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BARKLEY'S UNDERBELLY

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There was a time when all this came naturally. Now, he is admittedly out of playing shape.

It is an effort for Barkley to run or leap or shoot. Several of his shots were air balls. His confidence was so low that he raised his eyes to the ceiling in a prayer of thanksgiving after making free throws.

But the old Barkley personality was there. He jawed with David Robinson, Chuck Person and his aging mentor, Moses Malone. Sometimes, the game took on the aspects of one of those old-timers' affairs they put on at All-Star games. The players are all a little too friendly.

I wonder if we ever will see the Charles Barkley who carried the Suns to the Finals against the Chicago Bulls two seasons ago. That was the year Barkley was the Most Valuable Player in all the NBA.

Almost single-handedly, he beat the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs and Seattle SuperSonics. In that period of several weeks, Barkley played like a man possessed. He made the big shots, took down the key rebounds and came up with the big steals at crucial moments.

Without Barkley, the Suns would have been eliminated in the first round of play. He took them to within a hairsbreadth of beating Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.

When the San Antonio game ended last Saturday, they brought Barkley out to talk to the fans over a microphone.

"I was pressing," Barkley said. "I was rushing my shot instead of letting the game come to me. I was really nervous and hyper before the game."

Barkley admitted he had gained 12 pounds while missing practice. He had to wear a special girdle to protect his back and abdomen.

Barkley looked up at the crowd. "I've never been in a situation where the fans are so supportive," he said. "I don't want a championship for me as a personal thing. I want it for the fans. They deserve a world championship."

Then Barkley waved to the crowd and walked off the court and into the dressing room.

But on the following night, Barkley was unable to play against the New Jersey Nets. The pain was back in his abdomen.

Who knows when he will be back? It does not look good. Given the evidence to date, Charles Barkley does not figure to complete the season.

When you consider the enormous odds, it's miraculous that anyone makes it to the NBA. To last for a decade as one of the game's greatest players, as Barkley has, is an astonishing feat.

Even the most talented and physically gifted athletes require a small miracle even to make an NBA roster. So many things stand in the way.

Academics takes its toll, knocking some of the best players out of a chance at playing college ball. Serious injuries strike when least expected at both the high school and college level. The wear and tear on a player's body is immense.

Watch the heartbreaking film Hoop Dreams, about high school players in Chicago. Read Last Shot: City Streets, Basketball Dreams, the book, written by Darcy Frey, about ghetto players in Coney Island, New York City, breaking their hearts while battling for a career in the pro league.

Frey tells of Donald Marbury, a ghetto resident, and his four sons. They are arguably the most gifted family of basketball players in all New York City. They live in a high-rise building that looks down on a concrete playground basketball court that is in use every day weather permits.

All of the Marburys have been star players at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, located not far from the projects where they live.

Eric, the oldest, made it to the University of Georgia, where he starred on the team but failed to graduate. He is now back in the ghetto.

Donnie, the second son, was considered an even greater college prospect. But he failed to make the necessary grades in high school and was forced into playing two years of junior college ball. Donnie eventually made it to Texas A&M, where he was the leading scorer of the Southwest Conference, but was passed up in the NBA draft.

Norman, the third son, was, for a while, the hottest prospect of all. He was the first player in memory to make the All City team in New York three years in a row.

Norman signed to go to the University of Tennessee, but came up 40 points short of the necessary 700 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test. He, too, was forced to take a junior college scholarship.

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Tom Fitzpatrick