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 6'4¾" (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.
Meanwhile, bad news had started to trickle in from an audit (still not completed) that Barkley had ordered of his finances. His action was prompted by two Newsday articles that ran in April, linking his agent, Lance Luchnick of San Antonio, to payments to high school and college coaches, reportedly for entrèe to some stars of the future.
And Barkley continued to think that the Sixers were trying to trade him, probably to the Clippers, a belief he first expressed on national television during the NBA playoffs in June. Factor in the Sixers' 1987-88 record, which, in Barkley's words, "was just plain embarrassing," and it's understandable why he felt the weight of a thousand Karl Malones crushing down on his broad shoulders. "I just kind of hid out," he said of the summer. "It was horrible."
He seems to be his old self now, though—his old self being a generous and friendly man whose competitive, combustible nature occasionally propels him to fits of sudden rage on the court. "Like a teapot boiling over," says 76er center Mike Gminski. But Barkley says he was fundamentally changed by the setbacks, particularly the gun incident.
The charge was dropped on Sept. 19, two days after a judge ruled that the car had been illegally searched. But Barkley felt—perhaps inevitably—that the media overreacted to the story and that many people were too quick to believe the worst about him. "I learned who my true friends were," he says, "and I learned there weren't many of them."
Barkley partly blames himself, as well as Luchnick, for not keeping a closer eye on his finances, however: "I left my affairs totally in his [Luchnick's] hands. I won't make that mistake again." The audit won't be completed until the end of this month, but Barkley characterizes preliminary reports as "distressing, with perhaps a couple hundred thousand dollars unaccounted for." Luchnik says he is willing to take responsibility. Barkley emphasizes that he's hardly broke, not with an escalating contract that will pay him about $12 million over the next six years, and with his endorsement contract from Nike, which yields $500,000 a year.
As for the trade rumors, Barkley says he has put them behind him, though he still believes he was being shopped. Philly general manager John Nash shook his head and sighed when asked about it last week. "Yes, the Clippers inquired about Charles last year around the All-Star break," said Nash. "They were an attractive team to talk to because they had high draft picks. But we very quickly decided that we could never get fair market value for Charles for one simple reason: With him on the floor, we have a chance every single night. There are very few players like him."
Amen. Barkley is tied for third in the league in scoring; he and Michael Jordan are the only big scorers listed among the top 10 in shooting accuracy (Jordan is fifth at .573). Barkley's rebounding—second-best in the league—has been formidable, as usual. But through last week a whopping 42.7% of his rebounds, well above his career mark of 38.0%, had been at the offensive end. Most of Barkley's offensive rebounds are followed by his own "put-back" shots, which make opposing coaches ill.
"Your biggest concern is not when Barkley's play is called," says Portland assistant coach Rick Adelman, "but when it's not called. He's smart in the way he attacks the ball on the offensive glass. His intelligence is the most underrated part of his game. He doesn't get called for many fouls going for the ball, and he doesn't deserve many."
Adelman expressed his admiration after Barkley had burned the Trail Blazers in that Nov. 30 game with nine offensive rebounds. Frustration, on the other hand, was the dominant emotion felt by Portland rookie forward Mark Bryant during his first close encounter with Barkley. Early in the game, Barkley was standing near the foul line as Bryant held the ball on the baseline. "Yo!" Barkley hollered, trying the oldest trick in the book. Yo and behold, Bryant passed the ball to Barkley, who hightailed it to the other end of the floor and dunked. Then, in the third period, Barkley was posted up with the ball as Bryant put a hand on him. Barkley slapped it away. Bryant put the hand back. Barkley slapped it away harder. He stared at Bryant, contempt in his eyes, and suddenly slipped a pass under the rookie's arms to a cutting Hawkins for a layup. Barkley chuckled as he ambled upcourt, but only a little bit.
"I put Charles in a class with [Boston's Danny] Ainge," says Gminski. "You hate him when you play against him. The fist-shaking, the waving, the emotion—you think it's all an act. But then you get here [Gminski came over from the New Jersey Nets in a trade last January] and you see it's real. He wants to win that much."
Right now, is there a better all-around forward than Barkley? Utah's Malone perhaps, but that's it. Not surprisingly, you'll get little argument from Barkley, and that's why he will be interested in the results of this year's All-Star balloting. He played only 15 minutes as a reserve in the Eastern Conference's 138-133 victory last season and considered his limited participation "a waste of time." After that game, Barkley announced he would not return.
"Well, I don't like to lie," Barkley said last week, "and I admit I said I wasn't going back. Now I don't know." He chewed his lower lip and gave the matter some more thought. "But, no, dammit, if I'm not picked as a starter, I don't think I'll be going."
Exactly where his Sixers will be at midseason is an even harder call. Barkley is holding to a preseason prediction that the 76ers will win as many as 55 games, but down deep he must know that Philly's talent doesn't begin to match that of such Eastern Conference rivals as the Detroit Pistons, the Atlanta Hawks, the Boston Celtics (with a healthy Bird) or even the Cleveland Cavaliers. That's why he's doing everything in his power to hold the Sixers together, to coax everything out of the bench, to praise Lynam, whom he calls "the best coach I ever had."
"I thought when I first got here that Charles would be a madman," says Hawkins, "but he's been very supportive." That's because he needs you, Hersey. He needs your solid, mature game, which belies your 23 years, and your deadly outside jumper with perfect rotation. And he needs you, Ron Anderson, to guard some of the tough forwards and to help him out on the boards. And he needs you, Scott Brooks, to play quarterback at times and to keep up the tempo. And of course he needs the old pros—you, Maurice Cheeks, and you, Cliff Robinson, and you, Mike Gminski.
"I'm on a mission," says Barkley. "I want to prove I'm a winner. I couldn't do it before with the players we had, but I can do it now. It's put up or shut up time in Philadelphia."