Strange. They are such public figures. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. They are quoted constantly. But we don't really know them.
For us they are defined by their latest television commercials. They are in black and white. The messages are grim. Barkley says he doesn't want to be a role model. Jordan talks about what it would be like if he wasn't famous.
They can't help themselves. They are trapped now in their celebrity. And now they must battle against each other. Not one of us can imagine what the pressure must be like.
This was the moment. Jesse McGuire held the glistening trumpet in his hands. He was standing in the middle of the basketball court at America West Arena just before the start of the Phoenix Suns' seventh game against the Seattle SuperSonics.
The instant McGuire began playing the national anthem with that great trumpet, I sensed the Suns would win the seventh game against Seattle.
Sonics coach George Karl still managed to maintain that almost constant sneer on his bloated face. But listening to the trumpet, Karl must have known he was in trouble.
McGuire is as good at blowing his trumpet as Charles Barkley is at either blowing his own horn or grabbing the basketball and driving to the iron. No one who has ever heard McGuire's trumpet doubts that his playing has the power to inflame. And that's what it did to the crowd of 19,023 regulars. It was a crowd both sentimental and emotional, anxious and jittery. This game was like the last episode of Cheers. The fans had been hanging around all year, and this might be the night the saloon would close down. Many had been to every one of the 41 regular-season home games and to every one of the ten home playoff games against the Los Angeles Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Sonics.
The fans had been there on November 7, when Barkley played his first game in America West Arena against the Los Angeles Clippers. Sir Charles outscored and outrebounded everybody on the floor that night. Then, when it was over, he tossed the game ball high into the stands to celebrate the first victory of his team.
These fans had been there for the second home game of the year, against Seattle, too. That was also way back in November. The Suns seemed unbeatable in those days. Time has passed. Fall . . . winter . . . spring . . . summer. And still the season presses on. So many victories--62 of them in the regular season--that the wins were sometimes taken for granted. No one has forgotten the brawl with the New York Knicks in March, which Kevin Johnson started by flattening Doc Rivers with a forearm shiver. Nobody has forgotten Greg Anthony coming off the bench in a multicolored shirt to sucker-punch KJ in return. And everyone still remembers Barkley playing the role of peacemaker on that occasion.
But a few resounding defeats still stand out. They still rankle. Nobody forgets what Michael Jordan did to the Suns on his trip here in November. Cedric Ceballos was guarding him, and Jordan turned the game into a clinic. Cleveland did the same to the Suns in February. The New Jersey Nets delivered an unmerciful pounding in March.
It was after that game that Barkley himself began complaining that the Suns were too small to play against some teams. But for most of the season, it was night after night of triumph. The Suns led the entire National Basketball Association. Barkley became the star of the All-Star Game and the league's Most Valuable Player. People's lives became submerged to the single-minded quest for an NBA title. Still it goes on. Barkley, like Captain Ahab, and the Suns, like the men of the doomed Pequod, still seek the White Whale. During this mystical run, the fans had heard many--too many--versions of the obligatory national anthem. One night Suns owner Jerry Colangelo's vaunted sound system gave out, and the crowd of 19,023 mercifully sang along with the unfortunate tenor who remained tethered to the dead microphone in the middle of the basketball court.
But none of those many versions compared to the highs McGuire reaches on his trumpet. For a singer, those final high notes are a nightmare. For McGuire they become a triumph, and for the fans a confidence booster. It's no wonder they used trumpets to lead the Charge of the Light Brigade.
McGuire played his trumpet during the regular season, too, and for the deciding fifth game of the Lakers series. Now he was back for the seventh game against the Sonics. He proved the critical "extra" element. But not the only one. What can you tell about how a player will perform just by watching him shoot lay-ups before a game begins? If it's Barkley, you can tell a lot. There is a look that comes into his eyes. A controlled air of suppressed violence comes over him for a big game.
Then the arena lights go out. The starting five is introduced. The spotlights play on their faces. Kevin Johnson smiles . . . Dan Majerle . . . Mark West . . . and, for this one time all season, Tom Chambers.
Then the announcer intones:
" . . . and from Auburn--Charles Barkley!"
The crowd goes wild. Barkley remains stonefaced.
It is an interesting ritual. As the starting five runs through a gauntlet of teammates, the starters are pummeled on the shoulders and back for encouragement. But no one dares to reach out to pound and pummel upon Barkley. One wonders why. Would he look down upon this as nonsense? Would he look upon this as an affront to his dignity?
I am reminded of something. Not once, during the entire season, has a single player on an opposing team ever indicated he wanted to mix it up with Barkley physically. And, remember, Barkley is playing in a league populated by dozens of impressive physical specimens. Now, seconds before the game begins, Barkley reaches the other four starters on the floor. He encircles them in his big arms and pulls them to him. Barkley is ready.
