The phone rang. It was Jordan, offering...what? Condolences? A strategy for damage control? His friend and rival kept it simple: "I'm here if you need me," Jordan said.
But Barkley had to sort through this one alone. He was up all night, wondering how he had become so consumed with winning, so obsessed with chasing down the elusive championship he was constantly reminded he didn't have, that he had abandoned his sense of decency. "Let's say I did spit on the person I was aiming for," Barkley said. "That was wrong, too. I sat in that room, and I told myself, You better figure out what's important, because this sure as hell can't be it."
The incident, he said, changed him profoundly. The public did not see his contrition or his pain, but he made a decision. Winning wasn't everything—it couldn't be. He forced a trade from Philadelphia to the Phoenix Suns before the 1992-93 season, and basketball was fun again. He averaged 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists and won his one MVP trophy. He and Jordan talked about meeting in the Finals. When it happened, the media caught wind of their friendship and began chronicling their golf, dinner and nightclub meetings.
Magic Johnson, an NBC commentator for the Finals, condemned the fraternizing between Barkley and Jordan. Barkley was stung by this, and a bit amused as well; just a few years earlier Magic was the one kissing his Detroit Pistons pal Isiah Thomas before each game of the 1988 and '89 Finals. But after the Suns stunned the Bulls in Game 5 to send the series back to Phoenix with Chicago up three games to two, Charles told Michael he would pass on the golf, dinner and cards when they got to Arizona. "We were down one game," Barkley said. "I thought I'd try something different."
He was home in Phoenix less than 10 minutes when the phone rang. "Charles," Jordan said firmly, "we'll be friends long after we've stopped playing basketball. Have your clubs ready."
They played golf. The Bulls won Game 6 and sealed their third straight championship. Barkley was left empty-handed for the ninth straight season. As he sat slumped at his locker, head in his hands, a familiar voice called out to him. It was James Jordan. "I want you to win a championship so badly," the elder Jordan told Barkley. "I know my son is in the other locker room, but I was rooting for you, too. You deserve to have your own ring."
Barkley hugged James, who was wearing his Bulls cap. "Well, then," Charles told him, "how about I see you here the same time next year?"
One year later James Jordan was dead, murdered near Lumberton, N.C., by two teenage thugs looking to rob someone. His distraught son had quit basketball and was playing minor league baseball in Birmingham. And Barkley was home watching the Rockets, the team that had eliminated his Suns in the second round, win their first championship. He would never taste the Finals again. Jordan unretired and collected three more titles, just like that. Friends wondered why this didn't eat away at Barkley's relationship with Jordan. "Because," Barkley told them, "our friendship means more than that."
Whenever they played each other, Charles and Michael had dinner together the night before. During one of those meals, in the middle of the 1997-98 season, Jordan told Barkley he was retiring again, this time for good. By then Barkley had gone to Houston, still in search of a championship. After he surrendered $1.2 million in salary so that the Rockets could acquire Scottie Pippen before last season, Barkley was hopeful. Instead, Pippen struggled in Houston's post-up offense, demanded a trade in the off-season, publicly vilified Barkley as fat and overrated, then attached a damning kicker: He said Michael had told him Barkley would never be a winner.
Jordan was on vacation but tracked down Barkley within minutes of hearing Pippen's quotes. "I don't know if Michael was madder that Scottie said all that stuff or that he dragged his name into it," Barkley said. "I told him I was O.K. with it. I knew about Scottie. The whole league knew he was a guy you couldn't count on. You can fool the media and the fans, but you can't fool the players. Scottie was exposed long before this."