Barkley and Ainge hit it off immediately, and, really, that's not surprising. True, Barkley's relationship with his Philadelphia teammates eventually soured, but Barkley is and always has been a player's player, a teammate's teammate. Same with Ainge, who, if sometimes pouty on the court, is the antithesis of that off the floor. On their first day together Barkley challenged Ainge to a free throw contest and promptly lost $500. The next day it was three-pointers, and Barkley went down another $500. "The total is up to $1,900," says Ainge, "but Charles, somehow, has forgotten. He pays everybody but me." If Ainge never gets his money, he will still collect in other ways. Take, for example, the sublime moment not long ago when Barkley mentioned, during a conversation about insurance, that he had purchased a "raincoat policy." Barkley meant, of course, an umbrella policy. As any NBA realist will tell you, though, a few losses strung together can silence any laughter and put a hard edge on the once-playful insults. Not having lost more than two consecutive games all season, the Suns are primed for such a letdown. Potential pitfalls do lurk behind the sunny exterior. Some of Dumas's teammates are still not certain whether he can summon his world-class talent under pressure; there is the chance that Ainge is playing on guts and enthusiasm and may eventually tire; and if the Suns do start to falter, couldn't Barkley wake up one morning and decide to pop off to the press? "How can we win with Mark West at center?" he might scream. "The guy couldn't score 10 points if they locked him up alone in a gym."
Barkley says such an explosion won't happen. "Words cannot express how happy I feel right now," he says. "You don't get many chances to get home-court advantage all the way through [the playoffs]. This is my best chance to win a championship, and I'm not going to do anything to screw it up."
Majerle feels the same way. "It's not like the Phoenix Suns are coming out of nowhere," he says. "We've won, but we've just failed in the playoffs. Now, with Charles, we're stronger than we've ever been, and we just feel that it's our time."
And in this case, no one was kidding.