Last year was fun. It was full of constant surprises. There were miraculous shots that won games. Almost every night at America West Arena was a combination of Christmas and the Fourth of July.

When Charles Barkley wasn't dominating the backboards, he was stealing balls and thundering three-quarters of the court with stolen passes to make slam-dunk shots. He bounded over the scorer's table in New York to chase down the referees. Night after night, Barkley faced up, one on one, against the very best players the NBA had to offer. Most nights, he bested them. And on the rare occasions when he didn't, he came close.

Barkley was magnificent. It was an unforgettable season. Perhaps we will never see its like again. If Barkley were a bullfighter, he would have been led back out onto the floor following the final game against the Chicago Bulls and awarded two ears and a tail. Instead, he had to settle for being the Most Valuable Player in the NBA.

Now I wonder if the magic is over.
We saw Barkley outplay David Robinson of the San Antonio Spurs, and even make the game-winning shot off Robinson in a classic, street-game final second of play. Barkley deliberately stomped on a prone Vlade Divac of the L.A. Lakers and outleaped the magnificent Shawn Kemp of the Seattle SuperSonics. Barkley took Shaquille O'Neal to school on a memorable afternoon, during which the big rookie's most impressive moment came when he pulled down the backboard.

With Barkley leading the way, it seemed the Suns were capable of beating anyone on a given night. Charles tossed balls up into the crowd. He growled at opponents, exhorted the crowds and hugged small children. He bullied his way through the season, deliberately building a persona as the ultimate, ruthless warrior. He was Superman, Batman, Sly Stallone and Sir Lancelot all wrapped into one neat package.

And the Suns came within ten seconds of taking Michael Jordan and the Bulls into a seventh game and themselves to a possible NBA title.

Now, because of Michael Jordan's retirement, Suns fans expect an easy run to the title this year. That is not going to happen, and tomorrow night's exhibition game against the New York Knicks will be an indication of how impossible that road may be for this year's Suns.

First of all, the Suns have just returned from an ill-advised trip to a schlock tournament sponsored by McDonald's, in which they should never have been involved. What did they achieve by winning at Munich? Nothing.

Because of the disruptions of travel and the tournament, the Suns are about to begin the season on tired legs and without even having conducted a proper training camp.

We forget what a close call it was last season, making it to the final round. The Suns were inches away from being taken out in the first round by the Lakers. Do you remember when Suns coach Paul Westphal, trailing 0-2, said the team would go to L.A. and win two games and come back home and win the third?

San Antonio was on the way to beating the Suns until Antoine Carr went down with a leg injury. It was only a few miraculous performances by Barkley that edged out Seattle in seven games.

Things might be ready to go downhill. We are going to know shortly, perhaps as soon as tomorrow night, when Pat Riley and the Knicks come to town. This will be the first appearance here by the Knicks since Kevin Johnson blindsided Doc Rivers and precipitated the biggest brawl of the season. So this won't be an ordinary exhibition game.

I am afraid this will not be a happy season for Barkley. This time last year, he was talking about winning an NBA crown. The only thing he complained about was a lack of rebounding power. He has that now with the additions of A.C. Green and Joe Kleine.

But Charles isn't counting his blessings. All he talks about are his aching back, his forthcoming retirement, his aching leg and what a problem it is giving all those TV interviews now that Jordan has retired.

Last year, Barkley was his own man. He was big enough to take down Godzilla and face down the crowd and tell it not to expect him to be a role model.

Charles, no one expects you to be a role model. We don't expect you to replace Michael. Being Charles Barkley is plenty good enough.

So let's quit the histrionics. Get on with it.
@body:More notes on the Suns:

At the first exhibition game, Henry Florence, the lawyer, told me this story. The moral: How times have changed.

"I've been a season ticketholder since the second year of the franchise," Henry began. "At the end of one season, Colangelo made a trade with the Boston Celtics that infuriated me. He sent a truly fine Suns player named Charlie Scott to the Celtics for Paul Westphal.

"So I wrote Colangelo a personal note telling him I was canceling my season tickets. I didn't want anything to do with a club that would trade a Charlie Scott for a white guy like Westphal, who was sitting on the Celtics' bench.

