"Damn, could you imagine me doing this last year in Philly?" said Barkley, who arrived from the Philadelphia 76ers gift-wrapped last summer in exchange for guard Jeff Hornacek, center Andrew Lang and forward Tim Perry. "My head would be jammed up after going through one week."
Yes, there is no doubt these Suns are still on a honeymoon. Everything is clicking. The Downtown Dannys—starting guard Majerle and the rejuvenated Ainge, who turns 34 on March 17—are throwing up three-pointers at a record pace and making them at an outstanding rate (.416). Dumas, who used to be known primarily as a guy with drug problems, is playing so well (17.7 points per game) that he can wear anything he likes. (In honor of Phoenix's three-point acuity, Dumas recently named his newborn son Richard Tré Dumas III.) Patrons are pouring into Majerle's, the trendy new restaurant (try the Sir Charles Chicken Cheese Steak) just one block from the arena, at such a rate that the proprietor is ready to expand after only three months in business. And Jerry Colangelo, longtime president and CEO of the Suns, a franchise that just six years ago was drug-plagued and dying, now proudly conducts tours of Phoenix's $90 million state-of-the-art arena and ponders the effect that a championship banner would have on local morale.
As for Barkley, well, he has plain died and gone to heaven. He joshes with Ainge and Chambers as if they're homeboys from Alabama. He charms the folks in Phoenix with fist-pumping displays on the court and with various renditions of his I'm-a-black-millionaire spiel off it. His weekly TV show, Suns' Jam Session with Charles Barkley, is a big success. Last month Phoenix fans voted him onto—get this!—the Suns' 25th-anniversary team (Walter Davis, Phoenix's alltime scoring leader, didn't make the five-man team); he had been with Phoenix for less than half a season. He talks to youth groups, blows kisses to old ladies and rubs babies' heads, which are usually no smoother than his own shaved pate. And his portrait adorns city buses. "Only one guy gets to be Elvis," says the Suns' rookie coach, Paul Westphal. "Same thing with Charles."
"You know the best thing about the trade?" says Barkley. "I can leave my clothes in the dressing room. In Philadelphia our locker room [at the Spectrum] was also the visiting locker room for hockey, so we had to take our stuff home after every game, like some damn sixth-grade team. I always wanted my own locker."
Barkley's locker will be around through the postseason, but will the Suns?
"Frankly, I'm amazed at our record," says Westphal, who neither sounds nor looks amazed, particularly during games, when, in contrast to most NBA coaches, he actually remains seated most of the time. Only a fool would fail to take the Suns seriously, but there are those who believe they cannot win an NBA title because 1) the team commits too many turnovers, an average of 16.76 per game through last weekend, and 2) it allows opponents to shoot too well from the floor, around 48%, 20th in the league. "Well," says Westphal, "the biggest stat is final score. We're doing O.K. there."
The Phoenix management team of Colangelo, former coach Cotton Fitzsimmons (now senior executive vice-president) and Westphal emerged from last season with a grand plan to build a championship-caliber team, but they've had plenty of good luck, too.
Step 1 was the acquisition of Barkley. Had 76er owner Harold Katz waited until after the 1992 Olympics, at which Barkley demonstrated himself to be not only an international folk hero but also a talent of Jordanesque proportions, surely the price for Sir Charles would have been higher. But, then, if Harold Katz had made a good deal, he wouldn't be Harold Katz. If Barkley leads Phoenix to an NBA title, the trade, from Philadelphia's perspective, might go down as one of the league's worst, right down there with the '83 deal in which the Suns sent Dennis Johnson to the Boston Celtics for Rick Robey (the Celtics reached the NBA Finals for four straight seasons and won two championships after Johnson's arrival, while Robey sputtered through three dismal seasons). That disaster was signed, sealed and delivered by Colangelo.
Step 2 was signing Ainge, an unrestricted free agent who couldn't persuade the Trail Blazers, his previous team for two seasons, to give him three more years.
"What would it take to get you here?" Colangelo asked Ainge in a phone call following last season.