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AS THE SUNS SLOWLY SET PHOENIX'S AGING AND INJURY-RIDDLED STARS STRAGGLE BACK, HOPING TO MAKE A BELATED RUN FOR A TITLE

Feb. 05, 1996
Feb. 05, 1996

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Feb. 5, 1996

AS THE SUNS SLOWLY SET PHOENIX'S AGING AND INJURY-RIDDLED STARS STRAGGLE BACK, HOPING TO MAKE A BELATED RUN FOR A TITLE

Phoenix Suns forward Charles Barkley sat in the visitors' locker
room of the Target Center in Minneapolis last week, inspecting
the blue Minnesota Timberwolves practice shorts a clubhouse
attendant had offered him for the next day's workout. That
prompted one observer, mindful of the trade winds that have
swirled around Barkley of late, to ask whether he could envision
himself playing for the lowly T-wolves. He might as well have
asked whether Barkley could see himself doing a swan dive off a
skyscraper. "Now just hold on," Barkley said. "Don't go trading
me to Minnesota. I know things are bad for us right now, but
they ain't that bad. Trust me, they'll never get that bad."

This is an article from the Feb. 5, 1996 issue Original Layout

The Suns hope, in fact, that the worst is finally over for their
beleaguered team, whose hellish half-season so far has included
a devastating rash of injuries, a controversial coaching change,
friction between Barkley and Phoenix management, and some
particularly embarrassing losses for a team that was expected to
make another run at the NBA championship. The Suns, who at
week's end were 17-23 and next to last in the Pacific Division,
have lost at home to such woeful clubs as Minnesota, the Dallas
Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers. And if the season had
ended after a 93-82 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, Phoenix
would have been out of the playoffs for the first time since the
1987-88 season.

The Suns' slow start cost coach Paul Westphal his job, even
though he had won 62, 56 and 59 games the past three seasons and
at one point this season had only eight players healthy enough
to dress. Barkley, point guard Kevin Johnson and center John
(Hot Rod) Williams missed a total of 30 games because of injury
before Westphal was replaced by team vice president Cotton
Fitzsimmons on Jan. 16, and forward Danny Manning still hasn't
played since tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in
February '95. "There were times I'd be sitting on the bench and
I'd look around and see two other guys in uniforms and everybody
else in suits," says reserve forward Wayman Tisdale.

But Barkley, who missed six games after having the nail removed
from the infected big toe of his left foot, and Johnson, who was
out for 20 with a strained left knee and groin, are both healthy
again. Manning is expected back this weekend, and Williams, who
suffered nerve damage to his right leg in a car accident last
August, finally played against the Bulls on Sunday after missing
a total of 13 games. The Suns believe their return to health,
coupled with Fitzsimmons's running a tighter ship, will make
them a formidable team again by the time the postseason arrives.

"That's if we're in the postseason, of course," says
Fitzsimmons, who is back for his third stint as the Suns' coach.
"We're in a position where we have to worry about getting to
.500 first. We were crawling, now we're walking, but it's going
to take some time before we're running again."

At week's end the Suns had won three of their last five, but
there has to be some doubt about whether their veterans can
still play at a contender's pace. Barkley, 33 on Feb. 20, has
seen his chronically ailing back and sore knees fail him in the
playoffs the past two seasons, and though he remains one of the
top power forwards in the league, his explosiveness and stamina
are not what they used to be. Johnson, who will be 30 in March,
has missed 103 games over the past 3 1/2 seasons. The Suns knew
that Williams, 33, had a history of nagging injuries when they
acquired him from the Cleveland Cavaliers for Dan Majerle,
Antonio Lang and a first-round draft pick in October. And
Manning, who will be 30 in May, has now suffered the dreaded ACL
tear in both knees.

"You know those hospital shows, where the doctor comes out of
surgery and says the operation went well but the patient's not
out of the woods yet?" says Tisdale. "That's us. The rest of the
season looks good, but we're not out of the woods yet."

It won't be possible to make a more definitive prognosis on the
Suns until Manning returns to the lineup because Phoenix is
counting heavily on his intelligence and all-around skills to
make the team whole again. The Suns were encouraged with
Manning's performance in a scrimmage last week. "He can help us
in every phase--scoring, rebounding, passing, interior defense,"
Johnson says. "It really is true of him: He makes other players
better."

One way or another, Manning's comeback will be pivotal.
Notwithstanding all the rumors of Barkley's being on the block,
team president Jerry Colangelo so far has resisted the
temptation to make a major trade. But if he determines that the
season is lost even after Manning returns, Colangelo might be
more inclined to unload Sir Charles for the chance to rebuild
with younger players acquired in the deal. Even so, Colangelo
has declared that it would take "a blockbuster offer" to move
Barkley. The New York Knicks and the Indiana Pacers are among
the teams that have inquired about Barkley's availability. "I
would say that the chances are very, very strong that Charles
Barkley will finish his career in Phoenix," says Fitzsimmons,
who in his role as vice president is consulted by Colangelo on
personnel. "Take a look at our inside game. Without Charles, we
don't have one. He's not going anywhere."

At times, though, the outspoken Barkley sounds as if he's trying
to talk his way out of town. He has publicly disparaged most of
the trades made by Phoenix since the one that brought him to the
Suns from the Philadelphia 76ers in 1992. When Barkley
criticized the Majerle trade, Colangelo responded pointedly.
"I'm not concerned with what Charles thinks," he said. "He does
not run this team."