"You know what? Colangelo invited me to lunch at Durant's to talk it over. 'Don't give up your season tickets,' he said. 'Stick with us. Westphal is going to be good. We've also got a wonderful kid named Alvan Adams on the way. This is going to be a successful franchise.'

"I decided to keep my season tickets. How else do you think I have such good seats down on the floor? Look around you."
I had already looked around. The arena was packed for an inconsequential exhibition game played in the middle of the football season.

In your wildest dreams, can you now imagine Colangelo feeling the necessity to call an unhappy season ticketholder and take him out to lunch?

@body:More notes jotted down in an attempt to infuriate as many readers as possible:

Eddie Basha should learn how to buy decent vegetables for his stores before pronouncing himself capable of becoming Arizona's governor.

Senator John McCain's arrogance is exceeded only by his proven cupidity and his lack of sensitivity.

KTAR-AM's firing of sportscaster Todd Walsh for knocking the Phoenix Cardinals is another shabby chapter in mediocre and gutless radio journalism.

Erma Bombeck's hilarious but carefully measured columns are the closest thing the newspaper business has to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

As badly needed as President Clinton's health plan is, passing it would require too many genuine sacrifices on the part of the haves to let it pass.

Sex scenes aside, the new TV show NYPD Blue is the best cop show I've ever seen.

I don't know of a smoother, more genuine television actor than John Larroquette.

The recent Valley of the Sun International Film Festival seemingly collected every single one of the most terrible films made in the last five years.

When will someone recognize that the villain in the Somalia story is George Bush?

Not until I saw Bob Dole break down and shed real tears on 60 Minutes last Sunday did I realize that he might actually be elected our next president.

The movie critics didn't give Searching for Bobby Fischer the credit it deserved.

If I were the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Mitch Williams would be history. So would John Kruk.

I think Notre Dame football lost its class when it hired Lou Holtz.
I doubt the sanity of anyone who buys a NordicTrack ski exerciser for his home.

Whatever happened to that actor who appeared in the Joe Isuzu commercials?
Have you noticed that Ralph Lauren seems to be everywhere?
I looked for a razor on the first floor of the new I. Magnin store the other day, and found that the cheapest one it had was $55.

The prime cause of crime is not drugs, but alcohol.
The next big supermarket-tabloid story will be about William Kennedy Smith's fistfight last week in the Bardo Bar in Arlington, Virginia.

The space flights are a total waste of time and money.
I don't believe there is such a thing as an El Nio weather pattern.
Every time I turn on television, David Frost is interviewing Richard Nixon or some other politician who hasn't won an election in a decade.

When they were performing together, I always liked Garfunkel better than Simon.

San Francisco is my favorite city.
The Philadelphia 76ers' Shawn Bradley, all seven feet, six inches of him, will be this year's biggest bust in the NBA. There was a time when Oscar Taylor was considered a good restaurant.

I look for the National Football League to grant its next franchises to Baltimore and Charlotte. Bill Bidwill poisoned the well in St. Louis.

Senator Bill Bradley's suggestion that we place a 25 percent tax on the purchase of firearms makes sense. So does a 1,000 percent tax on ammunition.

Dave Barry is right. Ross Perot looks more like a space alien every day.
How could anyone think The Bridges of Madison County is worth five minutes of anyone's time?

I have never seen Jeff Bridges turn in a bad performance in a film.
Did you ever get the feeling that two pounds of every Sunday's Arizona Republic are unreadable?

@body:A final note:
In the midst of all the hate being spewed by radio talk-show hosts about the verdict in the Reginald Denny case, one vitally important facet of the incident is always ignored. Denny's life was saved by four black people. In the face of mob hysteria at the time of the beating, they voluntarily stepped forward and spirited Denny away from the scene and to a hospital.

They were ordinary people, not do-gooders or card-carrying liberals. Here are their names: Bobby Green, who makes his living driving a truck; Terri Barnett, a clerk in a store; Titus Murphy, who is out of work; and Lei Yuille, a nutritionist.

Why don't the talk-show crazies get them on their hot lines? Why not explore the reasons these ordinary people turned their backs on racism and behaved like genuine heroes?

But why do that? It is hate that builds heat and big ratings, not calm reflection. And ratings is the only name of the game, whether your name is Rush Limbaugh or Barry Young.


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