Phoenix Sun forward Charles Barkley, sage that he is, occasionally resorts to the Socratic method in interviews, questioning his questioners until they can figure out the answers for themselves. Asked to explain why he had produced a pedestrian 13-point performance in a victory over the mediocre Boston Celtics on Dec. 27, Barkley replied, "You have a Rolls-Royce and a Volkswagen, and you need to go to the supermarket. Which car do you drive?" Why, the Volkswagen of course, Charles. "Exactly," he says. "You don't drive the Rolls to the grocery store. You save it for the serious trips."
You don't drive the Rolls to the grocery store. For the Suns those are words to live by this season. Barkley is Phoenix's Rolls-Royce—although he's no longer in mint condition, thanks to a bulging disk in his back that may make this season his last—and as he surveys the woeful teams dotting the NBA landscape like so many A&P's, he feels the need to conserve his fuel for regular-season games against title contenders and for the playoffs. In fact, all the Suns are being careful not to put on too much mileage before they get to the important part of the road. That's as big a reason as any that Phoenix, despite its 21-5 record through Sunday, has operated in the shadows of its two leading rivals in the Western Conference, the Houston Rockets (24-4) and the Seattle SuperSonics (22-3).
Last season the Suns, with the newly acquired Barkley leading them to the best record in the NBA and the playoff Finals, were the talk of the league. But this year Phoenix's excellence has evoked few remarks. As hard as it is to believe of a team that features Barkley, the Human Sound Bite, the Suns have been largely ignored by the media. They haven't had a winning streak like Houston's 15-gamer or Seattle's 10-gamer, and they hardly qualify as a surprise team in the mold of the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls. Yet, in its own way, Phoenix has been just as impressive as any club among that more celebrated foursome. The Suns' record is remarkable considering that all season they have been without their two top small forwards—Cedric Ceballos is sidelined with a broken left foot, and Richard Dumas is in drug rehabilitation—and that Barkley has at times shown the effects of his ailing back. Still, with the addition of forward A.C. Green, who has been especially important in the absence of Ceballos and Dumas, and the resurgence of point guard Kevin Johnson, Phoenix has stayed close to the Rockets and the Sonics in the race for the best record in the West. The Suns sent a message to those teams by beating both in the span of three days in late December.
"The other clubs deserve credit for what they've done," says Phoenix coach Paul Westphal, "but we've accomplished what we have without two of our key players. At the pace we're going, if some team is going to finish with a better record than ours, it's going to have to have an unbelievable year."
Sir Charles is less diplomatic. "Streaks don't mean anything," he says. "There are so many bad teams in the league this year that you're going to see a lot of streaks. You can win 10 straight games and only play one or two teams capable of beating you. Why are there so many bad teams? Because there are so many bad players."
Barkley and the Suns bring to mind Michael Jordan and the Bulls of last year: a superstar who finds it increasingly difficult to tolerate the tedium of the regular season and a team that realizes that the postseason home court advantage that comes with having the league's best record is helpful but not essential to winning the title. One could sense the Suns were smiling inside as they watched the Rockets and the Sonics burst out of the gate this season. "Never saw anybody win anything in November and December," says Barkley. And the sign atop the big-screen television in the Phoenix locker room in the America West Arena serves as a constant reminder of the Suns' biggest priority. It simply reads, WIN PLAYOFF GAMES.
"Last year we got fooled," Barkley says. "We thought that with the home court advantage we'd win the title because we're great on our home floor, but that gave us a false sense of security. The Bulls won their last two series against the [ New York] Knicks and us without the home court advantage. It doesn't matter how good your record is, at some point you're going to have to win on the road in the playoffs if you're going to win a world championship. We're still going after the best record, but we don't have to have it to win the title."
The Suns do have to have Sir Charles, however, and it's clear at times that Barkley is ailing, especially when he plays games on consecutive nights. The disk injury causes pain in his legs as well as in his back, and he usually gets an anti-inflammatory injection after playing two days in a row. Following a win against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 18, he needed shots in both legs for the first time. "Physically he hasn't been the same player, not night in and night out," says Phoenix guard Danny Ainge. "You can tell that there are some days that are worse than others for Charles just from the way he walks in the locker room. But somehow, when we need him to do something spectacular, he comes through."
Barkley's bad back hasn't stopped him from grabbing his clubs and heading for the nearest tee at every opportunity. "I'd rather give up basketball than give up golf," he says. And though Barkley, who will be 31 in February, adds that he's "99 percent certain" this year will be his last in the NBA, some members of the Sun organization have their doubts, partly because he is still playing the same number of minutes, about 37 per game, that he did last season and is still producing All-Star-caliber numbers, 24.6 points and 12.3 rebounds per game through last weekend.
The other reason some observers doubt Barkley's retirement plans are set is that he rarely describes those plans the same way twice. At one time he said he was definitely retiring if the Suns won the championship, then he was retiring whether they won it or not. then he was retiring unless there was a way to relieve his back pain without surgery. Last week he said he planned to get the opinions of three top back specialists after the season, "and if they tell me I can have the surgery and relieve all of my pain, then that would be something to consider. But anything short of that and I'd have to wonder whether I want to put myself through surgery. I'm looking forward to retirement. I can't wait to spend that first year doing nothing for a living."