SUNDAY IN THE LOCKER ROOM WITH CHARLES
That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
sign above Charles Barkley's dressing stall
Here comes Charles Barkley. He seems almost eerily calm. It is 90 minutes before the start of last Sunday's fifth and deciding game against the Los Angeles Lakers. The Suns' locker room is quiet. On the big-screen television, the game between New York and Charlotte is being played. The voices of the announcers and the crowd sounds from Madison Square Garden filter through the room.
Barkley is wearing purple linen slacks and a purple plaid shirt. He dresses like a movie star, and he can afford to. This year his income, including endorsements, will top $4 million. But you can't command this kind of money unless you deliver the goods each time you take the floor. For Barkley there can never be excuses. Next to Michael Jordan, he is the best basketball player in the world. But that comes with a caveat. Charles Barkley can never have an off day.
Despite the odds and the pressure, Barkley must perform for his team at a superlative level, no matter what the circumstances. His life is pressure-packed. The bigger the game, the better he is expected to perform.
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Amazingly, Barkley seems to thrive in this rarefied atmosphere.
Now he strides the length of the Suns' dressing room toward his dressing stall at the far end.
On the way, he nods to Danny Ainge and Quinn Buckner, the NBC analyst. Ainge and Buckner were once teammates with the Boston Celtics. They are talking softly in front of Ainge's locker and watching the Knicks-Hornets game. Barkley nods also to Kevin Johnson and Tom Chambers.
KJ is stretched out on the floor. His eyes seem glazed over. He seems to be meditating. Chambers sits, ashen-faced, in front of his locker. Chambers has already put his uniform on, but sits staring down at his shoes and socks.
The other Suns players are out on the floor, warming up. Dan Majerle is in the trainer's room being treated. He has been sick all night long. It is not certain whether he can play.
Barkley reaches his locker and quickly begins to remove his shirt.
"These games are no joke," he says. "Damn it, though, if you're an athlete, you've got to love this situation. You get to control your own destiny."
"Do you think you'll be relaxed out there today, Charles?" a man asks.
"I'll be relaxed," he says, "unless I miss my first ten shots." Barkley snorts.
"No guy who misses ten shots in a row can be relaxed."
Barkley shouts down to Ainge and Buckner, boasting about his golf game. Ainge is a seven-handicap golfer, but Barkley, a very average golfer, keeps insisting he is Ainge's superior.
"What are you looking forward to out there today?" a man asks.
"I wanna get it done," Barkley says. "I missed a whole bunch of shots in game two and three. So today, I want to get off to a good start. I don't want the Lakers to build up any momentum."
It was almost as though he was talking to himself now, measuring his determination.
"We'll play with more confidence and they'll play with less. But no matter what happens, I'm going to keep firing."
"That's the only thing that separates the good players from the rest."
@body:I walked over to the press room to look at the seating chart. There were media people from all over the country on hand. They were serving a light lunch. All the tables were filled. There was a time when I knew who all the syndicated sports columnists were and could spot them on sight. There really aren't any syndicated sports columnists anymore. The only figures who are instantly recognizable at these gatherings are the television people, like Dick Enberg and Hannah Storm.
The NBA provided everyone with complete records of everything that has taken place this season. They are so complete that a total stranger could walk in off the street and have enough information at his disposal to report on the game.
I looked over the season's records of the games between the Lakers and Suns. The Suns had beaten the Lakers all five games during the regular season. Barkley scored well against them every time. But I also noticed that Oliver Miller had done very well. I was curious about him because he had played especially well in game four of the playoffs. In the 13th game of this, his rookie season, Miller had scored 16 points. Toward the end of the season, Miller had played 35 minutes against the Lakers and blocked four shots.
I headed upstairs to my seat about 20 minutes before the scheduled start. There were 41 regular-season home games, and I had made it to 38 of them. But this crowd was different from all the others. The excitement was close to frenzy.
Everywhere I looked, fans were waving orange cards handed out at the door. There was a persistent hum throughout the huge building.
Tim Kempton, who had been on the Suns' roster all season long, was standing next to the team bench. He had been placed on the injured-reserve list and now he was wearing a green shirt and a pair of slacks. He is six-foot-ten and weighs 265 pounds, and now seemed like an amazingly hearty cheerleader.
Alex Stivrins, who had been on the roster several times but then released, was also down there wearing a shirt and Levi's. Stivrins had just returned to town after playing in the championship series of the Continental Basketball Association. The lights went down and the sound of the music was deafening as the Suns' starting players were announced.
As the starters trotted onto the floor, they were pummeled with affection by the nonstarters. I wondered if there was a reason for this. The only player who didn't receive a heavy jostling was Barkley, the last one to be introduced. Now everyone in the arena was on his feet. The Gorilla was clapping rhythmically. The lights went up and the players walked to their places on the floor. This was the decisive game.