But Barkley does believe he at least controls his own destiny.
"I'm not going to be traded anyplace I don't want to be traded,"
he says. "If they deal me, it's going to be to a good team
because I won't go anyplace else. I'll retire before I go play
for some team that's just trying to make the playoffs. I'm the
product. I'm in control. All I want is to play for a contender.
It doesn't have to be in Phoenix."

Barkley has also been openly critical of the decision to fire
Westphal. "Paul got the shaft, plain and simple," Barkley says.
"No coach could have won while missing his best players. Phoenix
is a little podunk town that all of a sudden had a big winner
and started to take it for granted that we would win 50 or 60
games every year. Then when that didn't happen this year, people
started to criticize Paul unfairly."

In fact, Westphal's dismissal had as much to do with his
coaching style as his record this season. It was no secret that
Colangelo was not a fan of Westphal's relaxed approach, and
sources within the Suns' organization confirm that Colangelo
came close to firing Westphal after Phoenix's loss at home to
the Houston Rockets in the seventh game of last year's Western
Conference semifinals. Colangelo was talked out of the change by
Fitzsimmons.

Under Westphal's system, players like Barkley and Johnson were
allowed to decide when they felt their bodies were up to
practicing, and Westphal didn't bat an eye when Barkley would
occasionally stroll into the arena 30 minutes before game
time--straight from the golf course.

Westphal has kept mum since his firing, but Barkley has done
enough talking for both of them. "All that stuff about not
practicing is magnified when you're losing," he says. "If
anything, we practiced more the last two years than we did my
first year here. Paul had a group of veterans who he treated
like men, and he allowed us to take care of our bodies and it
worked--we won a whole bunch of games. Then all of a sudden he's
a bad coach because people got hurt? That makes no sense."

With his club in the doldrums, Colangelo decided that
Fitzsimmons, who in his two previous tours as Suns coach went a
combined 314-178 over six seasons, was better suited to
revitalize the team because of his more disciplined, fiery
approach. Fitzsimmons took no pleasure in replacing Westphal, a
close friend and former assistant for four seasons. "This is not
a job I wanted," Fitzsimmons says. "I would have been happy
doing my broadcasting, playing my golf and enjoying my life."

But Fitzsimmons has assumed his old duties with characteristic
vigor, constantly barking orders in his raspy voice. Through
Sunday the Suns were only 3-4 since the coaching change, but
Fitzsimmons has ratcheted up the intensity, and he seems to have
found the right tone with Barkley. Last week, for instance, the
Suns had an off day between road games against Minnesota and
Milwaukee. While Barkley might have been allowed to skip such a
workout when Westphal was coach, Fitzsimmons insisted that Sir
Charles practice because he wanted everyone to work on handling
the press. But once that part of the session was over,
Fitzsimmons allowed Barkley to spend the rest of the practice in
the whirlpool.

Fitzsimmons also understands how important KJ is to the Suns'
success. Johnson is the only member of the current team who
played under Fitzsimmons previously, and he has long been
considered one of Fitzsimmons's favorite players. After the
Suns' 101-91 victory over Minnesota on Jan. 24, Johnson, who
started slowly but finished with 21 points and 11 assists, said
to Fitzsimmons, "Thanks for sticking with me." Fitzsimmons
replied, "When have I not stuck with you?"

Johnson is essential to Fitzsimmons's desire to turn Phoenix
into more of a running team. The Suns' defensive weakness has
been a perennial problem, and that hasn't changed; through
Sunday, they were last in the league in blocked shots and fifth
from last in points allowed per game (105.1). But this season
the Suns' offense has declined. Their scoring average of 103.1
points through Sunday is down from 110.6 last season. They had
also been held to fewer than 100 points 12 times this
season--losing all of those games--compared with 14 sub-100 games
all of last season. That's partly because, with the departures
of Majerle and guard Danny Ainge, who retired, second-year guard
Wesley Person is the only Sun even resembling a three-point
threat, and through Sunday his shooting percentage from beyond
the arc was down dramatically from a year ago (.362 versus
.436). Fitzsimmons has emphasized the transition game, which
should benefit athletic rookie forward Michael Finley (15.0
points per game).

Even when Fitzsimmons gets his entire squad up and running,
there's one more championship ingredient that was lost with the
departure of Ainge and Majerle: late-game confidence. Through
Sunday the Suns were 10-10 this season in games decided by six
points or less, compared with 20-5 in all of last year. "With
[Ainge and Majerle] you always had the feeling late in the
fourth quarter that you were going to win," Johnson says. "That
edge is something we have to get back."

The Suns have a long way to go to regain the feeling Fitzsimmons
and Westphal had going into this season. "We both agreed that
this was the strongest team we'd had since Paul took over,"
Fitzsimmons says. "I would have told you that the odds against
us being in the position we're in now were astronomical." Now
that they are there, the odds against the Suns' climbing all the
way back may be almost as high.

COLOR PHOTO: ANDY HAYT/NBA PHOTOS A battle-weary Barkley, driving against Vancouver, is often the lone Sun underneath. [Charles Barkley]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER With KJ (above) back and Manning (left) aiming for a return, Fitzsimmons is in full rasp. [Kevin Johnson seated on bench; Cotton Fitzsimmons]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [See caption above--Danny Manning shooting basketball during practice] COLOR PHOTO: FERNANDO MEDINA/NBA PHOTOS Listen closely: Sir Charles will not be traded, especially to a loser. [Charles Barkley]