SI Flashback: Hot Head
After his fiery years in Philly, Barkley sets sights on Suns
Posted: Thursday December 09, 1999 12:47 PM
On the court, Barkley is tough and testy even to teammates. Off it, he's an occasionally goofy fan favorite. John W. McDonough
Issue date: November 9, 1992
By Rick Reilly
Dear Phoenix Suns,
Congratulations on the purchase of your new Charles Barkley. Rest assured you have acquired one of the finest power forwards ever made. However, for your own safety, please read all instructions before using this product, and follow them carefully. Very carefully.
EXAMINE CONTENTS WITH CARE
Take time to check out all the working parts on your new Barkley. The shaky left knee, the left ankle, the bruised ribs and the dislocated finger that caused him to miss 21 games during the last two seasons are fine. You've got to expect your 6 ft. 6 in., 252-pound Barkley model to show a little wear and tear after eight NBA seasons and 650 games, including playoffs. But there may be some things you don't know. Right now, for instance, there is probably not a pro athlete in America who treats fans better. No kidding. Ever since he came to Phoenix in June in the megatrade that sent All-Star guard Jeff Hornacek, center Andrew Lang and forward Tim Perry to the Philadelphia 76ers, Barkley has been first-communion good. Sir Charles is pushing a royal 30 now. All he wants is a happy ending to his Peyton Place career.
Take a close look. Is this the Barkley you know?
Exhibit A: A young man who had obviously not polluted his alcohol stream with blood could not get over the fact that he was standing next to His Roundness. And so he came up to Barkley at an eatery in Flagstaff, Ariz., home of the Sun training camp, and asked for his autograph six times. Each time Barkley accommodated him. On the last three trips the inebriated worshiper rubbed Barkley's shiny bald head back and forth, forth and back, as though he could not believe there was no hair there. Through it all Barkley gritted his teeth and grinned, like a perfectly trained Doberman at a petting zoo.
Exhibit B: Barkley went the whole week in Flagstaff and reset nobody's nose with his fist. He signed anything, anywhere. He signed while playing darts at a local watering hole, while eating chicken sandwiches in a local feasting hole, while playing pool at a bar, while lining up putts at Forest Highlands Golf Club and even while waiting at stoplights all over town. He signed cards, napkins, dollar bills, kids' drawings and even a pair of panties (pulled out of a purse by a 35-year-old woman).
Exhibit C: When one woman came up to him three times and introduced him to foreign friends as "the biggest ---- in the U.S.A.," Barkley took it with a smile and a handshake. If this had happened last year, the woman might still be in traction.
Nowadays, though, you can't make him flinch. Barkley is determined to go from Philly to Phoenix to the Phinals, and he's not going to blow it by becoming the Prodigal Sun. Every day is Christmas to him, windchill 89 degrees. For years in Philadelphia, Barkley had begged for a team he could take to the title, and he might finally have one in the Suns, the only team in the NBA to win at least 53 regular-season games during each of the last four years. He is coming off his Barcelona Bash to join one of the most talent- thick teams in basketball, and he has already flexed his muscles. "There's a new sheriff in the West," Barkley keeps telling Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz, heretofore the holder of that title. "Gonna be some changes round these parts."
Do not be fooled! Your new Barkley can be mean, cruel and dangerous. And that's just during layup drills.
Though Barkley has become more hospitable to fans, he has somehow gotten nastier on the court. Of course, this you already discovered on Day 4 of camp, when Barkley threw 6 ft. 7 in., 240-pound forward Ed Nealy about 10 feet and flattened 6 ft. 8 in., 213-pound forward Kurt Rambis like a tortilla. In fact, Barkley turned so many teammates into floor towels that new Suns coach Paul Westphal had to install the Charles Rule: Anyone lowering his shoulder on a ! fast break (ahem) gets called for a foul.
Things got worse on Day 5. Trying to score on a fast break, Barkley felt slightly abused by 6 ft. 6 in., 210-pound small forward Cedric Ceballos, so he busted his poundage back upcourt, caught up to Ceballos and nearly decapitated him. And Ceballos was sans ball. Uh, Sheriff? Those are the good guys.
"That's weak, Chuck!" Suns point guard Kevin Johnson screamed at Barkley, the 6 ft. 1 in. KJ's nose to Barkley's chin. "That's bogus!"
Danny Ainge, new to the Suns' backcourt, also let Barkley have it: "You didn't get touched! Play the game!"
Ceballos just lay in a pile. Westphal called a timeout to calm everybody down, but KJ blistered Barkley until the scrimmage was over. Unbeknownst to him, KJ, a young man known for his kindness, was entering a dark and dangerous new world: Chuckieville.
"I just didn't appreciate someone trying to hurt someone on our team," KJ said later. "I mean, you've got to draw the line somewhere."
That, of course, was exactly what Barkley was trying to do: draw the line and see who was crazy enough to cross it.
"I wanted to know how tough Kevin is," Barkley said. "I want to know who I'm going to war with. Kevin has a reputation around the league of being a little soft. I wanted to test him tonight, and he showed me his toughness. I could've hurt Ced if I'd wanted to. I'm an expert at hurting people. But if somebody takes me out, I want to make sure Kevin will stand up, because I damn sure am going to stand up for him."
One of the reasons the Suns have beaten such hasty retreats from the playoffs in recent seasons is that they seem to have been born without the necessary revenge genes. Big men routinely bushwhacked KJ when he invaded the lane but suffered no paybacks. Two years ago KJ lit up Philadelphia at home. So when the Suns went to Philly later that season and KJ looked to be unguardable again, Barkley put a vicious body slam on him -- and KJ didn't even have the basketball. (Warning: This habit may be unbreakable.) No Sun stood up to Barkley, and KJ never ventured into the paint again. The Sixers won.
