Life in the NBA often leads to places like the visitors' locker room at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City. No huge dressing cubicles or fancy carpeting here. Instead, a concrete floor, metal folding chairs and a worn training table lend a boiler-room ambiance to a space so small that if the Philadelphia 76ers had tried to dress at once for their game on Feb. 19 against the Utah Jazz, the scene would have resembled a rugby scrum. All last week the Sixers kept finding themselves in similar settings, constant reminders that home and only home is where one finds real comfort in the NBA.
In the span of 168 hours, the 76ers traveled 6,500 miles and continually reset their watches while crossing time zones eight times. They spent almost a quarter of their waking hours in airports or on planes, and then shared their hotels with conventioneers from Goodyear and the Credit Union National Association. But beyond all that was the real hassle: In seven nights, with only two days off, Philadelphia faced five fast-breaking, playoff-caliber Western Conference teams—four of them NBA title contenders—that had won 113 of the 134 games played at home. "It's impossible to imagine a tougher trip," said Sixer assistant coach Fred Carter.
The trek West came at a pivotal time for the 76ers. In the early part of the season, they lumbered along like the also-rans many basketball observers had projected them to be. Then from Jan. 13 through Feb. 5, Philadelphia reeled off 12 wins in a row—a feat surpassed by only six teams in league history—and suddenly found itself in the thick of the Atlantic Division race.
The off-season acquisitions of point guard Johnny Dawkins and power forward Rick Mahorn had seemingly added the high-octane offense and the low-down defensive muscle needed to supplement a nucleus composed of shooting guard Hersey Hawkins, center Mike Gminski and small forward-force of nature Charles Barkley. Before playing the Jazz on Feb. 19, Philly trailed the division-leading New York Knicks by one game, or as Barkley said to anyone in the Salt Palace locker room who would listen, "Man! Here we are, 33-18 and rolling down the highway like a big Mack truck."
"I look at this trip with a curiosity," said Sixer coach Jim Lynam the next day. "We've been playing at such a high level. It'll be interesting if we can come out here and do some damage."
Barkley, who was averaging 24.7 points on a league-high 61.6% shooting percentage as well as 11.4 rebounds a game, was willing to raise the stakes. "Winning all these games in a row meant we would have a chance for the home court advantage and a high seed in the playoffs," he said. "This week means to me whether we can win the Atlantic Division or not."
The trip had started on Sunday, Feb. 18 in Portland, where Hawkins nailed a running jumper with five seconds left to defeat the Trail Blazers 110-109. As it turned out, that game would be the highlight of the Sixers' western swing.
MONDAY, AT UTAH
Wearing a red T-shirt with an image of Malcolm X and the words BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY on the front, Mahorn is the last Sixer to reach the locker room. He immediately dispatches one of the ball boys to fetch him three cups of coffee with cream and sugar. Philly acquired the 6'8½", 255-pound Mahorn from the Minnesota Timberwolves last fall for one first-round pick and two seconds. Given Mahorn's physicality—"I enjoy confrontation," he says—and shrewdness on defense, the move figured to fortify the 76ers inside. It did. Through Sunday, their opponents were shooting 47.3% from the field and scoring 103.4 points a game. Last season, they shot 50.1% and scored 110.4.
Mahorn and Barkley considered billing themselves as the Notorious Twosome, though the Sixers' management seems to be leaning toward Double Trouble. No one owning a whistle would object to either. As Barkley and Mahorn lined up to rebound a free throw in Orlando on Nov. 18, Barkley gestured at an offending ref and shouted across the lane to Mahorn, "You hit him, I'll pay the fine." Both showered early that night.
In the Utah locker room, Mahorn and Barkley carry on an absurdly profane conversation about each other's mothers, noggins and butts. Mahorn knew he was in mess-talking heaven when he arrived the day before the season and a female friend of his was forthwith called "a chickenhead" by one of the 76ers. Largely because of the relationship between Mahorn and Barkley, the Sixers are loose but tight-knit. Says trainer Tony Harris, "When we're on the road, I sit them together for treatment, and they just go off on each other. Here and there they'll nail the other guys until everyone's in the flow. In team meetings it carries over, only it's supportive: 'Hey, Hawk, if your guy goes to the corner, I'll pick him up,' things like that. Then when the game starts they're all together."
