The home team dressing room at the Summit in Houston is much
smaller than the one at the America West Arena in Phoenix.
Charles Barkley, late of the Suns and now a member of the
Rockets, does not have to raise his voice to be heard in his new
quarters at the Summit. He raises his voice anyway. "Where have
all the tough white guys gone?" he asks early last Friday night.
"What happened to the white guys like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale?
Why can't we get any tough white guys?"
No one answers the question. The other Rockets players are in
various stages of undress. Here is guard Clyde Drexler, sitting
at the next locker. There is center Hakeem Olajuwon, three
lockers in the other direction. Forward Kevin Willis is across
from Olajuwon. The only notable player missing is point guard
Price, white guy, is injured. One night earlier he broke his
left elbow diving for a loose ball in a 108-76 loss to the Spurs
in San Antonio. Surgery was performed this morning. He will miss
the first three months of the NBA season.
"We get a white guy from Oklahoma, and he breaks his elbow,"
Barkley continues. "We need to get tough white guys. We need
white guys from New York or somewhere. Can't get those white
guys from the Midwest anymore. Can't get those white guys
like...." He spots teammate Matt Bullard, white guy.
November 4, 1996
"Can't get those white guys like Matt Bullard," Barkley says.
"We need some tough white guys." Bullard, white guy, giggles
along with everyone else.
Everyone is getting ready for the final game on the Rockets'
preseason schedule. Coach Rudy Tomjanovich would like to see a
neat dress rehearsal, to get a last look at the possibilities
for the regular season, which opens one week later at Sacramento
against the Kings. The New York Knicks are tonight's opponent.
The Summit is sold out.
How are the pieces falling into place? Not many teams have done
what the Rockets have done--dismantle a two-time champion only a
season after its last title. In a deal that exchanged one aging
superstar for four solid contributing players, Houston grabbed
the 33-year-old Barkley from Phoenix for point guard Sam Cassell
and forwards Robert Horry, Chucky Brown and Mark Bryant. It was
a high roller's grand roll. Two free agents--Price, who played
most recently for the Washington Bullets, and Willis (Golden
State Warriors)--were other off-season additions.
So much change on the roster means so much change on the floor.
A two-star attack with Olajuwon and Drexler will become a
three-star attack with the addition of Barkley. The offense will
move lower, closer to the basket. Pound the ball inside!
Olajuwon's burden of scoring and rebounding will be lightened.
Barkley will help. Tomjanovich says that "less than half" the
things the Rockets will do have been installed, that all this
will take a long time.
Tonight he hopes to get an indication of how long, although that
determination has been made more difficult by the loss of Price.
Otherwise, this will be a fine little test.
"Hakeem, I have a Kevin Willis sighting," Barkley says loudly.
"He's right here. I think he might even play basketball
tonight." Willis, who has missed the past five games with a
lower-back strain, giggles.
"Wait, it's a Clyde Drexler sighting, too," Barkley says. "Is he
going to play, too?" Drexler, whom Tomjanovich had rested in San
Antonio, giggles. He acknowledges that he didn't play against
the Spurs and says that was the reason for his lack of
productivity there. Drexler wants to know how Barkley explains
his own lack of productivity. He had only five points and eight
rebounds in 20 minutes against the Spurs. Drexler says the box
score listed him as a DID NOT PLAY--COACH'S DECISION. Barkley,
Drexler says, was a DID NOT PLAY--CHARLES BARKLEY'S DECISION.
"DNP-CBD," Barkley says, trying out the initials. "I like that."
The stories about big-time trades, in which a superstar joins
another superstar, always raise the question of "chemistry." How
will the superstars react to each other? Will one ball be
enough? One stretch limo? One whatever. In this case, with three
superstars involved, with the noisiest one joining the two
residents who already have won a championship together, the
questions of chemistry are even more obvious.
"What I think we have now are three great leaders," Tomjanovich
says. "We have Hakeem, who is very quiet but when the big game
arrives, is not afraid to speak his mind. We have Clyde, who is
a little more vocal, and then we have Charles, who is an
outspoken person, who likes the attention. I think it all works
"Hakeem really didn't know Charles until the Olympics this year,
but when he came back from the Games, he couldn't stop talking
about him. Hakeem really wanted Charles to come here.
