TWILIGHT OF THE GOD
And the days dwindle down to a precious few. . . .
--song from the Broadway show Knickerbocker Holiday
For Charles Barkley, these are the precious few final days. Barkley plans to retire from the NBA at the end of this season even if the Suns are unable to win an NBA championship. Nothing will change his decision, he insists. This is written in stone. The grind of the 82-game season is getting to him. The sameness. The long and boring season. He claims his body is wearing down. But anyone who saw him play against Golden State last Friday and again on Sunday could see he is playing as well as ever. His skills are undiminished to the naked eye. He is still an all-star, one of the handful of truly great players in the game. He is also the game's greatest personality. No one comes close to him in this area.
Despite his own protestations, Barkley's skills are not diminishing. The explosive leap to the basket is still there. The burst of speed that carries him around his defender is still part of his repertoire. The magical soft hands have not failed him. Neither has the bearlike strength that enables him to push his way toward the ball whenever necessary. Barkley is obviously bored by the extraordinarily long regular season. And yet, it is that part of the year which pays the players' enormous salaries. There was a time for him when it was fun to get on a plane and go to New Jersey, Minneapolis and Denver. But those days are long gone for Barkley. Barkley has now co-authored a book with Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated. It is called The Wit and Wisdom of Charles Barkley. The last time Barkley was involved in a book project, it was his autobiography, and when it was published, he claimed he was misquoted. Let's hope he does better with Reilly.
At any rate, he told Reilly why he was tired of regular-season playing dates:
"None of this Salt Lake Thursday, Sacramento Friday, Houston Saturday grind. I did my time. I'm tired of having people know exactly what hotel I'm going to be in on exactly what day."
However, he is still energized by the playoffs. No one could watch Barkley dominate Golden State in the first period last Friday night and then come back in the fourth period to make the critical plays that sealed the Suns' victory without realizing he is still a great player.
Friday's triumph was topped by another masterful performance on Sunday which turned into a fascinating human drama dominated by Kevin Johnson's 38-point blast. This was a game in which upcoming Golden State stars like Chris Webber and Latrell Sprewell completely lost their cool while trying to trash-talk Barkley into submission. It didn't work.
Barkley understands that Webber and Sprewell are part of the wave of the future in the NBA. New stars keep appearing. Nothing will stop that.
He once told the Boston Globe:
"There will be another Michael Jordan, another Larry Bird and another Charles Barkley. God is so good to us. If someone told you years ago that a six-foot-four, 250-pound guy would lead the league in rebounding, you'd say I was full of shit. If someone told you there would be a six-foot-ten guy from Nigeria, Hakeem Olajuwon, who would outrun guards, you wouldn't believe it. If someone told you there'd be a white guy, five-foot whatever, who could play like John Stockton, you wouldn't believe that, either. They just keep coming."
The structure of the playoffs is such that a team must win 15 games to win the NBA title. You must win three out of five in the first round and then four out of seven in the three subsequent series.
As of this morning, Charles and the Suns have won two games. They need 13 more to win it all. The road ahead is treacherous. No one can predict what dangers lie ahead or what part key decisions by referees or injuries to the Suns or other teams will play. Charles says he doesn't worry about refs.
"I don't listen to the refs or anyone who makes less money than I do," he insists. Charles also has another idea about why the overwhelming majority of the refs are white: "We don't need refs, but I guess white guys need something to do. All the players are black."
In the two seasons Barkley has played for the Suns, he has clearly been the team's leader. If you didn't know anything about the Suns, all you would have to do is watch the player introductions before the game to see how his teammates defer to him.
He respects them, too, and speaks out for them.
Here is what he said one time about KJ after Phoenix fans booed the Suns' point guard:
"I try to keep my distance from the fans. If they can turn on a guy who helped get us to the NBA Finals . . . it makes me wonder, if I struggle, would they do the same thing to me?"
Here's what he said about Danny Ainge:
"People don't know what toughness is. They think it's beating the crud out of people. Well, I can beat the crud out of people if I wanted to, but it's mental toughness. See, Danny Ainge can't beat my mother in basketball, but he's as tough as you can get."
On another occasion, he said of Dan Majerle:
"I thought he was a big country bumpkin, and I was correct. He should be from Alabama. I don't know how he got to Michigan. Majerle is tough. I'd get in a foxhole with him anytime."
