There are a few moments when the mask of the professional athlete is snatched away. One such moment is immediately after a decisive defeat. On Sunday, the Suns players trudged single file underneath the stands to the dressing room. Their heads were down. Their faces were grim. No smiles. No waves. Each was a player alone with his own thoughts. They seemed so terribly vulnerable . . . and unsure of their future.

Rush Limbaugh wore a self-satisfied smirk. The country's most prominent right-winger stood with his back against a wall in the America West Arena interview room following the Houston Rockets' thrashing of the Phoenix Suns last Sunday.

Limbaugh, in case you don't know, is the rich, famous, very conservative talk-show host who has taken the political Neanderthals of America by storm. His books have sold in the millions. His radio and television shows are top-ranked. He dines every night at New York's 21 Club.

Packing 260 pounds or so on his five-foot, nine-inch frame, Limbaugh was dressed in a dark-blue suit with a white shirt and tie. With his pale face, Limbaugh looked like a man who always wears a white shirt and tie and rarely steps above the level of a basement bank vault. He appears to be every bit as respectable as a Cadillac dealer, a Louisiana senator or a preacher at the Capstone Cathedral.

Limbaugh had been invited to the game by Suns Coach Whataburger, who is one of Limbaugh's ardent political devotees. Limbaugh's theories, greatly compressed, are: Judge Clarence Thomas is a towering intellect; President Clinton is an adulterer who should be impeached; Richard Nixon was a political genius; there would be no homelessness if street people would just do an honest day's work; the "femi-Nazis" should go back into the kitchen; and, finally, the American economy would boom again if welfare mothers were starved into chastity and submission.

Limbaugh told his national audience last week: "I can't tell you how wonderful it has been to make such good friends as Paul Westphal. I went to the Suns' game down in Houston at Paul's invitation and I had a wonderful time going out to dinner with Paul and Jerry Colangelo. They're a fine bunch, and good conservative thinkers, too.

"I'll be going out to Phoenix again on Sunday. I expect we'll have dinner again. Maybe we'll even talk with Charles Barkley. I've been giving him a few tips about how to run for governor of Alabama when he retires from the NBA."
I wonder if Limbaugh has ever eaten a Whataburger. If and when he does, will he take the Suns' coach aside and give him some tips about the questionable morality of shilling for a food emporium in which he would never eat unless he were filming a television commercial?

Limbaugh, who delights in skewering callers who disagree with him on his radio show, was obviously pleased by Whataburger's peremptory handling of the press. I had always wondered why there are so few quotes from Westphal after a game. The answer is simple. He has very little worthwhile to say.

Whataburger's method of dealing with questions that might possibly elicit an honest but impolitic reply is to smirk and play the hip wise guy. That explains why he's so comfortable with lap-dog interviewers such as Brad Cesmat, host of KTAR-AM's Sportsline show, who is first-rate at the art of genuflection.

"What's wrong with Charles Barkley?" a man asked.
"Go ask Charles," Whataburger shot back. "Maybe he'll tell you."

@body:The stall where Barkley dresses was surrounded by dozens of media people and six television cameras. Barkley was still in the shower and from there he would go into a whirlpool and soak. It would be about 45 minutes from the end of the game before Barkley would appear.

The high point of the waiting period was the arrival of Hannah Storm, the courtside reporter for NBC, which had broadcast the game. Ms. Storm, wearing a bright-pink blazer and tan slacks, arrived with a full crew of corpulent, bearded sound men, camera men and field producers. They had NBC logos on shirts, hats and cameras. Like any self-respecting group of New Yorkers on a subway platform, the NBC crew began pushing and shoving its way through the mass of bodies to the front.

When Charles finally emerged from his heated pool, the camera must be able to make it appear that Hannah was doing this interview with him exclusively.

Off to the side, another crowd of reporters was interviewing Kevin Johnson, who had scored 38 points and been the Suns star for a day. KJ was all dressed up in his gray suit and white shirt and tie and on his way out the door before Barkley arrived at his locker with a towel wrapped around his waist.

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Tom Fitzpatrick

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