Having just been thrashed 131-104 by the Houston Rockets last Thursday night, several members of the Phoenix Suns sat in the visitors' locker room of the Summit, dealing with their deep, deep depression.
"Damn, if he don't look like some giant Popsicle," said Charles Barkley, pointing to rookie Richard Dumas, who had just donned a pair of bright-yellow jeans.
"It gets worse," said Tom Chambers, dressing nearby. "He's got the matching top."
"You look like a yellow banana, Richard," said Barkley as Dumas hurried by, yellow jacket in hand. "Our small forward's a big banana."
Chambers, sporting a Western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots, stood up to leave. He didn't make it unscathed.
"Hey, Tom, you must get all them damn Wrangler shirts for free," said Barkley.
"You got something against the Garth Brooks look?" said Chambers.
Danny Ainge walked by and entered the fray. "How can you talk, Charles?" he said. "You been wearing blue boots. What's that all about?"
"Oh, the choirboy, Dannyainge," said Barkley, who always pronounces Ainge's given and family names as one long word. "Mormon fashion tips."
Such is life with the Suns these days: The victories are the only things keeping pace with the locker-room insults. After losing in Houston, Phoenix returned to its classy new pleasure palace, the America West Arena, and defeated the Utah Jazz (113-106 last Friday) before losing again, to the Cleveland Cavaliers (101-94 on Sunday). At week's end the Suns' record stood at a league-best 40-12, comfortably ahead of their chief Western Conference pursuers, the Seattle Supersonics (37-17), the San Antonio Spurs (35-18) and the Portland Trail Blazers (32-19). So formidable has Phoenix been this season that one day last week Sir Charles sat in his hotel room in Houston and analyzed the Suns' losses—one by one.
"Damn, could you imagine me doing this last year in Philly?" said Barkley, who arrived from the Philadelphia 76ers gift-wrapped last summer in exchange for guard Jeff Hornacek, center Andrew Lang and forward Tim Perry. "My head would be jammed up after going through one week."
Yes, there is no doubt these Suns are still on a honeymoon. Everything is clicking. The Downtown Dannys—starting guard Majerle and the rejuvenated Ainge, who turns 34 on March 17—are throwing up three-pointers at a record pace and making them at an outstanding rate (.416). Dumas, who used to be known primarily as a guy with drug problems, is playing so well (17.7 points per game) that he can wear anything he likes. (In honor of Phoenix's three-point acuity, Dumas recently named his newborn son Richard Trè Dumas III.) Patrons are pouring into Majerle's, the trendy new restaurant (try the Sir Charles Chicken Cheese Steak) just one block from the arena, at such a rate that the proprietor is ready to expand after only three months in business. And Jerry Colangelo, longtime president and CEO of the Suns, a franchise that just six years ago was drug-plagued and dying, now proudly conducts tours of Phoenix's $90 million state-of-the-art arena and ponders the effect that a championship banner would have on local morale.
As for Barkley, well, he has plain died and gone to heaven. He joshes with Ainge and Chambers as if they're homeboys from Alabama. He charms the folks in Phoenix with fist-pumping displays on the court and with various renditions of his I'm-a-black-millionaire spiel off it. His weekly TV show, Suns' Jam Session with Charles Barkley, is a big success. Last month Phoenix fans voted him onto—get this!—the Suns' 25th-anniversary team (Walter Davis, Phoenix's alltime scoring leader, didn't make the five-man team); he had been with Phoenix for less than half a season. He talks to youth groups, blows kisses to old ladies and rubs babies' heads, which are usually no smoother than his own shaved pate. And his portrait adorns city buses. "Only one guy gets to be Elvis," says the Suns' rookie coach, Paul Westphal. "Same thing with Charles."
"You know the best thing about the trade?" says Barkley. "I can leave my clothes in the dressing room. In Philadelphia our locker room [at the Spectrum] was also the visiting locker room for hockey, so we had to take our stuff home after every game, like some damn sixth-grade team. I always wanted my own locker."
Barkley's locker will be around through the postseason, but will the Suns?
"Frankly, I'm amazed at our record," says Westphal, who neither sounds nor looks amazed, particularly during games, when, in contrast to most NBA coaches, he actually remains seated most of the time. Only a fool would fail to take the Suns seriously, but there are those who believe they cannot win an NBA title because 1) the team commits too many turnovers, an average of 16.76 per game through last weekend, and 2) it allows opponents to shoot too well from the floor, around 48%, 20th in the league. "Well," says Westphal, "the biggest stat is final score. We're doing O.K. there."
The Phoenix management team of Colangelo, former coach Cotton Fitzsimmons (now senior executive vice-president) and Westphal emerged from last season with a grand plan to build a championship-caliber team, but they've had plenty of good luck, too.
