Charles Barkley stood in the middle of the Philadelphia locker room last Friday night, checking out the box score that summarized the 76ers' 109-104 defeat of the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series. The rookie's sore left ankle was encased in ice and his head was just a little bit giddy. He had scored 19 points, grabbed seven rebounds, dealt four assists and made five steals, including the game-saver in the final minute—figures fairly typical of his play for the series.
But after a brief glance, a pained scowl crossed Barkley's face, which he proceeded to bury in the box score as if the sheet of paper were a plush towel.
"Does it hurt?" someone asked, referring to the ankle.
"It hurts not to lead," Barkley groaned.
His mock despair was caused by teammate Moses Malone, who had outrebounded Barkley for the first time in the playoffs. "He messed up my goal," said the 22-year-old Barkley, who skipped his senior season at Auburn to become one of the NBA's best rookies. "I wanted to lead us in every game."
But Barkley has been more than just a force on the boards. He was the Sixers' spiritual leader throughout the four-game sweep, which ended Sunday with a 121-112 win. Taking into account his play during Philly's 3-1 dispatching of Washington in the first round, Barkley is merely having the biggest impact of any rookie in the playoffs since 1980, the year of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. He's also having plenty of fun.
"I tried to be as expressionless as possible as a rookie," says Sixer senior statesman Julius Erving. "I was afraid anything else would ruin my concentration. But that was before the era of the high five. Charles has really been a ball."
The Sixer sweep was particularly astonishing because the first two wins occurred in Milwaukee, where the Bucks won 88% of their regular-season games, tying the Lakers for the best home record in the league. (Milwaukee's 59-23 overall mark was third best.) What's more, by losing eight of its last 15 games, Philly had handed Milwaukee the home court edge. But the Sixers bagged the opener 127-105 as guard Clint Richardson went 11 for 12 from the floor, and Philly withstood career highs from the Bucks' Terry Cummings (41 points) and Paul Pressey (16 assists) to win Game 2 112-108. "When we lose a few games, more is made of it," says Sixers coach Billy Cunningham, who has his best eight healthy for the first time in weeks. "We need all parts of the puzzle to be outstanding."
Barkley's exact fit wasn't determined until late in the season, when Cunningham decided to start steady veteran Bobby Jones and bring the 6'6", 263-pound Mound of Rebound (he's not exactly round anymore) off the bench. It's a gambit that matches Jones's defensive skills against the opponents' best forwards—players like Cummings and, in the conference finals, either Detroit's Kelly Tripucka or Boston's Bird. Barkley, meanwhile, provides power and speed in one irrepressible relief package. "Of course, I like to hear my name called out at the beginning of the game," Barkley says, before doing an impersonation of P.A. announcer Dave Zinkoff. "You know, 'At the othah faw-wahd, from Awwwbuhn....' Not starting hurts your ego more than anything."
Barkley made his entrance in Game 3 with 4:37 gone and the Bucks up 12-9. Less than four minutes later the Sixers had a 24-18 lead, getting nine of those 15 in Barkley-sized chunks—three-point plays. A fan in the Spectrum brandished a sign reading CHARLES IN CHARGE.
Milwaukee wasn't finished yet, however. Thanks to a smaller lineup led by two reserves, 6'5" Ricky Pierce and 6'6" Paul Thompson, the Bucks clawed back from a 71-53 deficit to an 85-85 tie early in the fourth quarter. With 1:35 left and the Bucks up 102-99, Barkley relieved Milwaukee's Alton Lister of a rebound, flicked in a layup, was fouled and sank the free throw. Lister tapped in a Cummings miss, only to see Erving shoot the 76ers back into a tie at 104 with a stroke from just inside the three-point line as the shot clock wound down.
So 44 seconds remained when Barkley made the play of the game. "Cummings likes to shoot going left, so when he started right I knew he'd go back left," Barkley said later. "I made up my mind that I was gonna try for it. I knew Billy would cuss me out if I didn't."
Sure enough, Cummings dribbled right, toward the baseline, then spun back into the lane. Barkley was there to meet the ball, and he flicked it to Maurice Cheeks, who found Erving in full stride up the left sideline. The Doctor unfurled a swoop scoop that would have gotten 9.8s and 9.9s, even from the Eastern European judges, and Philly led 106-104. Bucks coach Don Nelson then courageously called for a three-pointer, but Pierce's shot skipped away, and Milwaukee's comeback fell short. Said Cummings, "It's like planting a vineyard, and just when you're ready for the harvest, a storm comes along and wipes it out."
The storm in Game 4 struck sooner and lasted longer. It was a 20-6 squall that came after the Bucks had built a 71-63 lead with 4:52 to play in the third quarter. Barkley provided the first gust (a follow of a Malone miss) and the last (a layup after retrieving Richardson's fumble of the Mound's own behind-the-back pass). "Philly is a sleeping giant that woke up during the Washington series," Nelson said afterward. "And Barkley has turned into an awesome playoff player. It was a genius move on Billy's part to bring Charles off the bench."
Barkley, for his part, agrees. "You can learn a lot just sitting, watching," he says.
"Like I should be out there."