It's easy for me to remember the Phoenix Suns' opening-night game this season. It was Charles Barkley's first home appearance in a Suns uniform, and America West Arena was packed for the occasion. I hadn't seen the Suns play in person for a couple of years. I became bored with them, because they never seemed tough enough to win when they played good teams. The visiting team was always tougher, except during the brief stopovers that Dennis Johnson and Maurice Lucas made here.

Until Barkley arrived, I never saw a Suns game that I didn't think lasted ten minutes too long. And by the time the Suns reached the playoffs, we learned to expect the same dreary result. Tom Chambers would turn over the ball time after time, and Kevin Johnson would suffer a leg injury.

I'm sure you remember those frustrating days. Every playoff game would come down to KJ dribbling the ball about in circles for the final seconds before throwing up a shot that missed.

I decided I was through watching that kind of basketball. It was too hard on my nerves. So I intended to go to that first game only to get a look at America West Arena. I knew Barkley was good, but I didn't think he had a strong enough personality to dominate an entire team. That night, Barkley put on the first of many memorable performances. In person he is something special. In addition to his natural skills as a player, there is a magnetism about him. He is like a brown-skinned Babe Ruth. He dominates the arena. He runs faster than people who are stronger. He is stronger than the few who run faster. Sometimes he seems agile enough to leap over tall buildings and bulky enough to crash down the walls of those who are too tall. It is no wonder he had to help the dazed Godzilla down the ruined street in that commercial. On opening night, Barkley displayed all the brio we have since come to expect from him on a nightly basis. At the conclusion of the game, he capped it all with just the proper dash of showmanship. He tossed the game ball high into the stands for some lucky fan to take home.

I have seen every home game since that one. I have seen all the road games except the few that haven't been televised. I am hooked.

Since opening night, Barkley has not let up for an instant. Almost single-handedly, he has borne the burden of the Suns on his own back. They are in first place only because Barkley is in the lineup every night and playing the game with the fierceness of a warrior.

Watch him some nights when he runs the floor and passes the ball behind his back. Watch him drive under the basket and pass the ball back to an open teammate.

"Charles would like to come back in the next life and be a point guard," Cotton Fitzsimmons said once on the radio.

Why wait until then? At various times, Barkley shows up all over the floor. He is like Superman, performing every phase of the game as needed. That he is well-paid for his efforts is a fact. But there are a lot of famous players in the NBA making just as much and not playing half as well.

The truth of the matter is that you don't play basketball the way Charles Barkley does only for money. There isn't enough money in the world to make you give that much of yourself every night or to make you play with such fierceness.

Phoenix is a town full of dilettantes who want to chatter about their new Ping golf clubs and about playing tennis at the country club. As such, this town doesn't deserve Barkley, because he is the kind of player who would normally offend its sensibilities. Even Danny Ainge was too strong for Phoenix until he changed uniforms. Barkley should be playing in New York or Chicago, where people shove and kick each other in the shins just to get on the subways to make it to work every day. Instead, he is being cheered on by the yuppies who drive in from Paradise Valley and Scottsdale. He is cozied up to by sinister moneychangers like Karl Eller and Keith Turley, who, despite their publicized business reversals, still occupy $150 seats on the America West floor.

And when it comes to the playoffs, they will turn their backs on Barkley if the Suns don't win. It will take a miracle for this Suns team, as it is constituted, to win an NBA championship. The Suns are just not strong enough on defense. Neither do they have anyone who can give Barkley the help he needs on the backboards.

All season, writers have been trying to make Barkley say that Kevin Johnson should come back from his injuries more quickly than he does.

Barkley never falls into that trap.
"Good teams win," he says. "Injuries don't matter. Good teams win." Listen to him talk after a game and you are surprised by his overall gentleness. There is something behind the bluster. He loves to make fierce faces at the referees and to slam the ball on the floor, but those things are done for effect. They do not mean he is out of control. The most surprising thing about Barkley is that, behind the mask, he is really gentle. He wants people to like him.

But this race goes on too long. Even Barkley will finally wear out. Because he played with the Dream Team in last summer's Olympics, Barkley hasn't had a rest in a year.

It is clear that he is growing weary. Beset by minor, nagging injuries, he is slowly burning out. What he needs more than anything is a rest. It doesn't seem possible that he can carry this load through the coming months.

Who knows? Perhaps he can beat the odds.
The money men have made the season too long. And what does it mean when the 82-game marathon ends? It means only that you get the home-court advantage for the playoffs. What a cruel joke.

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Tom Fitzpatrick