Barkley, who arrived here as a somewhat fearsome character in a trade with Philadelphia, has performed one of the great volte-face in the history of the NBA. He has transformed himself from a glowering thug to a local hero in less than two months. Everywhere you go, people talk glowingly about Barkley. Suns tickets are virtually impossible to obtain. Barkley's face peers out in signs that take up entire sides of city buses. He is omnipresent on local television. His name is brought up continually on talk-radio shows. Barkley owns the town. Barkley will soon turn 30, an age when many NBA players are playing on borrowed time. But his skills remain awesome. His physical condition is excellent. He still runs the floor well. He is one of the finest rebounders in the game, and his shooting skills are superior. Barkley summed up his attributes best--if not modestly--in his autobiography, the one in which he later claimed he was misquoted:
"The way I got it figured, there'll never be another player like me again. There'll never be another player who is six feet four inches and averages more than ten rebounds a game, scores inside whenever he wants to against bigger opponents and is quicker than most everybody he plays against. I'm the Ninth Wonder of the World, but I always knew that I was going to have to pay a price for the way I play."
Since coming to Phoenix, Barkley has grown more reflective.
"I am just learning who I am," he told the New York Times. "I haven't had a chance to grow up and mature. I've been in the so-called limelight since I was 18 years old. People tell you: 'You're great, you're great.' Then, all of a sudden, you've got all this money, you don't think you need anybody. You get caught up in it, and it's hard to get out."
Barkley respects Paul Westphal, the Suns' first-year coach, who was himself an NBA All-Star as a player. Barkley also remains close to Cotton Fitzsimmons, who engineered the trade that brought him here from Philadelphia.
During the Suns' winning streak, the biggest concern voiced by the fans who populate the balcony seats had been whether Kevin Johnson's return to the lineup after being on the injured list might actually hinder the team's offensive balance.
"Ridiculous," wrote the jaded mandarins of the daily press. "Kevin Johnson is one of the best point guards in basketball. His return has to help."
Paul Westphal, the Suns coach, echoed their sentiments. "Kevin's return can only make us stronger," he snapped. Westphal expressed impatience with those who feared KJ's style at point guard might diminish the effectiveness of the Suns' half-court offense, which had been centered on Barkley.
Westphal was in a delicate position. Certainly, he had to encourage KJ and welcome him back. But Westphal had to know that the steady ball handling turned in by others in KJ's absence had been of great help to Barkley. Negele Knight and Frank Johnson, as well as Danny Ainge and Dan Majerle, who sometimes played point guard during that period, had constantly searched out Barkley in the area down low near the basket. That and Barkley's willingness to distribute the ball after getting it were the keys to the team's winning ways in December.
All four recognized that the most important thing they could do was to get the ball to Barkley.
"Good things happen when you get the ball in to Charles," I heard Cotton Fitzsimmons say one night. The former Suns coach, now a broadcaster, was right.
After the San Antonio loss, Westphal admitted there might be a problem.
"I still think this is an adjustment period with Kevin back. We're still getting used to him, and him to everybody else, because he runs things a little differently."
This, in itself, is the first admission there is a problem. The Suns can no longer run it the way they did before Barkley's arrival. This time KJ will have to adjust his own style to one which has proven to be a winner.
The obvious reason for the Suns' success while KJ was recovering from both a hamstring pull and an injured groin muscle was Barkley's prodigious performance. He had done all the heavy lifting. In a memorable month of mano a mano performances, Barkley had taken on some of the strongest players in the league and outplayed every one of them.