Despite arriving in Salt Lake City from Portland on a charter flight at 1:30 that morning, the 76ers come out strong against the Jazz. The teams play even through most of the third quarter, but with 3:33 remaining in it, Mahorn picks up his fourth foul. He is on the bench at the start of the fourth quarter. With the tempo now out of its control, Philly never comes closer than 11 points and loses 115-102. Mahorn and Barkley wind up with technicals and are joined for T time by Lynam, who gets ejected with 2:20 left.
"They kept their emotional level and they played hard," says Mahorn. "On the road, little things start small and then they snowball and then—end of story."
WEDNESDAY, AT GOLDEN STATE
It is 1 p.m., with practice at the Oakland Coliseum Arena almost over. Gminski, a 10-year veteran, is figuring out how to fill up the 6½ hours until tip-off. "I don't think there's a pro in the game who's bothered by other teams' fans," he says. "The problems of the road are the travel [the Sixers took a 6:20 flight out of Salt Lake the previous night] and being at the mercy of the hotel restaurant menu and sleeping in strange beds. At home I eat at a certain time and get my sleep. I arrive at the Spectrum at 5:30. Now I'll go back to the hotel, but I don't want to read because I have to spend time concentrating on the game and I want to stay fresh. So I'll get a bite to eat, watch a little TV and try to get some rest."
Later, while Gminski winds up lunching on cold pasta and other sensible foods at the Airport Hilton salad bar, Barkley treats Hawkins, Dawkins and reserve Lanard Copeland to a postpractice meal at a soul-food restaurant he knows. Short ribs, smothered steak, cream corn, yams, black-eyed peas, corn bread, rice and gravy make up what would never be confused with a training table meal. General Hospital plays on a TV set overhead. Talk turns from Jesse Jackson to the players' positive feelings for Lynam and for their recent success. "You know, when you have those feelings when you think you can't lose?" says Barkley. Everyone nods and chews. With the powerful Los Angeles Lakers coming up on Friday and the red-hot Phoenix Suns on Saturday, the Sixers need to beat the Warriors, who have dropped three straight games.
Barkley believes the primary reason the Sixers have been successful this season is the development of the 6'3" Hawkins, who as a rookie in 1988-89 relied strictly on his jumper. Since then he has added an array of spin moves and fadeaways, along with a new attitude. "I'm looking to create," says Hawkins. Notwithstanding his winning shot against Portland, he has made only 8 of 24 field goals in the last two games.
"You got to keep shooting," Barkley tells him at lunch. "I will never understand how a great player can lose his confidence." Barkley pays the $68 tab, and the players stumble, stuffed, out into the 2:30 sun to walk a little until they call the Hilton van to come to pick them up.
Two hours before the tip-off, Hawkins is trying to sleep off his short ribs on a wooden bench in front of his locker. Barkley arrives later, and he looks sick. He thinks the creamed corn has caught up to him, although it might be the steak.
Popping Gelusil pills like M&M's before the game and during timeouts, Barkley is not his usual take-charge self from the outset. But no Warrior assumes control either, until Tom Tolbert, a 6'7" rookie from Arizona, scores eight points in the first 4:14 of the fourth quarter to cut a Philadelphia lead to 86-83. With the score tied 93-all and with 1:34 remaining, Hawkins takes a kick-out pass from Mahorn and converts a three-point shot for what proves to be his second game-winner of the trip as the 76ers hang on to win 96-95.
FRIDAY, AT LOS ANGELES
While driving a rental car following an afternoon practice, Mahorn backs up traffic on a street near the Forum when he stops the car and jumps into the backseat to pummel Dawkins, who has been slapping the back of Mahorn's head. "On a trip this long," says Mahorn, "you got to get a little crazy."
Meanwhile, Derek Smith, the 76ers' sixth man, is riding to meet a chiropractor, whose name and address are on the torn Yellow Page that Smith holds in his hand. This will be the second time on the trip that Smith has had an adjustment made on his right sacroiliac joint, which slipped out of place during the preseason when Barkley drilled him as Smith tried to dunk. After one elbow, one hip, three knee and two left-eye operations, all since 1985, Smith could update Gray's Anatomy. He spends 15 minutes detailing his medical history to Dr. Guillermo Dozal. Dozal's adjustment to his back takes about 10 seconds.
