There's my new hero!" barks Charles Barkley upon entering the Orlando Arena, and the clattering Chuck Wagon rolls ominously toward Anfernee Hardaway. "It's not many times I walk into a building and I ain't the richest one in it!" Barkley bear-hugs the bewildered point guard, then pumps the right hand of the newly minted, $70 million member of the Magic. One half-expects to see Hardaway cough up silver coins, like a slot machine paying out.
The Magic is hosting Barkley and the Phoenix Suns this evening in what is more than an NBA exhibition game. "It's an All-Star Game," notes Orlando player-personnel director John Gabriel, and indeed there are eight former All-Stars between the two teams. This does not count the 22-year-old Hardaway, a dead-bolt lock for future All-Stardom. "In a few years," says Barkley, "he'll be one of the five best players in the league."
So good is the Magic that forward Horace Grant and guard Brian Shaw sacrificed higher offers from other teams to sign with Orlando as free agents this summer. So good are the Suns that forwards Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale did the same to sign with Phoenix. Earl Weaver never saw so many sacrifices made in a single summer, and even the flint-hearted Barkley must be moved by this new benevolence, no?
"Shut up," Barkley reflects before the game. "Don't ask me that stupid question. They're all gonna get their money back next year, so don't try to say they're sacrificing. Don't give me that bogus stuff. Don't go writing that stuff. Don't believe that stuff. Don't make it out to be some god-almighty sacrifice. Gimme a break."
Indeed, Barkley knows that all manner of benefits will accrue to these men, provided they make good on their preseason promise to make the NBA Finals. "I've already told 'em," says Grant, 29, a three-time titlist with the Chicago Bulls. "There's nothing like winning a championship. To be called Number 1 for that whole year, to have your picture on the Wheaties box most of the time, to have champagne poured all over you"—Grant fairly shudders upon mentioning the champagne shampoo—"there's just no feeling like it."
Is it true, Grant is now asked, that he was recently photographed for the cover of this magazine with Barkley reflected in his goggle lenses? The horrific image bursts Grant's bubble, snaps him out of his three-ring reverie. "Yeah," he sighs. "And he's gonna be in my face tonight, too."
This pre-face to the NBA season, this power foreword, naturally begins with power forwards Barkley and Grant, with the in-your-face Suns and Magic, the top two contenders for the crown. But we should also raise a backdrop before the teams sit for their portraits. And so we hoist these secondary questions of interest this season:
Whither Glenn Robinson? The top pick in the draft is demanding a slapstick $100 million over 13 years from the Milwaukee Bucks, apparently mistaking the salary cap for a stovepipe hat. And what of Dominique Wilkins? The anti-Celtic is now playing in Boston, causing every ghost in the Garden to do a spin move in its grave. Most important, what will be the effect of the new rules, which forbid hand checking beyond the foul line; broaden the illegal-defense dictum, forbidding centers from falling back into a de facto zone; shorten the three-point shot (from a maximum distance of 23'9" to 22' all around); and crack down on trash-talking?
Magic owner Rich DeVos loves this last edict. "My goal this season is to have a team that gets no technical fouls," he says, making a mental note to nix that deal for Dennis Rodman. "I think it would be a good example to set for the youngsters watching us."
Indeed, parental discretion was advised for the playoffs last spring, and the new rules were designed to erase those repugnant postseason memories. Specifically, the rules seek to stimulate offense, boding ill for a certain defending Eastern Conference champion, a team that is featured in a videotape of banned defensive techniques produced by the league and screened by all 27 clubs in the preseason. "A lotta Knick highlights!" raves Grant.
So without the hand check, are the New York Knicks in checkmate? Hardly. The Magic won 50 games last season but was swept in the opening round of its first playoff appearance by the Indiana Pacers. Not since the '77 Portland Trail Blazers has a team gone to the NBA Finals without previously having won a playoff game in franchise history. "I don't think the expectations are realistic," says Magic coach Brian Hill. "There's a certain process you go through, learning how to win in the NBA playoffs. Detroit took three years to get past Boston and into the Finals. Chicago took three years to get past Detroit. And New York finally got through in its fourth year. I don't see any reason why we should be different."