"I guarantee you," Barkley says. "Nothing like that will happen again."
CARE AND CLEANING TIPS
Please keep these instructions handy when dealing with your new Barkley:
1) He must be lubricated regularly. After shaving his head, Barkley applies a little petroleum jelly to the dome for the perfect sheen.
2) He requires constant action. He likes to bet Ainge $100 in free throw games. He likes to bet anybody $100 a hole in golf. He likes Alabama, giving the points.
3) He does not eat vegetables. Ever. "Hey," he says, "something's got to kill me, right?"
4) He often needs to get in your face with the racism thing. How else do you explain his applying for membership at the Shoal Creek golf club in Birmingham, the same club that declared in 1990 that it had always spurned black members? Guess what? The club might even take him.
5) He is very simple to operate. "Just wind me up and let me play," he says. Of course, that's more complicated than it sounds. Barkley wants everybody else to be as wound up as he is, a condition that for most humans -- and for all the 76ers -- is impossible. When the Sixers went in the tank during the last two years, Barkley publicly savaged them. Now that he is gone, they're savaging back.
"I think everyone who stepped on the court last year played as hard as he could," Philadelphia guard Hersey Hawkins said. "If that wasn't hard enough for Charles, tough."
Hawkins also told reporters recently that Barkley's departure meant that he would be able to "expand" his game. "I resent that," says Barkley. "Two years ago he was an All-Star playing with me. I made him a lot better."
Then Sixer forward Armon Gilliam said he would finally get an opportunity to show his game, now that Barkley was gone. At that, Barkley fumes: "Hey, I wasn't with him on those other two teams (Phoenix and Charlotte, before Gilliam went to Philly), and he didn't show his game then. I resent that."
And then Doug Moe, the Sixers' new coach, said that Barkley's game was in decline. That hurt. "My game is in decline, but I resent him saying that," Barkley says. "I'm not as good as I was three years ago, but nobody is as good at 30 as they were at 27. I mean, I'm the only guy I know who could be top 10 in scoring, top 10 in rebounding and top 10 in field goal percentage and have a bad year."
Will Barkley still be a happy sheriff by June? "Hey," he says. "We're going to have a really good team, deep and versatile. I'll put KJ and (Dan) Majerle up against anybody. If we play hard every night, I'm serious, we can beat anybody."
Still, Barkley admits that most of the weight is on him and KJ. "He's gotta play great; I gotta play great," says Barkley. "I want him to play like he did two years ago. He was the best point guard in basketball. He was unstoppable. Last year he was injured so much, teams made him shoot his jumper. He wasn't as effective. You can't win NBA titles shooting jumpers."
If things start going south, you won't believe how fast Barkley will come down with some serious Sunrash.
CAUTION: MIX CAREFULLY
If you are wondering how your new Barkley is going to fit in with the old Suns, don't worry. You would be far wiser to worry about how the old Suns will fit in with your new Barkley.
At the opening of Phoenix's gorgeous new America West Arena on Oct. 18, Westphal started KJ, Tom Chambers, Majerle, Rambis and Mark West -- the five Suns who played the most minutes over the last four years -- in an exhibition game against the Boston Celtics. By the end of the night, though, Barkley had melted down that era and begun to forge his own. He converted 10 of his 12 shot attempts, wound up with 27 points and was ejected from the game for cussing an official and for hanging on a rim. He left the floor to a standing ovation.
"Guys thought I was too mean in camp," says Barkley, "but they don't get it. You can't just show up on opening night and say, 'O.K., now we're going to be mean.' I think living in the sun makes these guys soft. John Havlicek told me that. In the East you wake up, you look out, and there's snow on the ground. You start the day pissed off. Out here you wake up, it's beautiful out. You put on the Bermudas and have breakfast on the porch. It happened to X-Man (Celtic forward Xavier McDaniel, who played one season with the Suns, to lukewarm reviews). It's got to be every night. That's my motto: Every night."
Are the Suns soft? Last season when then coach Cotton Fitzsimmons was walking off the floor after Portland had spit them out like fatty pork in the second round of the playoffs, assistant coach Lionel Hollins turned to him and said, "We need to go out and get us a Charles Barkley." A month later the Suns had the real thing. Now they're trying to figure out how to live with him.
"It's like Malcolm X wrote about LBJ and Goldwater in his autobiography," says KJ. "LBJ was like a fox. You had to watch him because you couldn't trust him. On the other hand, you knew Goldwater was going to bite you. Chuck is like Goldwater. We knew what we were getting." Of course, Goldwater lost.
READ THE WARRANTY
Three years, tops. "I feel the end coming," says Barkley. "I've had enough limelight, and I've got enough money. Three more years is going to be enough for me."
So if it's going to happen with your new Barkley, folks, it has got to happen soon. When Fitzsimmons showed Barkley around the new arena during the off-season, he stomped on Barkley's ego. "You see this place, Charles?" Fitzsimmons told him. "You had absolutely nothing to do with building it."
Then Fitzsimmons said, "And when you see this thing filled every night, I want you to know, Charles, you didn't sell a single ticket."
But then Fitzsimmons pointed to the ceiling, where not a single banner has been hung, not even the one the Suns collected for their lone Pacific Division title. "Do you see that empty ceiling, Charles? Well, you could help us decorate up there, if you wanted to."
Talk about pressure.
"Pressure?" says Barkley. "Pressure is something that goes in tires."
Issue date: November 9, 1992
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