I brought a pocket television set with me to the game, so that I could monitor the NBC broadcast. I watched as the screen switched to Phoenix and the announcer, standing out on the playing floor, read his introduction from a sheet of paper and then tossed it to the floor for an assistant to pick up.
They switched back to the studio, where I saw Bill Walton predicting the Sonics would win. Walton, once a great player, has a weird background. He went native with Patty Hearst when she was wanted for bank robbery. During that period, he reportedly subsisted on pine nuts and marijuana. He returned to the basketball scene in plenty of time to introduce his friend and business associate, Richard Esquinas, to Michael Jordan.
Since then Esquinas has written a book about Jordan, in which he claims that Jordan is a compulsive gambler willing to bet $1 million on a round of golf.
It is an interesting commentary about the integrity of NBC Sports that it brought Esquinas on to talk about the $1.2 million that Jordan allegedly lost to him on the golf course. Esquinas explained that the two agreed to cut the amount to $300,000. Jordan has paid $200,000, but apparently welshed on the final $100,000, at least according to Esquinas. Why not bring Walton into the mix? He is also mentioned in the book, as is Quinn Buckner, the other NBC expert for the playoffs. Instead, the interview with Esquinas was conducted all alone by the network's favorite little mannequin, Bob Costas.
Peter Vecsey, another member of the so-called expert panel, is the most repugnant figure in all of television sports. Vecsey, a native New Yorker, looks and dresses like a salesman in a cut-rate shoe store on Fordham Road in the Bronx. Vecsey insists it's "poor journalism" for anyone to repeat tales about Jordan's million-dollar gambling habit. What can Vecsey possibly know about journalistic ethics? He's certainly never practiced them. Vecsey probably felt he was being put upon a few years back when the Village Voice in New York City broke the story that Vecsey borrowed money to buy a house from the New Jersey Nets' owner while he was assigned to cover the team for the New York Post.
Peter, that's a no-no.
@body:The excitement and anticipation of the opening tip are almost too much to bear. All the build-up. And then, suddenly, it happens so fast. Now there's no turning back. Six seconds into the game, Mark West slams home a dunk shot and the Suns lead, 2 to 0. And less than a minute later, Barkley steals the ball near midcourt and drives to the hoop all alone for a slam dunk. The Suns are alive. So is the crowd.
The defining moments of the game come in the second period, after the Sonics take a four-point lead. It is then that Barkley really takes over the game for the first time.
"I really got pissed," Barkley said later. "That's when I knew I had to make something happen. We got to the sidelines for a time-out, and the guys are arguing among themselves. I said, 'Shut the fuck up and play. We are in this shit together.'"
In a period of four minutes, Barkley scores five baskets for ten points. Four of the baskets come because he powers his way to the basket. The fifth is an outside jumper . . . yes, the kind that makes everyone cringe whenever he takes them.
Before it's over, Barkley plays all but two minutes of the game, scores 44 points and collects 24 rebounds. Barkley takes on the role of the bully boy throughout. He pushes. He shoves. He shouts at the referees. He taunts George Karl, the Sonics coach. He threatens to throttle Gary Payton, the Sonics point guard. He curses at his teammates when they make mistakes.
And then what happens when the game is decided? Suns coach Paul Westphal takes Barkley out of the game toward the end and Barkley sits down on the bench, puts a towel over his face and bursts into tears. Some tough guy!
Colangelo must have money in a tee-shirt business. Why else is it that every time you turn around, the Suns are issuing a brand-new tee shirt announcing some fresh reason to celebrate?
After the game, both Barkley and Kevin Johnson are hauled into the interview room to appear with Paul Westphal. One thing is obvious. The Suns are trying to make KJ feel that he is special. KJ has been whining for weeks now about how he feels unappreciated. The Suns want him to feel special for the finale against the Chicago Bulls.
Westphal is as laid-back as ever. Karl had said that Westphal looked like he was coaching in a summer league, and Karl was right. That's the way Westphal has acted all year long. He still wears the suit that is provided for him each game by a local clothing store. But now he has also added an oversize, white baseball cap with an NBA playoff logo. The hat is so big, it rests directly upon his ears. It makes it impossible to take anything he is about to say with any seriousness.
Barkley is, of course, in his element. He talks so loud and with so much bluster into the microphones and cameras that KJ finally sulks off the stage.
Barkley is so wound up, it appears he will never stop talking. Later, he wanders back into the dressing room, where he is surrounded by many of the same media people he has been berating for the past few weeks.
Barkley is a man determined to be a public figure. He never stops speaking. In the course of a single sitting, he is capable of taking opposite sides on half a dozen issues. Like many people in show business, he is convinced that he is "good friends" with every big name he has ever met.
