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WAIT UNTIL NEXT YEAR

A moment frozen in time:
The clock shows there are still 3.9 seconds to play. The Phoenix Suns trail the Chicago Bulls, 99 to 98. So near and yet so far. There are 19,023 Phoenix Suns fans on their feet in America West Arena. They are screaming . . . chanting . . . stamping their feet . . . pleading with and for the Suns. There has never before been such noise in an enclosed arena in the state of Arizona. Kevin Johnson stands with the ball held high above his head. KJ is poised, collected . . . ready to throw the ball into play from the side of the court. For this last play, he is set up directly across the floor from the Suns' bench.

Paul Westphal, the Suns' coach, is on his feet. Westphal wears a light-colored suit. His jacket is unbuttoned. His hands are open, too, and held chest-high. It is almost as though Westphal is still playing in the backcourt himself. He seems prepared to catch KJ's pass and make the desperation, last-second shot himself, if necessary.

Every player on the Suns' bench is on his feet. Their mouths are wide open, agape. Their hands are tightly clenched . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . for . . . the miracle shot.

They are prepared to break into cheers for the winning basket they pray and believe is yet to come.

Strange how your mind works. I am reminded, at this moment, of the final scene in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Here's how the scene played:
Paul Newman and Robert Redford are both badly wounded and surrounded by a heavily armed group of South American soldiers who are bent on finishing their murderous task.

Newman and Redford charge out from their place of shelter with guns blazing, heading for their horses and a miraculous escape.

Then the film freezes. The color on the screen fades. The figures of Newman and Redford turn sepia, like those in an ancient photo album.

The last image you see in the film is Newman and Redford with their guns held high, charging gallantly into battle. Because you never see them actually killed, Butch and Sundance live in your mind forever.

That's the way I'll remember this year's Suns team . . . heading toward possible victory . . . still in the battle . . . with the clock running down.

@rule:
@body:I was too cowardly to watch the final seconds. The Suns had come too far to lose. I didn't want to see it end this way.

Not on this day, when the crowd in America West Arena had been deafening throughout the entire game. The fans came determined.

By now--after six games--I had come to thoroughly dislike Michael Jordan, the NBA's bàte noire. He is the greatest basketball player in the world . . . and the most arrogant.

After a full season of watching Charles Barkley, I rate Barkley with the greatest entertainers and athletes I have ever seen.

I compare him to three who I watched all the way: Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Muhammad Ali. Barkley is every bit as skilled in his sport as those players were in theirs. And he has a better sense of humor than any athlete I have ever encountered. Barkley should be writing material for Jay Leno.

I now know what Barkley meant when he refused to admit during an interview with Bob Costas that Jordan was a better player than he was.

You want to choose up sides? Fine. My first pick every time would be Sir Charles. Jordan wins because he's a superb player. Barkley wins because he makes everyone on his team a better player. He makes everyone around him perform with courage.

And after watching KJ in the last four games, I would make him my second pick. I am now willing to admit that Barkley was right. The Suns can't win without Kevin Johnson performing at his best. So it was only fitting that KJ was greeted at the start of Sunday's game with a thunderous round of applause.

This is the way I will remember this year's Suns team. KJ has the ball. Waiting for him to toss it into play are Barkley, Danny Ainge, Dan Majerle and Oliver Miller.

There is still time on the clock . . . still a chance to win.
Majerle, Barkley or Ainge will perform one final act of valor. Someone will deliver the final shot that will drop through the rim, swishing through the net. The Suns will triumph. And that's the way I will remember the end of this sixth game of the NBA Finals against the Bulls.

 

For me this season will never end. It will remain frozen in time. Hope will triumph over gloom.

@rule:
@body:By the time I reached the ground floor of America West Arena, the Suns players were walking slowly through the corridor to their dressing room.

Frank Johnson's thoughts were his own. The reserve point guard did not make eye contact with any of the dozens of people lined along the walls.

