Charles Barkley strolled underneath the stands to the Phoenix Suns' dressing room. Barkley appeared nervous. He was ill at ease. Like a rookie before his first big game, he seemed tentative.

A sportswriter from a daily newspaper who covers Barkley regularly attempted to make small talk. He spoke innocently. But his words were subject to misinterpretation.

"Hi, Charles," he said. "Are you finally going to start earning your pay?"
Barkley seemed to raise his chin and shoulders at the same time. He roared as he moved down the remaining 15 feet of the corridor to the dressing-room door.

"I earn my money," Barkley bellowed. "Just take a look at the books. I earn what I get."

And then Barkley was gone.
This was last Saturday night, before the San Antonio game that would mark Barkley's return to action. He had missed the first ten games of this season because of a mysterious abdominal injury.

It was a malady that developed after Barkley had reported to training camp in Flagstaff, pronouncing himself to be in the best physical condition of his entire career.

We should have become concerned something was amiss upon hearing that announcement. Why was it necessary for Barkley to make so much of his great physical condition? Who was disputing it?

Perhaps Barkley himself is racked by doubts that he won't be able to carry through with a long season that lasts well into the heat of summer.

In his playing days at Auburn and with the Philadelphia 76ers, Barkley never concerned himself about such things as weight control or conditioning. He was young and invincible. He ran and rebounded superbly, even though close to 300 pounds. He answered good-naturedly to nicknames like "The Round Mound of Rebound."

But he is older now, and far more brittle. All summer, reports filtered back from Philadelphia that Barkley wasn't really following the special exercise program designed to cure the back pains that hampered his play last season.

Barkley has hinted many times there was always the possibility that, rather than play with pain, he would retire from the game.

So it is more than just an educated guess that Barkley's physical condition is what caused owner Jerry Colangelo to acquire both Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale to play Barkley's position.

To date, Manning has been everything advertised. Tisdale has demonstrated only a big smile and was himself sidelined by a sprained ankle.

The fans noticed Barkley as soon as he arrived on the court to begin his warm-up. He even did some stretching exercises.

But when the game started, Barkley took a seat at the end of the bench. With 6:49 left in the first quarter, coach Paul Westphal sent Barkley into the game. His appearance called for a standing ovation.

Charles Barkley will never lose the charisma. Even when he is 50 years old, he will be able to walk out to the center of a basketball court and make a crowd take notice.

He is a star and has been since his final season in high school. That was when he had grown four inches over the summer and suddenly was able to dunk the ball and shatter both backboards and opponents. Success came all at once, after Barkley had struggled as a five-foot, ten-inch guard who was not even considered a college prospect.

If you watch tapes of Barkley playing in high school and college, you will be astonished by his speed down the floor and the amount of spring in his legs. He was awesome. His favorite play was intercepting a pass and dribbling the length of the floor for a slam dunk.

No one could stop the young Barkley. He was like a runaway train. When he came within range of the basket, he would simply explode into the air, taking any defensive player with him.

Last Saturday night, we had a chance to see that again. Several minutes after entering the game, Barkley intercepted a pass and headed down the floor. But he was not as quick. And this time, with San Antonio's Sean Elliott defending, Barkley didn't even try to dunk the ball. He settled for an underhand shot, attempting to slip the ball into the hoop. It was the kind of move you might expect from a point guard, not Charles Barkley.

How did he play?
There is only one answer to that. Barkley played hard. That's the way he always plays. To him, everything is a physical challenge. He must prove that he can leap higher, run faster and shoot straighter than anyone else on the floor.

The Charles Barkley we all know can't let the game come to him. He has to take charge. He has to play big minutes. And when the game is on the line, he wants the ball.