A degree of madness has enveloped us all since last year's acquisition of Charles Barkley by the Phoenix Suns.

It has now reached astonishing proportions. I need only cite the panic over a minor incident at the Suns' training camp in Flagstaff last Saturday night.

Barkley was running a wind sprint at the conclusion of practice when he suddenly fell to the floor. He was apparently unable to move. One of his legs was numb. Barkley remained on the floor for 30 minutes before being helped to the trainer's room.

Radio reports boomed the news back to Phoenix. Sunday morning's newspapers, both the Arizona Republic and the Mesa Tribune, carried alarming reports about Barkley's possible back problems. Would he require surgery for a disk problem? Would he be out for the season? Was his career over?

If Barkley was not a part of the team, how could the Suns possibly win this season's NBA title? What would happen to all those people who have spent way over their heads to buy season tickets at scalpers' prices?

@body:Channel 12 reporters were on the scene at the Suns' camp to film a weekly Sunday-night show starring Barkley and Cotton Fitzsimmons. They took film of Barkley being helped into the trainer's room. Charles looked like a fallen warrior.

Unfortunately, they did not take film of Sir Charles an hour or so later. By this time, the great man had recovered enough to go out to dinner and then on to a Flagstaff nightclub for a few beers.

If we had all seen films of Sir Charles in this relaxed atmosphere, our fears would have been calmed. The ensuing panic over the assumed end to Barkley's career would not have taken place.

The assumption was made all over the country that Barkley would have to undergo a spinal operation. He is now 30 years old. An operation of this sort would almost certainly keep him out of play for this season. It might even end his career.

By 9 on Sunday morning, I had received calls from friends in New York, Chicago and Houston bemoaning the loss of Barkley for the season.

Some of these I spotted for what they were.
Earlier in the week, I had called my friend in Chicago to "bemoan" the sudden retirement of Michael Jordan. My friend is a season ticketholder at the Bulls' games. I caught him as he was going out the door to be on hand at the Bulls' practice complex in a Chicago suburb for Jordan's formal declaration.

Obviously, he did not take my offer of sympathy as being sincere.
I had also called my friend in Houston moments after I learned that the Suns had signed A.C. Green of the Los Angeles Lakers.

My friend works for the Houston Rockets as a radio color man, but I have known him since he was a bartender at Butch McGuire's tavern in Chicago.

I do not think he regarded my call as a simple offer of information, but rather as an attempt to lord it over his ball club, which has always been tough for the Suns to beat.

As of this writing, the Barkley matter has been placed on hold by Jerry Colangelo, who assures us that tests show Barkley will not require surgery, only warm soup and relaxation.

But what about the rest of us? When will we be able to relax and be assured that Barkley actually will be back in the Suns' lineup?

Everyone keeps writing that Phoenix is becoming a sophisticated town, but our reaction to the doings of Barkley and the Suns belies that boast.

This town now revolves around the NBA.
Does anyone even know or care that Arizona State's football team is having a bad season, or that the school's athletic director is about to be sacked?

The empty seats at Sun Devil Stadium for both ASU and Phoenix Cardinals games tell their own story. Football has become a thing of the past here. Pro basketball has taken over.

Last week, when Jordan retired, Republic political cartoonist Steve Benson drew a picture of a newspaper with headlines about Jordan's retirement covering all but the bottom few inches of the page. In those remaining inches were tiny headlines about Russia, Somalia and Bosnia.

His point was well-taken. The people who now put out newspapers are pandering to our desire for sheer entertainment to the exclusion of important news. But what can they do?

How can you force people to read about Boris Yeltsin and the battering of the Russian parliament building, or even a Somali warlord killing American troops, when a millionaire like Michael Jordan retires or another millionaire like Charles Barkley has a pain in his back?

After all, newspaper editors are paid to recognize what's important.
@body:Too many Suns fans assume that a healthy Barkley in the lineup means that the Suns will automatically supplant the Bulls as NBA champs.

That is not the case. The Suns are loaded with problems they are wise to soft-pedal.

Even if Barkley is able to play, how can we assume he will have another year such as last, when he won the award as Most Valuable Player?

Kevin Johnson is what the sportswriters always call a question mark. He still seems to be brooding over his loss of star status since Barkley's arrival.

KJ says he still has a chip on his shoulder. He declines to delineate the causes for such a condition.

On the same day that Barkley's backache sent shock waves around the nation, KJ suffered a sprained wrist that will keep him out of action. No one even mentions KJ or his wrist.

But KJ is the club's point guard, an important cog in the wheel. Last season, through various injuries, he missed a large portion of the season. Is he injury-prone? How many games will he miss this year?

When KJ was hurt, Danny Ainge or Frank Johnson was there to fill the gap.
Both Ainge and Frank Johnson are in their mid-30s. They are not suited to the long season that takes its toll during the playoffs. Now they are both a year older. Frank Johnson is even now working to rehabilitate his knee after an operation.

Dan Majerle made the All-Star team last year. Ironically, despite the honors, Majerle was not as valuable to the team last year as he had been in the past. He fell in love with the three-point shot. His concentration on that area caused his rebounding and ball stealing to suffer.

Last season, the Suns became a dramatic force in the NBA because Barkley came here from Philadelphia with a sense of mission. He wanted to prove he was a winner. And he was magnificent.

Everyone worries about whether Barkley will get along with A.C. Green, who is devoutly religious and disapproves of cussing and carousing.

But I think the real problem match-up is still with KJ. Will KJ give up the limelight to Barkley?

Last season, when the Suns went up to Flagstaff to begin training, KJ showed up with his head shaved like Barkley's to demonstrate his determination to get along.

KJ did not shave his head this season. And on the first day of practice, both KJ and Barkley were injured. Is this, perhaps, an omen?

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Tom Fitzpatrick