There's my new hero!" barks Charles Barkley upon entering the Orlando Arena, and the clattering Chuck Wagon rolls ominously toward Anfernee Hardaway. "It's not many times I walk into a building and I ain't the richest one in it!" Barkley bear-hugs the bewildered point guard, then pumps the right hand of the newly minted, $70 million member of the Magic. One half-expects to see Hardaway cough up silver coins, like a slot machine paying out.
The Magic is hosting Barkley and the Phoenix Suns this evening in what is more than an NBA exhibition game. "It's an All-Star Game," notes Orlando player-personnel director John Gabriel, and indeed there are eight former All-Stars between the two teams. This does not count the 22-year-old Hardaway, a dead-bolt lock for future All-Stardom. "In a few years," says Barkley, "he'll be one of the five best players in the league."
So good is the Magic that forward Horace Grant and guard Brian Shaw sacrificed higher offers from other teams to sign with Orlando as free agents this summer. So good are the Suns that forwards Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale did the same to sign with Phoenix. Earl Weaver never saw so many sacrifices made in a single summer, and even the flint-hearted Barkley must be moved by this new benevolence, no?
"Shut up," Barkley reflects before the game. "Don't ask me that stupid question. They're all gonna get their money back next year, so don't try to say they're sacrificing. Don't give me that bogus stuff. Don't go writing that stuff. Don't believe that stuff. Don't make it out to be some god-almighty sacrifice. Gimme a break."
Indeed, Barkley knows that all manner of benefits will accrue to these men, provided they make good on their preseason promise to make the NBA Finals. "I've already told 'em," says Grant, 29, a three-time titlist with the Chicago Bulls. "There's nothing like winning a championship. To be called Number 1 for that whole year, to have your picture on the Wheaties box most of the time, to have champagne poured all over you"—Grant fairly shudders upon mentioning the champagne shampoo—"there's just no feeling like it."
Is it true, Grant is now asked, that he was recently photographed for the cover of this magazine with Barkley reflected in his goggle lenses? The horrific image bursts Grant's bubble, snaps him out of his three-ring reverie. "Yeah," he sighs. "And he's gonna be in my face tonight, too."
This pre-face to the NBA season, this power foreword, naturally begins with power forwards Barkley and Grant, with the in-your-face Suns and Magic, the top two contenders for the crown. But we should also raise a backdrop before the teams sit for their portraits. And so we hoist these secondary questions of interest this season:
Whither Glenn Robinson? The top pick in the draft is demanding a slapstick $100 million over 13 years from the Milwaukee Bucks, apparently mistaking the salary cap for a stovepipe hat. And what of Dominique Wilkins? The anti-Celtic is now playing in Boston, causing every ghost in the Garden to do a spin move in its grave. Most important, what will be the effect of the new rules, which forbid hand checking beyond the foul line; broaden the illegal-defense dictum, forbidding centers from falling back into a de facto zone; shorten the three-point shot (from a maximum distance of 23'9" to 22' all around); and crack down on trash-talking?
Magic owner Rich DeVos loves this last edict. "My goal this season is to have a team that gets no technical fouls," he says, making a mental note to nix that deal for Dennis Rodman. "I think it would be a good example to set for the youngsters watching us."
Indeed, parental discretion was advised for the playoffs last spring, and the new rules were designed to erase those repugnant postseason memories. Specifically, the rules seek to stimulate offense, boding ill for a certain defending Eastern Conference champion, a team that is featured in a videotape of banned defensive techniques produced by the league and screened by all 27 clubs in the preseason. "A lotta Knick highlights!" raves Grant.