TWILIGHT OF THE GODS IN THE WEST, AGING STARS OF THE ROCKETS AND THE JAZZ GAVE IT THEIR BEST--AND PERHAPS LAST--SHOT

June 01, 1997

Maybe it's the approaching millennium. But these days everything
has a last-gasp quality to it, the lights going black, time
running out, things having to be done now. Take the NBA's
Western Conference finals, where by Sunday an apocalyptic
anxiety--what else would you call it?--had driven the Houston
Rockets into a 2-2 tie in their best-of-seven series with the
Utah Jazz and forced forward Charles Barkley into doomsday
pronouncements and uncharted vocabulary.

All week Rockets prophet Barkley told his teammates that their
era, not just their season, was drawing to a close. They were
old, veteran beyond belief, he said, and blowing whatever
remained of their last chance at the NBA championship. Game by
pitiful game he read them their destiny. When they trailed 2-0
after a horrible stand in Utah, Barkley instructed them, and
everybody else, that no team comes back from 3-0.
"Realistically," he said, conjuring a vision of the Rockets' sad
lot if they lost Game 3 in Houston, "it's over."

When the Rockets won Game 3 last Friday, Barkley was not very
much relieved, not even by the 118-100 score. His mates, a few
of whom had been members of Houston's championship clubs
(swingman Mario Elie and center Hakeem Olajuwon, '94 and '95,
and guard Clyde Drexler, '95, among them), were without the
"urgency" that a ringless Barkley or, for that matter, the
ringless Utah players felt. Nobody but he seemed to understand
the Rockets' impending mortality. "If we don't win," he said,
"we are dead. D-E-A-D."

Then, even after guard Eddie Johnson, himself seemingly as old
as the millennium, buried the Jazz with a 27-footer at the
buzzer for a 95-92 victory in Sunday's Game 4, Barkley continued
to sound alarms. "Let's be realistic," he said, looking to the
fifth game, on Tuesday in Salt Lake City. "This is our last
chance, and probably Utah's. We are not young teams; we're
losing something every year. We are running out of time."

He's right. Both teams have long since reached their primes. The
Rockets have four starters older than 33, and three of the
Jazz's soon will be more than 34 (when power forward and league
MVP Karl Malone gets there on July 24). For both franchises, the
world really is about to end--at least until the next good draft.

But if last week's four games were any indication, it won't end
with a whimper, or without comment from Barkley, who regards the
playoffs as his personal podium. The two teams are so evenly
matched that their series seemed preordained to end with a bang
and more Barkley bombast, not to mention continued charges of
dirty play.

On Sunday, after the 38-year-old Johnson poured in his
game-winner, Barkley had to use the word surreal to describe the
shot's seemingly eternal trajectory. "Of course," Barkley added,
"I'm not sure what surreal means, but I heard it on TV once and
it sounded pretty damn smart. So I'd have to say surreal is the
word."

Surreal, desperate, lucky--they all work, both for Johnson's
three-pointer and Houston's last-second stay of execution. That
it was Johnson, a well-traveled hanger-on at the end of his
line, who saved the day in Games 3 and 4, was entirely
consistent with Barkley's millennial mythology.

Johnson had already attained as much playoff fame as he
reasonably could have hoped for when he came off the bench in
Game 3 to ring up 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting. He and his
fellow Rockets reserves had supplied much-needed relief,
outscoring their Jazz counterparts 47-28 after being outpointed
54-26 during the two games in Utah. And his performance was a
splendid moment for a 16-year journeyman overlooked for much of
his career.

Johnson is so old he can reminisce about college matchups with
Magic Johnson when Eddie was at Illinois and Magic at Michigan
State. His career as sixth-man Excalibur had been winding down
with increasingly brief stops here and there--six franchises and
two countries in the last five years. He had played one
miserable season in Greece in 1994-95, where the fans threw
coins and apples at him. ("They wouldn't talk to me for a week
after we'd lost," he says.) Houston grabbed him on March 3, five
days after he was waived by the Denver Nuggets and 11 days after
the Indiana Pacers traded him to Denver. With Drexler out
nursing a strained left hamstring, Johnson had even gotten some
quality playing time in his first month with the Rockets. Come
the playoffs, though, and he receded into Houston's ineffectual
bench and existed, as he had for so much of his career, as a
pleasant afterthought. Good guy, good shot, goodbye.