Step 1 was the acquisition of Barkley. Had 76er owner Harold Katz waited until after the 1992 Olympics, at which Barkley demonstrated himself to be not only an international folk hero but also a talent of Jordanesque proportions, surely the price for Sir Charles would have been higher. But, then, if Harold Katz had made a good deal, he wouldn't be Harold Katz. If Barkley leads Phoenix to an NBA title, the trade, from Philadelphia's perspective, might go down as one of the league's worst, right down there with the '83 deal in which the Suns sent Dennis Johnson to the Boston Celtics for Rick Robey (the Celtics reached the NBA Finals for four straight seasons and won two championships after Johnson's arrival, while Robey sputtered through three dismal seasons). That disaster was signed, sealed and delivered by Colangelo.
Step 2 was signing Ainge, an unrestricted free agent who couldn't persuade the Trail Blazers, his previous team for two seasons, to give him three more years.
"What would it take to get you here?" Colangelo asked Ainge in a phone call following last season.
"Three years at $1.7 million per," said Ainge.
"I'll be honest," said Colangelo. "We'd like to sign you for two years and less money. But if I give you what you want, will you come?"
"Consider me a Sun," said Ainge, reaching for his set of customized Pings.
Step 3 was for Westphal to put it all together. After realizing during the preseason that Barkley, at 30, can no longer guard quicker small forwards—"Cedric Ceballos kicked my butt every single day in training camp," Barkley admits—Westphal installed him exclusively at power forward, where he regularly out-muscles bigger opponents. "It's revitalized my game," says Charles. The move would not have worked, however, if not for the emergence of the little-known Dumas, Phoenix's 1991 second-round draft pick, who came off the suspended list on Dec. 16, and moved into the starting lineup to stay on Jan. 5. "This is my journey to the end of the rainbow, my Oz," says Dumas of his ascension from drug casualty (he was booted off the team at Oklahoma State in '90 for substance abuse and failed a random test with the Suns during training camp last season) to potential All-Star. Dumas gives Phoenix a player who can slash to the basket when Barkley is double-teamed; Barkley can then pass off to Dumas, throw it outside to the Danny Bomb Squad or shoot it, the last option, of course, being Barkley's preference.
For all the talk about their high-octane offense, though, the Suns are rather a grind-it-out team without oft-injured point guard Kevin Johnson, who had missed, at week's end, 25 games this season; he's expected to return to the lineup this week after having been out for 2½ weeks with a bruised calf. Indeed the plodding pace of Phoenix's victory over the Jazz last Friday suggested at times a New York Knick intrasquad scrimmage. In the long run Johnson's absence may help the Suns, since it has forced them to become efficient at the half-court style that usually defines postseason play. Don't believe for a moment, however, that Phoenix is a better team without KJ; it will need him healthy to win a championship.
Despite the promise that greeted the Suns at the onset of the regular season, there were still questions. How would the Suns adjust to Westphal? How would Westphal rotate the Dannys, since Ainge is too old to play major minutes and Majerle, long one of the league's best sixth men, would now be starting? How would team leader Johnson accept Barkley's Ruthian presence? And how long would it take before Barkley grated on veterans like Ainge and Chambers, and, for that matter, on the entire state of Arizona?
Answering the first question was easy: After four years under Fitzsimmons, the Suns were ready for a change, and no one saw it more clearly than Fitzsimmons; his office desk now bears a placard VICE PRESIDENT OF NOTHING. Cotton's penchant for incessant conversation is what makes him an endearing personality, but it had begun to grate on his players, Johnson and Chambers in particular. "Cotton is better with young guys who need boosting up and confidence," says Johnson diplomatically. "As soon as we became more of a veteran team, Paul was the better man for the job."
As for the second question, Westphal, a Sun assistant under Fitzsimmons, had no trouble with the Danny Decision. "My philosophy with Majerle is that I never want to take him out of the game," says Westphal. And often he doesn't, as was the case on Friday when the gnarly Majerle played all 48 minutes, many of them at point guard. It was up to Ainge, then, to find his niche off the bench, and he has. Through Sunday he had hit 49.6% of his shots from the floor and 45.7% from three-point range while playing an average of 27.6 minutes a game. "There's a lot more juice in those legs than we ever dreamed," says Westphal.
If Johnson is overwhelmed by the Barkley burden, he's hiding it well. "I am not as good a basketball player as Charles Barkley," he said last week. "That's all there is to it. And somehow realizing that has made me feel comfortable, freed me up, so to speak, for just playing."
As for the veterans Barkley, Ainge and Chambers, they're melding well. Chambers has in the past had trouble getting along with teammates, but, at age 33, he now wants only a championship ring to validate his 12-year career. As much as anyone, he has sacrificed statistically to accommodate Barkley.
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.