Was he blaming himself for missing that key basket in the final minutes? He shouldn't have been. Frank Johnson, or "Fourth Quarter Frank," as they call him on the radio, had made too many big shots all year long.

Cedric Ceballos patted Frank on the shoulder. Ceballos was wearing a gaudy, purple sport coat. He kept shaking his head in disbelief as he limped on the injured leg that had kept him out of the Finals.

Only five minutes previously, Ceballos had been on the Suns' bench, waving his arms wildly, leading the crowd in cheers. The Suns were fighting valiantly to protect a four-point lead.

But with 38 seconds to play, Jordan drove the length of the court to the basket and scored. With four seconds to play, John Paxson of the Bulls tossed a three-point shot through the hoop. This was the ninth three-point shot of the game for the Bulls, and this one did the job. It was all net. Suddenly, the Bulls had the lead. The clock was down to the final seconds. And, all at once, the game and the series were over. The Bulls were NBA champs for the third year in a row. There is a league rule that calls for a ten-minute cooling-off period after each game before the media are admitted to the dressing room.

Outside the Suns' dressing room, there was total silence. The little band of media people waiting with its cameras, lights, tape recorders and microphones seemed despondent.

And then there was a burst of sound from the other end of the long hall. It is such a big place, and the noise was coming from the Bulls' dressing room, half a block away.

"They're coming this way," a man said.
I can see the figures moving and the television lights. It is like a moving train of people. As it approaches me, I duck into a doorway to avoid being trampled. The stridency resembled the music of a German military band.

The oncoming group consists of a half-dozen camera operators, four photographers and several security guards. They are all surrounding Jordan, who is carrying a bottle of champagne. He wears an oversize, white baseball cap with an emblem commemorating the Bulls' NBA championship.

The noisy group is on its way to the interview room, where Jordan will talk for his fans on national television.

Jordan passes swiftly. The cacophony ends. Now all was silence again in the hallway.

And then I heard a man talking behind me.
"They may have won their third straight championship, but the Bulls are not a very smart team," the man said. I looked around. The speaker was Jack Ramsay, who won an NBA title in 1977 as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Ramsay was once considered the most brilliant coach in the league. But Ramsay was a coach who succeeded by diagramming plays and by controlling the actions of his players on the court. He ran the show. The new NBA is run by the superstar players. They decide what plays will be run. If there is ever a disagreement between a superstar like Jordan and his coach, it will be the coach who will depart the scene.

Several minutes after Jordan and his entourage clattered down the hall, a small, heavyset man with glasses tromped down the same path.

David Stern wore a dark-blue suit. He looked like an undertaker. Accompanied by three somber-faced aides, the NBA commissioner entered the Suns' dressing room to dispense his greetings and best wishes.

Stern, a humorless lawyer with the heart of an accountant, seems to grow more self-important and puffed-up by the minute. One wonders where all this grandiose behavior will end.

There was enough heavy, black wire in the media group gathered outside the Suns' dressing room to hog-tie the entire Chicago Bulls team, as well as Phil Jackson, the Bulls' elongated coach with the strange, out-of-place brush mustache.

Phil Jackson has read all of John Updike's novels about Rabbit Angstrom, the fictional, alcoholic basketball player. He has read and admired Updike's famous farewell to Ted Williams, "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," a half-dozen times. So my sympathies should be with him at the other end of the hall, in the winners' dressing room.

 

But here I was, waiting outside Paul Westphal's clubhouse. Westphal is likable. He is a born-again Christian with decidedly conservative political sentiments. He went to USC because he thought there was too much radicalism on other campuses, like Berkeley and UCLA.

Westphal is a big fan of Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk-show host who had sat under the basket in seats Westphal provided for him. It's Limbaugh who goes to dinner with Westphal and rides with him on the team airplane.

Limbaugh, the loquacious and witty fat man, loves to be hated by the liberals. Each day he announces how much longer the White House will be held hostage by Bill Clinton and the liberals.

Limbaugh wore a dark suit, despite the 110-degree temperature in Phoenix, and he was in his element throughout the game. During halftime, Limbaugh fans lined up to get his autograph.

