For all their surprising new balance and strength, the most formidable part of the Philadelphia 76ers' bite is still their Barkley. In four games last week, Sir Charles averaged 33.5 points, 16.8 rebounds and 44 minutes of exquisite entertainment.
Last Thursday night in Charlotte, for example, he barged down the lane with only seconds remaining, belting bodies (specifically those of Rex Chapman and Tim Kempton) left and right as he muscled in a layup to apparently tie the score. But Barkley was whistled for a charge, and the Sixers lost 109-107. Two nights later, in Indiana, with the outcome again on the line, Barkley didn't hesitate. He went strong to the basket again and put in the shot and a subsequent free throw to give the 76ers a 103-100 lead with 25 seconds left, and Philly went on to a 107-100 victory.
"It was a monstrous field goal," said Sixer coach Jim Lynam of Barkley's key basket. And it capped a monstrous week. In fact, Barkley is having perhaps the most monstrous season in the NBA, with a 28.7 scoring average, 12.8 rebounding average and a league-leading .630 shooting percentage through Sunday, and that's the primary reason 11-6 Philadelphia stood atop the Atlantic Division at week's end.
" Barkley and [Michael] Jordan are the hardest players in the league to match up with," said Portland Trail Blazers coach Mike Schuler after Barkley burned the Blazers for 41 points and 22 rebounds in a 114-106 victory on Nov. 30. "Barkley outjumps the small defender, outquicks the big, strong defender and outmuscles the quick defender. How do you guard him?"
Though that sort of encomium may give the impression that Philly is the same Barkley-inside-Barkley-outside-Barkley-all-around-the-town team that sleepwalked to a 36-46 record last season, these Sixers are a lot more balanced. Both of their victories last week, for example, were achieved without the participation of two starters, point guard Maurice Cheeks (groin pull) and forward Cliff Robinson (bruised left kneecap). The 76ers got significant contributions from rookie shooting guard Hersey Hawkins, who was obtained last June, along with a first-round draft pick in 1989, after a slick bit of draft-day maneuvering with the Los Angeles Clippers and Seattle; from versatile backup forward Ron Anderson, who was rescued from oblivion in Indiana; and from free-agent rookie Scott Brooks, a 5'11" point guard from UC Irvine whose head was spinning, he admits, when he rotated off a double-team in the second game of the season and...
"...and there I was, guarding Larry Bird," says Brooks. "For some reason he passed."
Though Barkley is still definitely in charge, he could not be more pleased with the supporting cast. He may toss around some expletives, a few of which earned him what's believed to have been a single-season record of 30 technicals last year (he's collected five so far this season), but the four-letter word he has uttered most often in recent seasons is Help!
"It bothered me that I was always the scapegoat, always the reason the Sixers couldn't win," said Barkley at a Sixers' practice last week. "Well, I'm here to tell you that one man can't do it alone. Not Magic Johnson, not Larry Bird, not Charles Barkley, nobody."
As Barkley said this, his shirt was off and very little fat was evident on his 249-pound frame. If he were the height of a "normal" forward in the NBA, say 6'8" or 6'9" instead of 6'4�" (forget the 6'6" at which he's listed in your program), he might look almost lean. Another striking physical characteristic is a series of ugly scratches, some of them permanent, that crisscross his upper arms, the legacy of a thousand battles under the glass. "You wouldn't believe how many fingernails there are in the NBA," he said.
But those were nothing compared with the internal scars left by his recent summer of discontent. On Aug. 17, Barkley was arrested in New Jersey for illegal possession of a loaded handgun. The gun was spotted by a state trooper when she searched his black 1988 Porsche after she had pulled him over for speeding on the Atlantic City Expressway. Barkley had a permit to carry the gun in Pennsylvania but not in New Jersey, and he was arrested and then released on his own recognizance.