But when you consider that DeVos is the cofounder of Amway, the man who loosed armies of inexorable cleaning-supply salesmen on America, you have to wonder: Will he be content just...knocking on the door?
"The Finals would be a huge leap," the enormously self-assured Hardaway said on a recent night, before driving off in his white Lamborghini Diablo, a vehicle Batman might reject as too ostentatious. "It puts a lot of pressure on us. But we can handle it."
Of course, with Grant signed through 1999, 22-year-old force of nature Shaquille O'Neal also signed through 1999, and Hardaway signed through 2003 and already tooling about in a quarter-of-a-million-dollar car, the Magic may not share the same sense of urgency felt by the veteran Suns. "We have to win it all," Phoenix guard Dan Majerle acknowledges with admirable candor. "We're not playing to get close anymore."
The Suns are far and away the most talented team in the league. They won 56 games last season before folding like lawn chairs to the eventual-champion Houston Rockets in the second round of the playoffs. To a team of past and present All-Stars—Barkley, Majerle, forward A.C. Green and guards Kevin Johnson and Danny Ainge—Phoenix grafts the 6'10" Manning, who averaged 20.6 points a game for the Los Angeles Clippers and the Atlanta Hawks last season. Confoundingly, he can play two-guard, both forward positions and center—though not, as rumor has it, simultaneously. "Been there, done that," says Manning when asked about his willingness to play all of the above. "Been doing it all my career."
"Manning's too big for your small forward to guard," says Hill. "He's too quick for your power forward. Then Johnson, Majerle and Ainge shoot so well." He shakes his head. "And, of course, Barkley," he adds, almost parenthetically. "And Tisdale creates a tough matchup for your center." Hill then curls into a fetal ball, rolls beneath his desk and sobs softly.
In fact, he does no such thing. But Hill does raise an interesting point about the 6'9" Tisdale: He will play plenty of center for the Suns, but he is really a forward who can draw shot-blocking Goliaths away from the basket. So unnoticed were his 18.4 points and 7.2 rebounds a game for the Sacramento Kings these last 5½ seasons that Tisdale was asked by a fan two summers ago to please refresh the fan's memory: When, exactly, had Way-man retired? Tisdale laughs. "A lot of years I was just hoping to win 30 games," he says. "Life is a lot sunnier on this side."
The Magic plays its home games in something called the Centroplex, while the Suns have a Centroplex, a rotating complex of centers that includes Tisdale, Manning and two ivory towers, Joe Kleine and Danny Schayes. Can they stop the league's top centers defensively without cloning Bill Russell from amber? "There are only three or four great centers in the league," Johnson points out. "And only one of them has won a championship, and that was Hakeem last year."
So what's to stop Phoenix? For starters, there's...there's the, uh...there's...what, exactly?
"The revolver is loaded," says Johnson flatly. "It's Desert Storm. We got all kinds of weapons."
Shaw, a former Miami Heat player, signed a one-year contract with the Magic for $690,000, little more than tax and license on the Lamborghini Diablo. But, as he gleefully points out, when he arrived at Orlando International Airport for the negotiations, there was a chauffeur awaiting him with one of those Dr. Galazkiewicz signs.
Shaw told one writer he was expecting "an intern in a Toyota Corolla," but he was taken, instead, via limousine to his hotel near Disney World. Almost immediately he was introduced to 85 Magic employees. "It seemed like a family to me," he says, words that are especially poignant for the 28-year-old Shaw, who, unimaginably, lost his parents and sister in a car crash two summers ago.
The Bulls insist they offered All-Star Grant $20 million over five years to remain in Chicago, where he averaged 15.1 points and 11.0 rebounds last season and appeared in 111 playoff games in seven years. But Grant accepted $3 million less to sign with Orlando, where he will free O'Neal from constant double-teaming. Manning's one-year deal with Phoenix is for a nominal $1 million. Tisdale also signed for one year, at $850,000. By the current standards of professional sports, each of these contracts is like Lee Iacocca's old dollar-a-year deal with Chrysler.