But Barkley's talk and persona are infectious. They are also often self-deprecating. Barkley's charm is every bit as infectious as that of the young Muhammad Ali, or of Reggie Jackson in the days when Jackson was still claiming to be "the straw that stirs the drink" for the New York Yankees.
Listening to Barkley, you wonder how Colangelo ever got up the nerve to bring a larger-than-life character like him into a sleepy, Rotary Club town like Phoenix.
But why worry about it now? Colangelo did have the nerve. And it did pay off. And Jerry will never have to worry about going back into the tuxedo-rental business in Chicago Heights again. @rule:
@body:Barkley's outburst in the locker room after the game will be one of those outbursts frozen in time.
You have to love him, because it is obvious he is a man who can't stand success. He will do his best to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory every time. I think he must really want to prove that he is not a role model.
All Charles had to do was say that he was happy to win, and that he hoped for the best in the finals. Instead, he began attacking everyone in the media whom he felt had slighted his team by predicting it wouldn't beat Seattle.
To tell the truth, no one has really been unfair to the Suns. The publicized frailties of the Suns are of their own making. It was Westphal, their own coach, who sent them into decline by announcing that the last week of the season was going to be an "exhibition season." It was Westphal who took them up to Prescott to get away from the "excitement."
The rap that the Suns don't play good defense comes right from the mouth of the Great Barkley himself. He has insisted all year long that he doesn't like to play defense. It is obvious that he only plays defense when he wants to. Why is it, do you suppose, that he never fouled out of a single regular-season game?
"We're too short. We don't play any defense," Barkley said, glaring into the cameras. "Well, we're still here, and all the bashers like Bill Walton and Peter Vecsey are sitting home.
"I'd like to tell all of you who were out there bashing us to kiss my big, black ass."
If you were not present, you might expect that Barkley's words were greeted with some apprehension. What you must understand is that every bit of his talk is five parts bluster and five parts entertainment. Barkley is better at this than Don King, the boxing impresario.
A man asked Barkley how he thought Michael Jordan might be feeling about the continued pressure of the gambling story.
"The difference between him and me," Barkley said, "is that I really don't concern myself with what people think of me, because these people are not your friends. They are just out to sell newspapers. That's why I do my own thing and deal with whatever happens."
"Is America gonna love you as much as Michael Jordan after this series is over?" a man asked.
"Love me," Barkley shot back. He grinned. "I'm their worst nightmare: a brother who won't stay quiet. So I do the best I can and I deal with it. I don't worry about impressing people. Some people aren't gonna like me because they're intimidated. They're idiots."
"But is the stage going to be big enough for you and Michael?" someone asked.
"Hey, Michael's a great player. I feel like I'm a great player. I think he'll play well. I think I'll play well. We need the other guys to step up. Hell, it was Scottie Pippen who won that last game against New York.
"KJ's gotta play well for us. Dan Majerle's gotta play well. It's not gonna be decided just by me and Michael. It's gonna be decided by the other players. Like the other night, when I had the monster game, it was Dan Majerle who won it with the three-pointers. I had another monster game today, but it was KJ who won it with a great game.
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"I don't feel like I'm going to let this team lose," he said. Charles looked into the crowd around him. "I've been telling you that for six months. My job ain't done yet." There was silence.
"I believe in my heart that we're going to win the world championship. People can say what they will, but I have never not believed that. If I play up to my capabilities, we're going to win."
A man asked if he wanted to be the MVP of the championship series.
"I don't care about awards," Barkley said. "That's just another piece of glass. I'm competing against myself. I'm not competing against the media. I'm not competing against the fans. I'm competing against Charles Barkley.
"Nobody expected me to be here and as successful as I've been. And this little kid from Leeds, Alabama, is playing for the world championship. And there might be a hundred others from Leeds who do well, but I'm here first and playing for the world championship, and that's all that matters to me right now."
A man asked Barkley about the pressure he has been under all season long.
"There's been so much pressure, because right from the start, we were supposed to make the finals. Nothing else was gonna be good enough. For us to get here with all this pressure shows what kind of men we are.
"I don't think they understood what kind of pressure they put on me or the team, because I knew we were supposed to win it all. I know I'm here to win and that it's a one-shot deal. But I'm proud of myself because of the way I've handled it so far."
"I'm gonna go out and get really fucking drunk tonight, and then sit in my whirlpool and celebrate. I got a six-pack sitting by there in a bucket of ice, and I got the Jacuzzi up to 107 degrees temperature. I'm gonna sit there for a while and rest. And then tomorrow, I'm gonna think about the Chicago Bulls."
He looked up again:
"I believe it in my heart. We're going to win the world championship.