Charles Barkley, chairman of the board of Buttkicking Inc., strutted into the Phoenix Suns' locker room to conduct a brief business meeting moments after his team defeated the NBA champion Houston Rockets 114-110 on Sunday to go up 3-1 in their best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series. Barkley grabbed a piece of chalk and scribbled feverishly on the blackboard while all the other board members gathered around. What he wrote came as a huge relief to them all: BACK IN BUSINESS, AND IT'S VERY GOOD!
Who could blame the brass at Buttkicking Inc. if they had begun to doubt themselves for just an instant? After all the heartache and near misses Phoenix has endured over the past few seasons, it appears that the Suns' most dangerous antagonist these days might simply be bad karma. True, Phoenix had finished a 59-23 regular season by winning eight of its last nine games, had swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the opening playoff round and then last week had blown out Houston in Games 1 and 2 in Phoenix. But when the Suns finally lost one on Saturday—by 33 points!—they couldn't have been thrilled to see Rocket guard Kenny Smith parading around in what he claimed were magic sneakers.
That morning, Smith had pulled the shoes, with 2 Ws scribbled on the sides, from his closet. They were the same prophetic kicks Smith had donned last year during the conference semifinals after the Rockets had dropped Games 1 and 2 against the Suns at home; Houston then had stormed back for 2 Ws in Phoenix and went on to win the series. And when the Rockets jumped ahead by 15 points in Game 4 on Sunday, it looked as if the shoes' magic might be kicking in again. But thanks largely to point guard Kevin Johnson's 43 points, the boys of Buttkicking survived, striking back to steal the pivotal game of the series before heading back to Phoenix for what they hoped would be the clincher on Tuesday. Game 6, if necessary, would be played Thursday in Houston, but the way the Suns were talking, nothing short of ruby slippers would get the Rockets back home alive.
It was May 8, on the eve of the series opener, when Barkley entered the Suns' clubhouse, gave the team its new nickname and then engaged shooting guard Dan Majerle in the following dialogue:
Barkley: What business are we in?
Majerle: The butt-kicking business.
Barkley: And how's business?
Majerle: Business is good.
Fortunately, Buttkicking was incorporated with a comprehensive medical plan. Johnson, who had been dogged by injuries all season and missed the last three practices before Game 1 with a sore left hamstring, was receiving acupuncture treatments for his pain. And Barkley came down with a stomach virus on the morning of the opener. He was hospitalized and treated with intravenous electrolytes but didn't recover sufficiently to keep down his pregame meal.
The Rockets weren't exactly in the pink themselves. Forward Carl Herrera, whose job it would have been to shadow Barkley, was on the bench for the series with a dislocated right shoulder. Mercurial guard Vernon Maxwell wasn't even on the bench, having been granted a seemingly permanent leave of absence to discover once and for all what Mad Max is so angry about. The rest of the Houston players were simply battered, having just survived a bruising five-game first-round series against the Utah Jazz. The fingers on All-Star center Hakeem Olajuwon's shooting hand were so swollen that he couldn't even wear his 1994 championship ring.