It matched the most incandescent of personalities (Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley), proceeded along the most improbable of paths (triple-overtime game, visiting teams won five of six) and had the most unlikely of denouements—a dramatic, clutch basket that was not made by Jordan.
Twenty years ago the Bulls and Suns met in a roller-coaster series decided when John Paxson's three-pointer settled into the basket at the brand-new America West Arena in Phoenix, giving Chicago a stunning 99--98 win in Game 6. At the time it meant that the Bulls were the first team to threepeat since the Celtics won eight consecutive titles from 1959 to 1966. What we didn't know was that Jordan would soon walk away from the game for a year and a half, that he would return to Chicago and lead the Bulls to another threepeat before the decade ended and that the series would mark the best chance Barkley—and the Suns—would have for winning a championship. Turns out there were lots of other things we didn't know either, until we talked to several of the principals.
Barkley arrives from Philadelphia in a June 1992 trade and everything changes.
CHARLES BARKLEY (Suns forward): [U.S. coach] Chuck Daly had told me in the summer [during the Olympics in Barcelona] that I was the second-best player in the world. "Who's better than me?" I said. O.K., I knew the answer. But I really believed, at that time, I was better than Michael. That changed during this series.
JERRY COLANGELO (Suns owner): We were opening a new arena, we had a new coach in Paul Westphal, we had a great team and we were sold out of everything in advance, so when Charles came I said, "You don't have to sell a ticket or do anything like that. You just have to win. All we're missing is a banner."
BARKLEY: I shoulda got out of Philly three years earlier. I told Cotton [Fitzsimmons, the Suns coach turned exec who orchestrated the deal], "I'll get us to the Finals, and I think I can beat Michael Jordan."
KEVIN JOHNSON (Suns point guard): I was disappointed when I first heard about the trade because I loved playing with Horny. [Shooting guard Jeff Hornacek was sent to the 76ers.] But I understood it. Getting Charles elevated our ability to go all the way. He was virtually unstoppable without a double team, but it was more the change in attitude, confidence, moxie and toughness that he brought.
DANNY AINGE (Suns sixth man, who had signed before the season as a free agent): The only reason I came to Phoenix was Charles. I love him, and I knew I would love playing with him. He is not a perfect player, but he is one of the most talented guys I ever played with or against. And there were similarities to being in Boston. Charles was like Kevin McHale. He made it fun to come to work.
PAUL WESTPHAL (Suns coach): Sure, you rolled your eyes sometimes at the stuff Charles did, but in that year he was in the best shape of his life, he felt he had something to prove and he was absolutely straight with me every single day. Karl Malone was just dominating the West, and Charles gets to Phoenix and says, "Tell Karl there's a new sheriff in town." That has a positive effect on your team.
By contrast, the Bulls battle fatigue—the strain of defending two titles and accommodating Dream Teamers Jordan and Scottie Pippen.