Everybody's working together."
Barkley certainly feels at home. Home? He has bought a house in
the Houston suburb of Sugarland, sold his house on the outskirts
of Phoenix. Home? "I don't know if I'm going to like the city of
Houston," he says, "but I know I like this team. I like this
team a lot."
He does not worry about the chemical content of basketball. In
his view, there should be no argument about whether this is
"Olajuwon's team" or "Drexler's team" or "Barkley's team." These
are not kids here with egos to match their salaries. These are
three thirtysomething gunslingers trying to pull off one last
stick 'em up before they ride off into the hills. "If this were
five years ago, I'd say for sure that we'd win a championship,"
Barkley says. "But we're all on the downside now. Do we have
enough left? That's the question."
He feels at home because basketball is his home. What's
different? He says what he wants to say. No need to tiptoe at
home. He talks loudly about the presidential election. ("Dole
started 20 points behind, spent millions of dollars, and now
he's 21 points behind. What kind of a campaign is that?") He
hoots on teammates of all color and size. He yells for service.
"Can you bring me my shoes?" he says to the equipment man.
"Do you want them laced or unlaced?" the equipment man asks.
"Laced," Barkley says. "Of course they're laced. You get as big
as me, Nike delivers the shoes already laced for you."
Time for the nice little test.
Barkley plays three minutes. He has no points, one rebound.
Trying to go back up with that rebound, he is thrown hard to the
floor by Knicks forward Charles Oakley. Barkley jumps up to
speak of his displeasure. Oakley swings. Barkley swings. The
fight makes highlight shows across the country in the midst of
the World Series and the full fall football schedule. Fight in a
preseason game. Both players are ejected.
Less than five minutes later, Willis plants an elbow in the side
of New York center Patrick Ewing. They push and shove and shout
and are ejected as well. A 24-minute power failure later in the
first quarter further slows the proceedings, which plod along to
a dull 79-75 win by the Knicks. The Rockets finish the preseason
The idea was to take a look at the three rookie point guards on
the roster--Emanual Davis, Randy Livingston and Matt
Maloney--and see if any of them can fill the hole left by
Price's injury. That, too, was lost in the mishmash of
ejections. Will the Rockets have to deal again for a point guard
this week? Will they look for a Spud Webb, or for a Doc Rivers
to come out of retirement? Will the rookies do the job?
"Very bizarre," Tomjanovich mutters. He stands behind a podium
in a press conference area in the concrete underbelly of the
Summit. He looks as if he is a candidate for office from some
fringe party. He is talking to five or six rows of unoccupied
folding chairs. Only three reporters are present.
"It's O.K. to let the media in," Rudy T tells media services
coordinator Angela Blakeney.
"I told them," she replies. "They're all waiting for the locker
room to open."
They're waiting to talk to Barkley.
"That's the fastest I've ever been ejected," Barkley says. "I
wasn't even around long enough to piss anyone off." He is
surrounded. Television broadcasters kneel at his feet. A
reporter from the Houston Chronicle stands inside his locker.
The crowd is maybe 30 people, maybe more. Those at the edges
strain to hear Barkley speak.
"What'd he say?" a reporter asks.
"He wasn't around long enough to piss anyone off," another
A one-game suspension is supposed to be the minimum mandatory
penalty for throwing a punch. Barkley says he had to swing. The
foul was flagrant. Then, when a punch was thrown at him, what
was he supposed to do? Not punch back? "If they give the same
punishment to both of us," Barkley says, "I'm going to lose what
little respect I have for this league."(On Monday, the NBA fined
Barkley $5,000 and suspended him for the regular-season opener;
Oakley was hit with a $10,000 fine and a two-game suspension.)
The writers jot down his words. The cameras record them. "This
is the easiest job I ever had," one Houston reporter says. "I
just write down whatever he says."
"Hey, Kevin," Barkley says to Willis. "Patrick Ewing's in the
hallway. He's waiting for you."
The Houston Rockets have traded for fun, if nothing else. The
rest will have to be determined later.