Barkley even made a significant gesture of friendship to Suns owner Jerry Colangelo for getting him out of Philadelphia. When Barkley went to the All-Star Game in his first year with the Suns, he wore number 23, which was Colangelo's college playing number at the University of Illinois.
"Wearing it," he said, "was my way of thanking him for taking me out of purgatory."
During Barkley's two years with the Suns, he has never once attempted to show up a teammate by berating him in front of the fans for making a mistake during the game.
"I try to lead by example," Barkley says. "That's my obligation; to lead by example. I never say anything to someone who is not playing well. I say something to people who are not playing hard. Everybody has a bad game. As long as they play hard, I don't complain."
To say that Charles has been appreciated goes without saying.
"Only one person gets to be Elvis," Coach Paul Westphal said. "And only one person gets to be Charles Barkley. That's why we got him."
There was a time when Charles was honored by the Chamber of Commerce, and Westphal said: "Was that the same guy people said would never fit in here? The next thing you know, he'll be kissing babies down at City Hall."
What surprised us about Charles was that he was more than just a basketball player. He kept spicing his postgame interviews with cogent observations about the state of society.
"Life is not all about scoring 20 points and ten boards a game," he once said. "But that's all they ask me about. Racism is something we should be discussing. But people are tired of hearing about that. Nobody talks about the homeless, or the budget, or the obligation we have to the kids of this country. People like to believe that the world begins and ends with basketball. Well, it doesn't."
It was thoughts like this that prompted Charles to air his controversial commercial for Nike shoes. Charles spoke in a dead-serious voice, staring straight into the camera:
"This is my new shoe. It's a good shoe. It won't make you dunk like me. It won't make you rich like me. It won't make you rebound like me. It definitely won't make you handsome like me. It'll only make you have shoes like me. Period."
At first there were the shock waves. No one believed that a professional athlete would risk endangering his lucrative television deal by insisting on giving a message that might hurt sales of the expensive shoes.
But Charles insisted because this is something he has believed in all along. "I don't understand why people would buy one sneaker over another based on the endorsement of a player," he told People magazine.
"Kids idolize professional athletes, which is wrong in itself. . . . To kids that idolize me, I tell them don't do it just because I can dribble a basketball--that's really sick."
Neither does he believe that being able to dunk a basketball is enough to make one a role model.
"Hell, I know drug dealers who can dunk. So can drug dealers be role models, too? "We screwed our kids up. We've taught them that the only way you can be successful is if you make a lot of money. And now we're complaining because they're killing each other for jewelry and drugs and money. Now we're trying to stop it in midstream.
"Every kid can't be me. They need to get an education, get a job. People look at this life as money, cars, being on TV every day. You know, I just didn't wake up being Charles Barkley. There's a lot of work that went into it." Charles said when he came to Phoenix after the trade with Philadelphia that he wanted to win the Most Valuable Player award and the NBA championship ring. Last season, the Suns came very close.
This has been a season marked by injuries and mediocre stretches. But the two victories over Golden State on the weekend are enough to separate Suns fans from reality. Title fever is now raising its spectral head. A new wave of bumper stickers is on its way.
Of course, Charles still wants to win.
"Unless you win a championship or go deep into the playoffs, I look at the season as a waste. You put nine months of your life into the season. Winning is the only thing that makes it worthwhile."
But if the Suns don't win it all, Charles has a ready explanation for why he may be ending his NBA career without a single title.
"The only thing I'm guilty of," he says, "is coming into the league with Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan."
Will we miss him?
I need only remind you of the tumultuous greeting Charles received from his old fans in Philadelphia the first time the Suns went back there to play the 76ers.
A half-dozen fans shaved their heads in his honor. A woman fan dashed out on the court to plant a kiss on Charles' cheek while he took a foul shot.
Bill Lyon of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote:
"Has Philadelphia ever had a more enchanting, exasperating, confounding, inspiring, combustible, caring and controversial mercenary than Charles Wade Barkley? In a word, no."
And the acerbic Bill Conlon of the Philadelphia Daily News added about Barkley's departure: "The needle on the Fun Meter now rests on zero."
It will be exceedingly bleak here, too.
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