Maybe it's the approaching millennium. But these days everything has a last-gasp quality to it, the lights going black, time running out, things having to be done now. Take the NBA's Western Conference finals, where by Sunday an apocalyptic anxiety—what else would you call it?—had driven the Houston Rockets into a 2-2 tie in their best-of-seven series with the Utah Jazz and forced forward Charles Barkley into doomsday pronouncements and uncharted vocabulary.
All week Rockets prophet Barkley told his teammates that their era, not just their season, was drawing to a close. They were old, veteran beyond belief, he said, and blowing whatever remained of their last chance at the NBA championship. Game by pitiful game he read them their destiny. When they trailed 2-0 after a horrible stand in Utah, Barkley instructed them, and everybody else, that no team comes back from 3-0. "Realistically," he said, conjuring a vision of the Rockets' sad lot if they lost Game 3 in Houston, "it's over."
When the Rockets won Game 3 last Friday, Barkley was not very much relieved, not even by the 118-100 score. His mates, a few of whom had been members of Houston's championship clubs (swingman Mario Elie and center Hakeem Olajuwon, '94 and '95, and guard Clyde Drexler, '95, among them), were without the "urgency" that a ringless Barkley or, for that matter, the ringless Utah players felt. Nobody but he seemed to understand the Rockets' impending mortality. "If we don't win," he said, "we are dead. D-E-A-D."
Then, even after guard Eddie Johnson, himself seemingly as old as the millennium, buried the Jazz with a 27-footer at the buzzer for a 95-92 victory in Sunday's Game 4, Barkley continued to sound alarms. "Let's be realistic," he said, looking to the fifth game, on Tuesday in Salt Lake City. "This is our last chance, and probably Utah's. We are not young teams; we're losing something every year. We are running out of time."
He's right. Both teams have long since reached their primes. The Rockets have four starters older than 33, and three of the Jazz's soon will be more than 34 (when power forward and league MVP Karl Malone gets there on July 24). For both franchises, the world really is about to end—at least until the next good draft.
But if last week's four games were any indication, it won't end with a whimper, or without comment from Barkley, who regards the playoffs as his personal podium. The two teams are so evenly matched that their series seemed preordained to end with a bang and more Barkley bombast, not to mention continued charges of dirty play.
On Sunday, after the 38-year-old Johnson poured in his game-winner, Barkley had to use the word surreal to describe the shot's seemingly eternal trajectory. "Of course," Barkley added, "I'm not sure what surreal means, but I heard it on TV once and it sounded pretty damn smart. So I'd have to say surreal is the word."
Surreal, desperate, lucky—they all work, both for Johnson's three-pointer and Houston's last-second stay of execution. That it was Johnson, a well-traveled hanger-on at the end of his line, who saved the day in Games 3 and 4, was entirely consistent with Barkley's millennial mythology.
Johnson had already attained as much playoff fame as he reasonably could have hoped for when he came off the bench in Game 3 to ring up 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting. He and his fellow Rockets reserves had supplied much-needed relief, outscoring their Jazz counterparts 47-28 after being outpointed 54-26 during the two games in Utah. And his performance was a splendid moment for a 16-year journeyman overlooked for much of his career.
Johnson is so old he can reminisce about college matchups with Magic Johnson when Eddie was at Illinois and Magic at Michigan State. His career as sixth-man Excalibur had been winding down with increasingly brief stops here and there—six franchises and two countries in the last five years. He had played one miserable season in Greece in 1994-95, where the fans threw coins and apples at him. ("They wouldn't talk to me for a week after we'd lost," he says.) Houston grabbed him on March 3, five days after he was waived by the Denver Nuggets and 11 days after the Indiana Pacers traded him to Denver. With Drexler out nursing a strained left hamstring, Johnson had even gotten some quality playing time in his first month with the Rockets. Come the playoffs, though, and he receded into Houston's ineffectual bench and existed, as he had for so much of his career, as a pleasant afterthought. Good guy, good shot, goodbye.