Everywhere Charles Barkley goes, the question goes with him. it follows him around in Phoenix, and back in Philadelphia, and down to his hometown of Leeds, Ala. It's the question that everyone around the NBA wants to ask when they talk to Barkley. It's only one of several important questions being asked around the league as the teams prepare to open training camps on Oct. 6. But it's the biggest one, the one that must be answered before there can be any predictions about who will win the championship next June: "Hey, Charles, how's the back?"
For the first time since he was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 1992, Barkley, Phoenix's power forward and meal ticket, can finally give the answer everyone in the Valley of the Sun wants to hear. "The back feels great," he says. "I feel great. I'm probably in the best shape I've ever been in." Which means the same can be said of Phoenix, which signed free-agent forwards Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale during the off-season and appears primed to make a run at the title that Barkley so badly wants before he retires.
It looked as if Barkley would have to abandon his quest when the Suns lost to the Houston Rockets in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last spring. He had said throughout the season that he was seriously considering retirement, and those who watched Barkley drag himself around the court in Game 7 of the series against the Rockets—hobbled by the bulging disk in his back as well as a groin injury—had to believe they were watching the finale of his career.
But things changed over the summer. Barkley says teammate Danny Ainge "was like an elf on my shoulder," urging him to come back. And Barkley's doctors told him that he could avoid surgery by undertaking a program of stretching and weight training. He has done that, and now he thinks his back is strong enough to carry the Suns. "If I play well, we're going to win," he says. "If I don't, we won't." Barkley must adhere to his stretching and weight programs, which he hasn't always been religious about. Will things be different this year? It's too early to answer that question, but here are others to ponder:
2 Does Horace Grant mean title magic for Orlando?
Maybe not immediately. It's hard to envision the Magic, a team that has never won a playoff game, making the jump to a championship right away. But it is true that Grant, who left the Chicago Bulls to sign with Orlando as a free agent, seems to be a perfect fit. The Magic needed a tough rebounder and defender at power forward, next to center Shaquille O'Neal, and it needed a veteran to add wisdom and playoff experience to its talented but youthful mix. Grant, who earned three championship rings with the Bulls, will take care of all that.
Still, Orlando is trying not to raise expectations too high. To win the title, "we'll still have to have a little bit of luck," says O'Neal. Whoa—the Magic won the draft lottery in consecutive years, which brought to Orlando O'Neal and superstar-apparent Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, plus three future first-round draft picks. Now Grant all but falls in the Magic's lap. How much luckier can a team get?
3 Do the Dulls want Scottie Pippen, and does Pippen want them?
Yes and yes. For now. The signing of free-agent guard Ron Harper, late of the Los Angeles Clippers and a friend of Pippen's, apparently was a signal that Chicago hopes to keep oft-disgruntled star forward Pippen in the fold, at least temporarily. "Everything [Bull management] said to me indicated Scottie was going to be here," Harper says. Chicago hasn't been offered anything as attractive as Shawn Kemp of the Seattle SuperSonics for Pippen since that deal fell through on draft night last June; now, the Bulls' management will probably go into the season with Pippen and then evaluate their team's chemistry as the schedule unfolds. If the bosses don't like what they see, they have offers for Pippen that they can probably resurrect at any time: from the Washington Bullets for swingman Calbert Cheaney and forward Juwan Howard; and from the Miami Heat for center Rony Seikaly and cither forward Glen Rice or guard Steve Smith.
Although he has been hurt by the Bulls' willingness to trade him, Pippen also wants to stay. "I love it in Chicago," he says. "I don't want to leave, but I'm a professional, and all I can do is take the floor and give it everything I have, no matter where I'm playing." The bottom line is that Pippen, who angered the Bulls when he benched himself at a crucial juncture in last spring's playoffs, is almost certain to start the season in Chicago but is far less certain to finish it there.