Yes, Hardaway held out for the first nine days of camp, demanding a new contract roughly equal to the GNP of Brazil, but his attitude is an anomaly. When the Magic tips off against the Suns in Orlando—on an October night that owners and players in both baseball and hockey are spending at home, tossing another wad of $50 bills on the fire for warmth—these teams appear to consist of men with but one novel desire: to win.
Which is what the Suns do, with alarming efficiency. Phoenix Turtle-Waxes the Magic 122-113, six Suns scoring in double figures. O'Neal, however, goes for 40 points and 11 rebounds against the Centroplex. Now Shaq sits at his locker, a blister the size of a chicken pot pie rising on his right big toe. (Hideous, it will require him to sit out the next game.) His glum mug does not square with the festive red paint on his toenails or the tattoo on his right biceps. It is a globe palmed by a massive hand, encircled by four words: THE WORLD IS MINE.
Last year, in his second season, O'Neal was the subject of ugly and ridiculous Shaq-lash. It was fashionable in NBA salons to say that he was vastly overrated, that he was endorsement-addled, that he was a ball hog who couldn't even make a free throw, for the love of god.
"In this era of the high-priced athlete," says Gabriel, the Magic player-personnel director, "people are quick to find the blemish in someone's game. It was like, So he'll lead the league in scoring and rebounding, he'll be the most marketable guy in sports, but he'll never shoot over 65 percent from the line, so why doesn't somebody put him out of his misery?"
All O'Neal did last season was play 40 minutes a game and average 29.3 points, 13.2 rebounds and nearly three blocks. This summer he was voted MVP of the world championships. And, on this very day, he was named—in a nationwide ad-agency poll of 11- to 17-year-olds—the Coolest Person Alive. (Barkley was fourth.) And yet as Shaq slouches at his locker, exhausted, his nickname Magic-Markered to the waistband of his underpants, what he really looks like is a 303-pound six-year-old.
O'Neal is now asked if the average fan really understands the atrocities an NBA center must endure each and every game. "I don't think he really cares what we go through," says Shaq with a refreshing self-awareness, "because he's making $4 an hour, and we're making $20,000 every 10 days." It sounded like he said "$20,000." It 'might have been "$200,000." Shaq speaks so softly, and makes such vast sums, that it's difficult to tell.
But this much is certain: When Shaq cashes his paycheck, the bank needs a leaf-blower to deliver the money. O'Neal knows there is only one reason why the Magic pay him in the first place. Ask Shaq if the NBA Finals are an unreasonable goal for Orlando this season, and he doesn't hesitate. "Look at the talent on this team," he says, rising to his full 7'1" before heading for the shower. "We shouldn't be thinking of anything less."
Barkley choked back tears in June when he announced that he would not retire, in spite of his intense desire to do so. Barkley, a disk already bulging in his back, missed a career-high 17 games last season when he tore the quadriceps tendon above his right knee on Jan. 7, and at 31 he did not relish a summer of rehab. After 10 seasons he had resigned himself to life without basketball. He would never win an NBA title.
"Until the last 48 hours I was definitely going to retire," Barkley said, misty-eyed, at his unretirement press conference in Phoenix. "And...uh...the person I've got to thank for coming back—I hate to give him credit—is Danny Ainge."
Today, playing pain-free and fearsomely, Barkley again searches for words to describe the good deed his friend performed for him this summer. Only, this time he isn't required to blink back any tears. "Ainge," Barkley begins pensively, "is an——. Some things just never change. He was on my case every day, buggin' me, callin' me, buggin' me, callin' me." Ainge walks past. "Ain't that right, Whitey?" Barkley asks. "Otherwise I was gone."
Ainge feigns exasperation. "I'm still not sure talking him out of retirement was a good thing," he says as Barkley natters on and on, like a set of those chattering novelty teeth. "Ask me in about eight months."
By then we'll confirm that Copernicus was right. In 1543 the Polish astronomer and hoop prognosticator wrote: "Finally we shall place the Sun himself at the center of the universe." It's about damn time, if you ask Barkley. "The world is mine," says Shaq. True enough. But for now, that world revolves around the Sun himself.