Barkley's superb play these days really can't be called surprising. After all, in each of the last two seasons he has won the Schick Pivotal Player Award, a statistical measure of all-around excellence. But most observers feel that Barkley has upped his game a level or two this season. Those observers include Barkley himself. "I made up my mind last summer that if we were going to have a bad team, I was not going to be the reason," Barkley said recently, settling into a back table at TGI Friday's, a Philadelphia restaurant near the condo in which he lives alone. "I knew it was my turn to take over the team. Doc and I never talked about it, but I knew it."
Barkley looks great, too. He says he weighs a career-low 248 pounds, and even if that's a bit lower than the reading when he steps on the scale, he certainly doesn't go more than 255. He's nowhere near the 305 he hit during his early Round Mound of Rebound days at Auburn. His body-fat content, according to Sixers strength and conditioning coach Pat Croce, is 12.6%. "Outstanding for a man of his size and strength," Croce says. So one might expect to hear Barkley recount the hellacious. Marine-style summer he put himself through to prepare for this season, right?
"Actually, I didn't do much working out at all," Barkley said. "Played in three charity games, and that was about it for basketball. Summer ball's too much of a letdown for me. Always has been. One day you're playing against Larry Bird in Boston Garden, next day you're playing against Sam Sausagehead on some playground."
The waiter arrived. Barkley opted for the egg rolls ("Bring me four instead of the three you usually get," he commanded), Buffalo chicken wings and "one of those margarita drinks without the alcohol." He drank three of those before the meal ended.
Barkley watches his weight, though not every minute. He stays in shape in the off-season by playing tennis and riding a stationary bicycle, and, says Croce, "Charles has learned earlier than athletes like Julius or Mike Schmidt the value of stretching exercises." Considering the unusual ways that Barkley contorts his unusual body to get off his unusual inside shots, that's undoubtedly a good thing.
Barkley doesn't particularly like programs and routines. He will listen to the experts for a while and then go his own way. Croce wants him to do more weightlifting, for example, but Barkley isn't ready for that. "I lifted exactly one day the last two summers, and I just don't like it," he said. "I'm contemplating it, but I'm scared that it will mess up my game."
The key to Barkley's game is the dunk. "How can I not shoot 60 percent with all the dunks I get?" he says. His .594 was third best in the league last season. There are a variety of reasons why he dunks so often (2.5 times a game in 1986-87) and so proficiently. First, he has a dunking mentality. Not everyone in the NBA does; even some 7-footers (the Boston Celtics' Robert Parish, to name one) don't. Second, Barkley is a strength-dunker who is able to throw the ball down in traffic while helpless defenders cling to his arms. And, third, he not only jumps high but he also jumps quickly: While a defender is just getting ready to spring, Barkley has already sprung.
There are other reasons for his offensive success. "It's his quick first step and his body control," says Bird. "He and Jordan are the best in the league at getting the contact and getting the shot off." Barkley explains how his being able to stay in the air a split second longer enables him to beat bigger defenders: "I have to shoot it a lot later because of my lack of height. That's just God-given hang time."
Says Bird's teammate Kevin McHale, the defender who gives Barkley the most trouble. "Charles nudges you off-balance in one direction, just with his strength, then goes the other way with his quickness. And he tries to put everything in the basket. Compare him to, say, Adrian Dantley [of Detroit]. They both post up and have great spin moves. But Adrian is trying to get the contact so he can get to the line. Charles wants it all."
Inside or outside. Barkley's jumper can also be deadly, though he'll fire an occasional blank. But he has a way of canceling out his mistakes from the perimeter. In a Dec. 22 game at home against the Celtics, for example, Barkley attempted a three-pointer with 18 seconds left and the Sixers trailing 114-111. The shot was way off, but Barkley came chugging into the lane, spilling bodies left and right, grabbed his rebound and scored. Guokas didn't appreciate the three-point attempt, but how could he get mad at Barkley's hustle? A little more of that from some of the other 76ers, and perhaps Philly would not have lost 118-115.