In October, Barkley announced he would retire at the end of this season. He was 36 years old, and while he would make $9 million and could still put up numbers, Houston was rebuilding after Pippen's departure, and there would be no ring. Barkley was struggling with the idea that his career would soon be over and frustrated by the team's erratic play. Jordan and Tiger Woods flew out to spend a couple of days with him two weeks ago. Charles was cheered by their visit. "I'm going to make sure I go out in a big way," he told them.
His last shot was a post-up move, the alternative to a dunk when your legs don't have the spring they used to. Barkley tried an up-fake on 7-foot Sixers rookie Todd MacCulloch, who swatted the shot away rudely, with no sense of history. Philly ran down the floor in transition, with Barkley chugging in pursuit. As forward Tyrone Hill moved toward the basket, Barkley leaped at him, trying to block his shot. Barkley made contact, landed awkwardly, grabbed his left knee. He immediately signaled for trainer Keith Jones, his leg hideously distorted.
Barkley watched the rest of the game in a knee brace, signed a hundred or so autographs, cracked some jokes. ("Just what this country needs—another unemployed black man.") He went out with his teammates and reminisced about the game he loved. "What you hold on to is the feeling you had when you realized you had something special going on and, unless Michael was on the floor, you were going to be the best, and nobody could stop you," Barkley said. "At the end of the night you'd have 25 points and 12 rebounds, and all they'd talked about before the game was how to slow you down."
As he limped back to his hotel room in Philadelphia, the city where it all started, he remembered that feeling of invincibility. Then he sat down on the bed and cried.
His message light was flashing, as he knew it would be. There were dozens of messages, but the first one was from Michael, telling him how sorry he was. "I'm here if you need me," Jordan's voice mail said.
Though it was late, Barkley considered calling his friend. Then he realized it was pointless. Charles Barkley will never play professional basketball again. Even Michael Jordan can't help him with that one.