Then he scored those 31 and everyone in the Summit was shouting
"Ed-die, Ed-die." Barkley said, "Well, we can take him off the
milk carton now." Johnson was plainly ecstatic to be
rediscovered. As his shots in Game 3 fell, and fell, and fell,
he gloried in his accuracy, lifting his arms in mock surprise as
he trailed back up the court. "Sometimes," he said afterward,
"you've got to seize the moment, be a hero."

The night, he knew, might well serve as the capstone to a sturdy
if unspectacular career (scoring average: 16.6), which included
some seasons in which his play approached All-Star caliber and
other years that were demonstrations of proficient workmanship.
"I learned how to play a role, be a good teammate," he said
after his Game 3 burst, explaining his longevity. The durability
was legacy enough. "Not bad for a second-round pick in '81," he
said.

Who knew that there were more heroics to come on Sunday? With
Elie in foul trouble, Johnson again got a lot of playing time,
but he made just one field goal in 24 minutes before sinking the
game-winner. As usual, Olajuwon was keeping the Rockets in the
game, scoring 27 points by using his spinning Dream Shakes
around the basket and continually beating Utah's overmatched
Gregs, Ostertag and Foster.

But John Stockton, the Jazz's All-Star point guard, was his
usual brilliant self, scoring 22, and Malone added his typical
22, including a jumper that tied the game at 92 with 1:08 left.
Utah got possession again with 51.9 remaining but couldn't
score, leaving Houston just 6.7 seconds and a transparent plan.

Of course, the ball would go to Olajuwon down low, where he'd
get his usual short shot or draw a foul. But since Utah was well
aware of that option, it couldn't happen. The next possibility
was for Drexler to try to get himself open on the outside. The
Jazz had thought of that, too. Drexler, aggressively
double-teamed, had all he could do to get the ball off to rookie
point guard Matt Maloney, who kicked the ball to Johnson,
standing all alone near the top of the three-point arc. He never
hesitated.

"Maybe halfway through the shot," Johnson said afterward, "I
thought, Maybe that baby will go in. After that, things got
blurry."

The celebration was wild, with Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich
running onto the court even before the ball was through the net.
It was hard to appreciate what had just happened. Jazz coach
Jerry Sloan criticized his team for giving up an "easy shot."
Easy, from 27 feet? "For him," said Sloan. Others were more
charitable. "I'm not saying Eddie's a dinosaur fossil," said
Drexler, "but close. I'll say this: He's kept that shot oiled
and greased all those years."

Until Johnson found his Grecian Formula, the series had been
extremely unheroic. The Jazz's two wins in Utah--101-86 on May
19 and 104-92 two nights later--were blowouts; there had been
nothing for Houston to do but complain. The Rockets decided that
Stockton, at 6'1" the smallest player on either team, was
setting illegal (and unpenalized) moving picks and was,
moreover, the Antichrist. Charges were flung, and films were
sent to the league to plead the Rockets' case. "They're a dirty
team," said Olajuwon. "They want to appear like they're good
guys, but they're not. They're bad guys."

Part of Stockton's problem was that Utah was winning, he was
averaging 21.0 points per night, and he was setting unyielding
picks. Films showed him holding his own with Olajuwon and
others, giving up his body in the most amazing ways. The big
guys didn't appreciate that.

In fact, Barkley floored Stockton a few times in Game 2, once
flagrantly, to send a message. "Obviously the refs aren't doing
their job," Barkley said, "because I was trying to separate his
shoulder or break a rib." Laughter from others. "I'm being
serious."

In the end the blather didn't amount to much, although it
produced a funny moment in Game 4 when Barkley got in Malone's
face and provoked his old Dream Teammate into committing a foul.
"I knew he'd come after me," said Barkley later, laughing, "and
I was ready to fall down if a breeze came up. I'm telling you, I
almost hurt myself flopping so hard." Barkley got the call, the
last laugh and all the press, as usual.

It's easy to understand Barkley's appetite for this attention
and these last remaining victories. Behind his doomsday
slapstick is a sad and obvious truth. Neither he nor the many
friends and foes around him this week are likely to come this
way again. Time really is running out. Things must be done now.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH In an impromptu Game 4 reunion of former Dream Teamers, Malone passed by Drexler, Olajuwon and Barkley. [Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Charles Barkley in game] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH When Barkley was not blowing hot air, he was occasionally seen blowing past the likes of Foster. [Greg Foster and Charles Barkley in game]
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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