Shortly before four o'clock last Sunday afternoon, Michael Jordan strode onto the floor of America West Arena for the first time.
The cavernous place, which would later seat more than 19,000 fans, was empty. There was an eerie quiet. People who work the concessions were just starting to arrive. It was three hours before the start of the game between the Chicago Bulls and the Phoenix Suns.
The most celebrated player in the history of the game was alone. Two nights before, in Los Angeles, he had scored 54 points against the Los Angeles Lakers, but his team had lost in overtime.
Jordan cannot stand losing. So he was here to practice his technique in this new and unfamiliar arena. It was just Jordan and a pair of ball boys to throw the basketballs back to him.
For a long while, the only sound was the bouncing of the ball on the floor. Unless you were directly under the hoop, you couldn't hear the rare shots that hit the rim. Jordan chewed gum continually. He never spoke. For almost an hour, Jordan sized up the court like a surgeon or a pool shark. He shot from various spots on the floor. He tried jump shots. He dribbled in to the hoop easily, seemingly without effort. Every movement was fluid.
Finally, satisfied that he was ready, Jordan walked slowly back to the visitors' dressing room.
Several hours later, the game began. Jordan opened the Bulls' scoring with a jumper from 18 feet. The ball went through the hoop without touching the rim. Cedric Ceballos of the Suns was guarding Jordan. Ceballos laid back. The strategy was to make Jordan hit from outside.
Jordan took 11 shots in the opening period. He made eight. He also sank two foul shots for a total of 18 points in just 12 minutes of playing time. He would go on to score 40 points for the night. The Suns were routed, 128-111.
There really have been few professional athletes who have reached the same pinnacle of fame on which Jordan refuses to rest: Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali . . . and now Michael Jordan.
Some say Jordan is the greatest basketball player who ever lived. Very few of those who were fortunate enough to see his clinical performance against the Suns would demur.
@body:Charles Barkley and Jordan go back a long way together. They were candidates for the U.S. Olympic team the year Bobby Knight coached the squad.
Knight picked Jordan. He didn't pick Barkley, John Stockton of Utah or Terry Porter of Portland. Instead, he picked Steve Alford, one of his own Indiana University players.
Barkley and Jordan were first-round picks in the NBA draft, and both played this past summer on the so-called Dream Team. With Magic Johnson gone, the big names in the league are Jordan, Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal, the rookie for Orlando.
They play an entirely different type of game. Jordan is ballet. Barkley's skills stem from his enormous strength and power. No one Barkley's size--in the NBA, he is not considered a big man--has ever shown such a combination of quickness, stamina and rebounding skills.
Barkley was coming off a game last Saturday night against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he scored 44 points and gathered 17 rebounds. But the Suns lost. Sunday night he scored 22 points and collected a subpar nine rebounds.
So now the Suns had lost two games in a row.
After the game, Jordan had a ready explanation. "Charles didn't play all that well tonight," Jordan said. He smiled. Then he headed for the team bus.
Barkley remained brooding for a long while in front of his dressing stall. Losing does not sit lightly upon his shoulders.
"You know what they say," he began. "If you're gonna play like a puppy, you shouldn't try to come out and play with the big dogs."
Charles was angry at himself. He was also angry at his teammates.
"I've been on teams like this before. My first years with Philadelphia, we thought we could always come back. Well, some nights you ain't gonna come back."
Those were the days when Barkley played with Julius Erving, Moses Malone and Maurice Cheeks.
Now he is playing with KJ, Dan Majerle, Danny Ainge and Tom Chambers. So far there is no chemistry.
In a strategy that rookie coach Paul Westphal admitted was wrong, Cedric Ceballos was told to make Jordan take shots from outside.
Barkley huffed at Jordan's performance and Ceballos' guarding: "Oh, man, you've got to accept the challenge. The coach said make him shoot jumpers. He didn't say sit in the lane and leave him wide open all night."
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Someone handed Barkley a final statistics sheet. He studied it for a moment.
Barkley looked up. His big eyes were glaring. He balled the stat sheet in his big fist and then threw it to the floor.
"With the exception of Dan Majerle and Frank Johnson, everybody on this team should look in the mirror very closely. Frank was out there trying to guard Michael in the second half. Majerle was trying."
A man asked Barkley if the Suns' troubles could be remedied in practice in time for the November 25 game against Portland.
Barkley glared again.
"A lot of players who are good in practice aren't worth a shit when the game starts," he said. "It's not a matter of chemistry. You've just got to develop a fear of losing."
Coach Westphal faces an interesting riddle. The pieces for a very good team are on the premises. Obviously, they are not yet in the proper places.