the greatest baseball player of my lifetime, and the press makes him out to be the biggest jerk on the planet. All because he won't give them a decent interview."
I was curious to see how Charles would react on this day. I had been to the game the Suns lost on Friday night. Charles scored just two points in the entire second half of that game. It was a personal debacle for him. Charles had been so inactive that he had not been whistled to the foul line even one time. No one could remember a game in Charles' entire NBA career in which he had not gone to the foul stripe. It was a certain indication Charles had been making no aggressive attempt to drive to the basket.

On that night, Charles arrived back at his stall about a half-hour after the game ended. He looked like a broken man. He was limping and bent over. Despite these outward signs of physical problems, he insists that he is fine.

The room was hushed. Charles sat down and began speaking very softly, but very distinctly:

"I played terrible and I cost us the game," Barkley said. "I was the difference. I don't know why I played so bad. Hopefully, it won't happen again.

"I'm taking the blame and the responsibility for this one. If I had done anything, we would have won.

"I'll be ready Sunday. That's it. No more questions."
Barkley lowered his head.
"Give me a break," he said, "no more questions."

Then Charles put his head in his towel and covered his eyes. He sat that way alone in the huge dressing room he had dominated for two full seasons.

@body:I could tell at once that Charles was going to talk. He wasn't going to duck out. The world of professional sports is filled with ballplayers who take a duck when things go bad.

Some drop a fly ball and can't be found for a week. A 1,000-yard running back in the NFL will make a key fumble and refuse to talk to the press for the rest of the season. The aforementioned Steve Carlton had a bad pitching outing in Philadelphia and actually did not speak to any member of the press again for ten years. And the first time he did give an interview, it was to reveal his belief that the world is run by a cabal of Jews. It made everyone wonder why Carlton hadn't been smart enough to maintain his silence.

Despite their marvelous physical endowments, many professional athletes are selfish and totally self-centered. Scottie Pippen, who opted to remove himself from the Bulls' lineup with less than two seconds on the clock the other day, is a classic example.

But Charles Barkley is far removed from all that. He is sui generis. We won't see his like again. If you get the chance to watch him in his final games as a member of the Suns, don't miss it.

Take it to the bank. This is Charles Barkley's final season as an NBA player.
He may run for governor of Alabama or a seat in the Arizona legislature. He might even become a conservative talk-show host like Limbaugh or Sam Steiger, but his playing days are over when the Suns finish this season, win or lose.

The defining moment of his final days will be the photograph of Barkley attempting to make a slam dunk of a two-handed layup in the fourth quarter and the big paw of Hakeem Olajuwon blocking the shot.

Never mind that Barkley was giving away eight inches in height to Olajuwon, the ballet dancer who somehow grew to seven feet tall. Do not count the grace and agility of Olajuwon short. If he had been born in the right time, he could have gone from Africa to Paris and starred for the great Sergei Diaghilev. Or he could have been one of George Balanchine's favorite dancers.  

"What about Hakeem's block on your dunk? Was that dramatic?" a man asked, as respectfully as possible.

Charles actually seemed a little amused.
"My man," Charles said, "I've been blocked dramatically many times in my ten years in the NBA."
Then he wandered on, as if trying to figure out in his own mind what was happening to his crumbling world.

"I'm playing bad right now. My confidence is shaken because I'm not used to playing bad. I've had bad games before, but this is frustrating. I don't know what to say about it."
Charles sighed. If he had been able to look through the crowd around him, he would have seen that the entire Suns locker room was empty. Every other player was already dressed and gone. Barkley was still sitting there with a towel wrapped around his waist.

"I'm getting good shots. They are the same shots that were going in for me before. I'm not playing up to my capabilities and I'm even passing bad.

"I don't feel bad for me. I have a wonderful life. I feel bad for my teammates who depend upon me. It's my job to make big plays."
Someone asked what he thought about the performance of Kevin Johnson, who had scored 38 points for the second game in a row.

Charles did not comment. He might have pointed out that when he scores 38 points, he brings so many other players to the table with him that the Suns win. What people fail to notice is that when KJ takes over the game, the Suns invariably lose because all the other players are left with nothing to do but stand around and watch.

Late in the game, Charles had refused a shot and instead had passed the ball to Dan Majerle, who took a three-point shot that missed.

Why did he pass up a shot that was ordinarily one he would either make or draw a foul on?

"Right now," Charles said, "I'm struggling with my confidence. I don't know what it is."
If Charles is struggling with his confidence, how must Cedric Ceballos feel? Ced has been scoring close to 20 points per game all season long, and Coach Whataburger didn't use him after the first period Sunday. That was a period during which Ceballos led the Suns in scoring with eight points.

And what about Frank Johnson, the tough defender, who hasn't even left the bench? All his playing minutes have been transferred to Danny Ainge, who no longer has the legs to play defense.

Has anyone noticed how totally useless Oliver Miller has become? He is the perfect example of the million-dollar ballplayer gone to fat.

For two seasons, Dan Majerle has lived off passes from Barkley. He has become a player who seems anchored to the three-point line.

The Suns' season could be in its final days.

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