And--and--what comes next?
--Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann

Sir Charles Barkley smiled. His eyes twinkled. That fierce warrior look vanished. But that does not mean his guard was lowered. "You guys don't know anything about basketball," Barkley said. "And it's you people, who really know nothing, that are picking us to win the NBA championship. That, to me, is just stuff you put in the newspapers. It's all pure hype."

Barkley was once again holding forth from his bully pulpit, the chair in front of his dressing-room stall. He was surrounded by a gaggle of sportswriters. As usual, they hung on his every word.

"We better quit reading about how good we are supposed to be and come out and start playing like it," Sir Charles decreed. He looked around the room ominously.

"Some guys here better take a good look at themselves in the mirror."
Read about the New York Knicks in the paper and you get the score and what Pat Riley thought of the game. Look up the story about Golden State and you get Don Nelson's reaction to why his team won or lost.

The most fascinating result of Barkley's overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception by the local press corps during his first full month as a member of the Suns has been that every game is now reported as if through his eyes.

One time, Barkley even delivered a critique of Coach Paul Westphal's performance as a bench coach in that night's game.

"Paul's gotta scream at us," Charles said. "Tonight, he was pissed. He can't worry about being our friend. If we need a friend, we'll get a dog. He's got to stay on our case. If you don't play, sit down. Tonight, he took the initiative and went berserk a couple of times. That's the way it's got to be. All great coaches are strong disciplinarians."
This season, on the day after each Suns win or loss, we are given the number of points Charles scored, how many rebounds he made and whether or not he was pleased by the team's performance.

After waiting since 1988 to assume the head-coach's mantle, Paul Westphal has had to settle for being second banana in the postgame-comment derby.

Writers sit and listen to Westphal respectfully in the interview room. They should. Westphal is intelligent and self-deprecating, and his old player's number hangs in the rafters of America West Arena. He once averaged 25 points a game as a Suns player. But Westphal's remarks must, of necessity, be tempered. If he spoke out as freely as Barkley, his team would end up in emotional tatters.

Knowing what is in store for them, the writers hustle from the meeting with Westphal and into the dressing room to await Barkley's emergence from the shower.

There, carefully covered in two huge, white towels, Barkley hunches over like a modern reincarnation of Othello and spins decrees to the troops and a series of one-liners as to how the battle went.

The Suns' performances, as well as his own, are rated by Barkley with amazing frankness in these postgame soirees. This is why the writers rely so slavishly upon Barkley. In addition to being refreshingly candid, he is marvelously entertaining. There was some thought after Outrageous, his ghosted autobiography, was published that the book was so readable only because Charles' ghostwriter had supplied the humor.

But Sir Charles is a genuine comic in his own right. You don't have to be around him long to realize how genuinely entertaining he can be. Night after night, he never lets you down.

"I don't want to be like 99 percent of the players in the world. I want to be better," he explained one night.

Asked about Cincinnati Reds' owner Marge Schott's racial slur about blacks:
"If you hug your players every day and then call them niggers behind their back, that makes you a hypocrite, worse than the Ku Klux Klan."
Talking about NBA players as being representative of black society, he said:
"Black society is in the ghettos. People look at me and Kevin Johnson and they don't see black society. And that's the bad part of it."
There was a report in Peter Vecsey's NBA gossip column in USA Today that Barkley had referred to teammate Jerrod Mustaf as "the second coming of Armon Gilliam." Only if you remember Gilliam in a Suns uniform can you understand what a devastating remark that is. Another time he said:

"The NBA means, 'No Babies Allowed.' Every night, if you don't play, you're gonna lose."
At an earlier time, he was asked whether he was sorry he had hit a heckler in an incident in Milwaukee:

"I wish I'd hit the motherfucker twice," Barkley said succinctly.
Does he worry about bad press?
"Any time you're exceptional at something, you're going to take criticism. People are jealous. People in the media are jealous. Some of my teammates are jealous. That goes with the territory of being top dog."
Cameron Stauth wrote about Barkley in the current book on the United States Olympic team, The Golden Boys. Stauth followed Barkley through the Olympic Trials and the Games:

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tom Fitzpatrick