"How many of you saw me interviewed at the Suns game last week by Hannah Storm?" Limbaugh had asked his millions of followers all of last week.

This week, Limbaugh will no doubt talk about the Suns again. Only this time, he will be talking about what a great game he had seen in Phoenix. And for this one time, I will be forced to agree with him.

If the Suns had to lose this series to the Bulls, this was the only acceptable way to do it. They left the field of battle with honor. Suns fans are all now certain that the best team lost. As they used to say in Brooklyn: "Wait until next year."

@rule:
@body:On the door closest to Barkley's dressing stall, there is a sign in big letters that reads: "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?" It is signed, "God."

There is plenty of space in the room. So the influx of media people did not actually crowd the place too much. They spread out like locusts to interview the Suns players. Groups quickly surrounded KJ, Dan Majerle and Danny Ainge. Another group surrounded the Suns' owner, Jerry Colangelo.

Majerle seemed totally wasted. He had played his heart out.
Majerle was on the floor all during the final period, when the Suns made their drive after trailing by eight points--87 to 79--at the beginning of the quarter.

With incredible intensity, the Suns held the high-scoring Bulls to only 12 points for the entire period.

"Our defense forced them into two 24-second violations," Majerle said. "When we took a four-point lead, I thought we were in the driver's seat. But it didn't turn out that way."
Majerle was referring to the final three-point shot by Paxson.
Ainge left Paxson open, and went to defend Horace Grant on that play.

"It looked to me," Ainge said, "like Charles was going for the steal. I stepped back and was going to foul Horace when he caught the ball. But he caught it quickly and threw it back out to Paxson.

"It was a well-designed play. We all just reacted. Charles went for the steal and I picked up his man and nobody saw Paxson. You don't want to give up a three, but you don't want to give up a dunk, either. Tough play."
Ainge has been like a coach on the floor all season. He never gives up. And he has never been afraid to throw his body in the way of bigger men charging to the basket.

"It was a terrible way to end it," Ainge said. "I can't ever remember being this disappointed after a loss. This is a great basketball team.

"We didn't play consistently all year, but we always stayed together and played great when we had to. Today was no exception. We had an unbelievable season."
The game-winning shot was also indelibly engraved in Westphal's mind. As a coach would, he saw it from the overall perspective.

"It was just a spread-out situation," he said. "They tried to take it to the basket and Mark West left Horace Grant to try to stop the penetration. Then Ainge thought he could intercept the pass in to Grant and left Paxson open." Westphal recalled watching Paxson's perfect shot.

"It seemed like the ball was in the air for about an hour," Westphal said. "It's something every kid dreams about, and John Paxson got to live that dream out." Barkley arrived from the shower wearing only a towel. Everyone moved to surround him. At first it seemed that no one would ask the first question.

The lights hit him from all sides. Drops of perspiration began rolling off his shaved head.

 

Barkley glanced toward the floor. Barkley broke the ice. When he spoke, it was in a soft voice.

"It was quick," he said, "so quick, the way it ended. I mean, you work seven, eight months, and then, wham, it's over."
I remembered a night back in November. It was the season opener at America West Arena. Barkley tore the Los Angeles Clippers apart. He led the team in scoring and rebounding.

When it was over, he tossed the game ball high into the stands. It was the start of the wildest ride any of us has ever seen. You have to wonder if any member of the Suns--Barkley included--will ever again have such a great season.

KJ wore shades to fend off the bright lights.
"It's a tough way to lose," he said. "I still don't know what happened on Paxson's shot. One thing, though. We didn't win the title. So now Charles won't be able to retire."
I went into the interview room. Most of the media people had left. They were replaying the tape of Jordan's interview.

I thought I might watch and take notes.
I heard Jordan say with the supreme confidence that has become his general manner of speech: " . . . now that we have accomplished history. . . ."

I put my pen back in my pocket. I turned away from the TV screen and headed for the parking lot. It was over.


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