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IN DEFENSE OF TABLE-HOPPING

By now everyone in town has seen the television footage of Charles Barkley climbing over the scorer's table in New York's Madison Square Garden.

The film shows the pride of the Phoenix Suns acting in what is clearly a state of the highest dudgeon. At the apex of his trek over the scorer's table, Barkley trips in the maze of computer wires. He almost capsizes. Magically, he regains his balance. Then, after a few unsteady, tottering steps, he resumes full stride and pounds his way into a corridor in hot pursuit of the retreating referees. They are wisely headed for the safety and seclusion of their dressing room.

But Barkley hasn't finished delivering his critique to these officials who presided over the game the Suns have just lost to the Knicks, 106 to 103. At this point, Barkley--eyes flashing and arms waving--seems more like wrestling's Hulk Hogan than the Suns' most valuable player.

Thanks to the wonders of television, our next view of Barkley and the three officials, Jimmy Clark, Joe Forte and Dan Crawford, is from another camera angle. The three refs are fending off the still-shouting Barkley. Tittering away before Barkley's verbal assault, they seem like three very agitated little mice.

At the end, you can see the frustration in Barkley's eyes. It is beginning to dawn on him that he can't win this argument. The game is irretrievably lost. The curtain is drawn. All that remains is for the referees to write down on a single sheet of paper a report for Rod Thorn of the NBA vice president's office. They will recount all of Barkley's swear words and every term of disrespect.

The $10,000 fine and the one-game suspension follow. The anti-Barkley headlines take over the sports pages, not only in New York and Phoenix, but in every newspaper in the country.

Basketball fans in every NBA city except Phoenix became outraged. Most believed that a single-game suspension wasn't enough. Some sportswriters in New York called for a two-week suspension. Some insisted Barkley's boorish behavior was not only poisoning the Suns as a team, but damaging the league as a commercial enterprise. Nothing could be further from the truth. And nobody on the Suns was buying. All the Suns need to do is look at the standings to see they are in first place. Outsiders will attempt to make us believe that the blessed NBA can't be elevated to the next level until the loutish presence of Barkley is permanently removed.

There are cries for Jerry Colangelo, Cotton Fitzsimmons and Paul Westphal to exert discipline upon Barkley. He must be made to conform. He must quit acting out. His antics will eventually hurt the Suns as a team.

Hogwash, I say. Doesn't anyone notice that Barkley's eruption in New York came after a game in which the Suns went to the free-throw line 22 times as opposed to 38 for the Knicks? It was also a day when Barkley made only 11 of 28 shots. Anyone who has seen Barkley play knows that the only way he can miss that many shots is if the opposing players are being allowed to hang on him without the proper number of fouls being called.

That is the way Barkley's game goes. On a bad day, he makes 50 percent of his shots. Despite the fact that he shoots too many three-pointers, the rest of his shot selection is flawless. Barkley's tantrum was no out-of-control affair. He knew what he was doing every second of the way. That's precisely why he chose the stage in New York City to deliver his message.

The message is that the Suns are on a run to win the NBA crown, but they must have equal protection from the referees to achieve their end.

Besides, for Phoenix fans, there is no turning back. In embracing all the good things Barkley does for the Suns, we have inexorably purchased the whole package. In Barkley we have signed up one of the fiercest gunslingers in the West. Colangelo brought him on board to be the modern version of a town-tamer of the Old West. We don't have the right to turn squeamish at the last moment because some of his methods shock us. All that remains for us now is to sit back and enjoy the ride. Notice one thing. Everywhere Barkley goes, his presence is abhorred by capacity crowds. They all hate him. But they all want to be present in the arena to vent their spleen in person. Barkley and the Suns are the hottest tickets in the entire NBA--Michael Jordan and the Bulls included.

@rule:
@body:It doesn't require the perseverance of an Arnold Toynbee to dig up a few pertinent historical facts about Barkley. At Leeds High School in Alabama, Barkley was five feet seven inches tall until his junior year. So he learned the game as a point guard who got pushed around. He did not emerge as a rebounding force until his senior year, when he was suddenly six feet three inches tall and 250 pounds.

Sonny Smith, his college coach at Auburn, remembers Barkley with awe. Barkley was Mr. Basketball at a time when Bo Jackson was the star of the football team.

"Well," Smith says, "once Charles dunked the ball so hard that he moved the entire basket support, which was held in place by two 300-pound cement blocks.

"I'm cussin' and tellin' everybody to come over and help get the blocks pushed back in place, when Charles pushed me out of the way, walked to the goal and put both those 300-pound blocks back in place. "It was an unbelievable physical feat. That's how Charles Barkley gave us an identity. We became a team physically feared. We were exciting and drew a lot of attention, especially on the road. Charles was the reason for every bit of it."
Smith tells about how important Barkley's mere presence came to be for the Auburn team.

"Our guys grew to depend on him so much that they absolutely couldn't play without him. One time when he was injured, he suited up, started and just walked up and down the court. Hell, he could hardly walk. But we won the game simply because he was out there. We won with just one guy walking up and down the court. But that guy was Charles Barkley."
Smith still remembers what it was like the night Barkley and Auburn lost their final Southeastern Conference championship game against Richmond.

"Charles hated losing," Smith says. "He absolutely hated it. He just sat on the floor at the end of the arena and cried. He sat there for five minutes and cried like a baby. I'd never seen anything like that before."
Barkley remembers crying, too. But he put another light on his reaction in his autobiography.

"I cried afterward," he says, "not because we lost the game. I cried because I was thinking about how much money the loss cost me."
There are times when Barkley simply doesn't want us to take him seriously.
Matt Guokas, one of his former coaches at Philadelphia, remembers what it was like to have Barkley on his side.

"A game for Charles Barkley is a passionate experience," Guokas says. "I've never seen anyone so ferocious in wanting to prove he's better than his opponents."
One thing is certain. The explosions stemming from Barkley's differences with the referees have merely subsided. We have a cease-fire. Not a peace treaty.


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