The prospect of playing the Lakers in Los Angeles is daunting. However, Smith, whom Philadelphia picked up on waivers last season from the Sacramento Kings, welcomes the challenge. "We've got a very loose and very talented bunch, and we always get back to saying we can win any game," Smith says.
The game seems to be decided in the first half, which looks like Showtime versus no-show time. Los Angeles rolls out to a 67-51 lead by shooting 69.7% against a Philly defense that's several steps too slow. The Sixers also struggle with their perimeter shooting, which they desperately need to lighten Barkley's load. Philly rallies but eventually falls 122-116, out of gas if not heart. "We got caught up in the aura of being in L.A. and not being aware we were in a basketball game," says Mahorn.
SATURDAY, AT PHOENIX
The Suns have won seven games in a row, are 22-5 at home and have had a day to rest. After the game against the Lakers, the Sixers take an 11 a.m. flight that arrives in Phoenix at 1:30 p.m. They have time to eat and maybe rest but no time to plan for the 7:30 game. The 76ers saunter into Veterans Memorial Coliseum barely an hour before tip-off. Carter scribbles some Suns plays on the blackboard. Rap music blares on a tape deck. "This is whipping me into a frenzy," says Gminski jokingly as he stretches on the floor.
"We try to make the players aware they have to come out early, really ready to go, because the team in the other locker room knows the type of game we played last night," says Lynam. "They [the Suns] are talking about getting a good start and trying—literally—to win this game in the first eight minutes." They actually need 7:52. By then Phoenix has roared to a 31-12 lead en route to a 126-99 blowout. The Sixers again shoot poorly. For the entire trip, Barkley excluded, they will shoot 43.6%.
Mahorn gets two points and no rebounds, numbers Barkley later trumpets to their teammates in the locker room. "You're stealing money," he shouts at Mahorn.
Barkley's 12 points and four rebounds are far below his standards, but he's too weary to worry. He's the only 76er who's double-teamed night in and night out, and his ability to carry the club at 6'4¾" and 253 pounds is a wonder of the league. Someone asks him about Dan Majerle's defense on him. "Dan Majerle can't stop me, man," he says. "I'm just tired." After three weeks of teetotaling, Barkley vows he will have a beer or several on the flight home.
While Philadelphia was going 2-3 out West, the Knicks went 1-1, but New York would bow 98-87 on Sunday to the Detroit Pistons. That means, for all their mileage and misery, the Sixers lost only half a game to the Knicks in the standings and remained in good position to win the Atlantic Division.
BEFORE FACING THE WARRIORS, LYNAM SAW A REPLAY OF THEIR WIN ON FEB. 7 OVER THE SIXERS
*All times are approximate.
FEB 21 7:45 PM
BARKLEY STEPPED OUT SMARTLY AGAINST THE WARRIORS WITH 24 POINTS IN A TENSE 96-95 VICTORY
FEB 22 11:30 AM
SIXER ROOKIE KENNY PAYNE KEPT HIS HEAD ABOUT HIM AND GOT TO A PHONE BEFORE LEAVING FOR L.A.
FEB 22 11:45 AM
MAHORN SHOWED THAT HE HAS THE TOUCH WHEN IT COMES TO THE CELEBRATED BARKLEY DOME
FEB 22 1:45 PM
SMITH'S NEW DUDS SUITED BARKLEY AND MAHORN FINE DURING INSPECTION AT THE L.A. AIRPORT
FEB 22 3:15 PM
GMINSKI, WHO DIDN'T GET TIME TO READ IN OAKLAND, MADE THE MOST OF PHILLY'S L.A. LAYOVER
FEB 23 2:00 PM
SMITH LOCATED DOZAL'S BACK-HEALING FINGERS BY LETTING HIS OWN FINGERS DO THE WALKING
FEB 23 6:15 PM
THE SIXER HEAVYWEIGHTS, MAHORN AND BARKLEY, REHEARSED THE FINE ART OF INTIMIDATION
FEB 23 9:10 PM
DAWKINS, GETTING THE SCOOP ON LAKER A.C. GREEN, HAS BEEN A BIG FACTOR IN THE SIXERS' SUCCESS
FEB 23 10:30 PM
SIR CHARLES MOCKED HIS MORE HIRSUTE TEAMMATES WHO SPEND EXCESSIVE TIME ON THEIR DOS