No team had ever finished first as the Suns had done and lost the first two games of the opening playoff series. But no team had come back from losing the first two on its home court and then won the next three in a row, either.
I remembered what Paul Westphal had said in his press conference after losing the second straight to the Lakers.
"We're going over there [Los Angeles] and we're going to win Tuesday. Then, we're going to win over there Thursday. Then, we're coming home next Sunday and we're going to win again, and then everyone can say it was a great series."
Why would he put himself on the spot like that?
@body:All season long, I have brought a radio to the game and listened to Al McCoy and Cotton Fitzsimmons as they broadcast.
You must understand where they are coming from. Listening to McCoy describe the Suns in action is like listening to Jerry Colangelo. Fitzsimmons, on the other hand, views the game as a coach. The best thing about Fitzsimmons is that he really knows and understands the game and its history. He spots trends, good or bad, before anyone else in the house. Listening to him, you are never surprised when a team rallies. He has prepared you for that eventuality.
You can't really tell who is going to win the game by what takes place in the first quarter.
The Suns jumped off to a 7-0 lead, but within a few minutes, the Lakers struck back and the Suns were trailing 10-9. And Barkley was missing shots. After the opening salvo, the Suns made only three of 11 shots.
The pace of the game was the most worrisome thing. The Suns wanted to play fast-break basketball, but the Lakers succeeded in slowing the pace. If the Suns were going to win, they would have to do it by playing half-court basketball, something the Lakers did better.
The score was tied at 24-all at the end of the first quarter, and the Suns led 46-45 at the half. The Suns led by seven points going into the fourth quarter, and then it was all tied up at the end of regulation play.
It was only a tremendous shot by Majerle in the final minute that helped the Suns gain a tie. Then it was overtime. And it was Oliver Miller who then came into his own.
Who was the most valuable player in the game? When the Suns win one this way, they all step up to be counted. Kevin Johnson showed how important he is to this team. It simply can't win big games without him. Barkley was dominating and courageous under the boards.
Majerle delivered his guttiest performance of the season and demonstrated once again why his number will eventually be placed in the rafters of the arena.
@body:After the game, the media crowd around Barkley was as large as they get for the Super Bowl or the World Series. Oliver Miller, Tom Chambers and Jerrod Mustaf, who have adjoining lockers, left the area quickly to avoid the crowd.
Barkley is used to all this. He is widely regarded as being the best interview in the NBA. Only Michael Jordan comes close, but Barkley is considered better because he can be counted on to say any outrageous thing that comes into his mind.
Much of what Barkley says does not make the papers because editors feel his expressions may be too shocking for average family taste.
A man asked, "How does it feel, Chuck, after a week in which you guys were criticized pretty severely?"
"You got to take all this stuff with a grain of salt," Barkley said. "Last week at this time, we were dog meat. That's why you have to do your own thing.
"I don't give a shit what people say about me or write about me. I keep things in perspective."
Barkley signaled for a hanger-on to bring him another beer from the cooler.
"Did you see Coach Westphal coming of age this week?" a writer from The Sporting News asked.
Barkley stared at the man.
"I think he's done a bad job all year," Barkley said.
"I mean, seriously . . ." the surprised writer said.
"I am serious," Barkley said.
"What do you mean?"
Barkley continued, "I think he's a terrible coach. I think his assistants do all the work. He's just riding their coattails."
By now the man from The Sporting News thought he was on to a big story.
Then Barkley grinned.
"No, Paul's a great basketball coach and fun to play for. We're lucky to have him. He lets the players do their thing, and I like any coach that lets me do my thing."
Another writer wanted to know whether Barkley thought Westphal had deliberately grabbed attention by predicting the Suns would win when they were down two games to none.
"What was he supposed to say?" Barkley asked. "If he didn't think we were going to win over in L.A., we would have dropped him off the plane without a parachute."
Oliver Miller's sudden stardom was on everyone's mind. It was well-known that Barkley has served as a mentor for Miller during the period when he was attempting to drop 40 pounds so he could play.
"What about Oliver Miller?" a writer asked.
"I've been on his ass all year," Barkley said. "I kept telling him, 'We can't win it without you.'
"He fought us for a long time. It was difficult for him. When you're in that situation, you always think everybody's against you.
"But I kept telling him there are two reasons why you have to lose the weight. Number one, they pay you a half-million dollars a year, and number two, you ain't doing what you're supposed to do. "Usually, that will get people against you."
There was a brief silence while writers scribbled in their notebooks. Barkley noticed the television news of the mass escape from the Maricopa County Jail.
Barkley became excited. He shouted across the dressing room at Danny Ainge.
"Danny! Danny Ainge! Your brother-in-law just escaped from jail. Damn! There's actually white people in jail. All four of those guys are white. Damn! The only four white people in jail in Arizona just escaped.
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