Barkley from the Bench
He may be listed among the best dressed in the NBA with his wide variety of sherbet-hued suits and shirts, but everyone knows Charles Barkley most definitely prefers clothing of a more athletic variety.
In other words, stylin’ on the bench ain’t exactly his style. Unfortunately, with a leg injury requiring rest to heal, that’s exactly what Sir Charles was relegated to in January.
But for the man who enjoys his profession more than anyone since Liz Taylor’s divorce lawyer, sitting on the bench in street clothes just isn’t going to get him down – not when there are opponents to verbally harass, refs to kibitz (and verbally harass) and teammates to encourage (and verbally harass).
Nobody recognizes the basic fun inherent in NBA basketball better than Barkley, yet no one takes the competition more seriously. A night on the sidelines with Chuck is a virtual education in roundball networking.
From playing it for laughs to playing it for keeps, Sir Charles is always in the game… even if he isn’t.
Suns vs. Hornets
Jan. 11, 1994
America West Arena
Charles makes his entrance just moments before tipoff as fans shout “Hey, Charles!” and “Get well soon, Chuck!” Tonight’s suit selection looks like it’s caught between channels on UHF.
“We’re going to need some help tonight,” says Charles to veteran referee Dick Bavetta. Bavetta smiles and runs down the court.
Rookie forward Scott Burrell scores six points for the Hornets in the first four minutes of the game. “Who’s Burrell?” Charles asks fellow IR teammate Tim Kempton. Kempton shrugs. Burrell scores three points the rest of the game.
The Suns go on an 18-9 run to close out the quarter ahead 30-22. Charles is smiling.
Duane Cooper drives for a lay-up to put the Suns up by 10. Charlotte scores 11 straight to take a one-point lead as reserve point guard Tony Bennett (6-0 with shoes, 175 pounds soaking wet) has two assists.
“Get that little kid Bennett!,” screams Charles.
Bennett hits a jumper to put the Hornets up by three. The Hornets score four more to lead by seven before A.C. Green finally gets the Suns on the board with a jumper from the right corner.
After a missed Suns shot, a battle ensues under the boards. Bodies fly, the ball caroms from hand-to-hand, at least three Suns and three Hornets have a chance to corral the rebound but can’t quite grab it.
“Hit somebody!!!,” yells Barkley. Nobody gets hit, and the Hornets finally control the rebound.
The half ends with Charlotte up by two.
The Suns and Hornets battle back and forth. The lead changes three times. Charlotte guard Hersey Hawkins, a former teammate of Barkley’s at Philadelphia, steps to the line after being fouled by Dan Majerle.
Harkins’ first free throw bangs around the rim before finally falling through.
“That was luck, Hawk,” shouts Charles. “Now you owe me a miss.”
He doesn’t. Charlotte 63, Phoenix 62.
A few minutes later and the Suns lead by two. Hornets forward Kenny Gattison stands at the line.
Gattison’s first free throw is good. Suns by one.
“You KNOW you can’t shot free throws, Gatt,” Charles chides. “Give me one.”
Gattison does. Suns by one.
Dell Curry hits a three-pointer with 0:00.1 on the clock to give the Hornets a three-point advantage.
Charles groans and grabs his head with both hands.
Majerle hits a three-pointer to tie the game.
LeRon Ellis grabs a rebound and then scores on a pretty running hook in the lane to give the Hornets the lead.
“Who IS that guy?” Charles yells to nobody in particular.
There’s 3:30 left in the game. The lead has been swinging back and forth throughout the the quarter – never more than three points either way. The tension builds as “crunch time” draws near.
Charles Barkley is still concentrating on the game.
“Hey, Eddie!” he yells at referee Ed F. Rush. “Make EJ tuck his shirt in!” Charlotte forward Eddie Johnson slowly turns to look at a smiling Barkley and then toward Rush. Rush nods and EJ tucks in his shirt, complying with NBA uniform policy.
It’s psychological warfare at its best. Maybe.
The Suns are down one with 0:35.4 on the clock. Charlotte has possession. The Suns need a stop and Charles is standing with the rest of the crowd, waving a towel.
Charlotte’s Muggsy Bogues drives the lane. Majerle smothers the little guard. Jump ball with 14.7 second left. Barkley can sense that his team can pull this game out.
Majerle tips the ball toward the Phoenix hoop. Danny Ainge runs it down and backs in on Bogues. This is a mismatch and everyone knows it. Ainge turns (as Muggsy mugs him) and shoots – and misses. Hornets win.
Down the stretch for the Suns – three trips down the floor, three missed shots, zero points – only one Sir Charles. Suns lose 95-93.
Suns vs. Mavericks
Jan. 18, 1994
America West Arena
The introductions end and here comes Charles in a baby blue suit, carrying a Diet Coke. He takes his place at the end of the Suns’ bench and awaits what is expected to be a rout. Even short-handed, the Suns should dispatch the Mavs with ease.
With 1:45 gone, the Mavs are up 6-2.
“Illegal defense! Illegal defense!” Charles shouts at referee Mike Mathis. He is ignored. "Illegal defense!
“Walk! Walk! Walk!” yells Barkley as Dallas forward Popeye Jones shuffles his feet on a post up move. A second later, referee Terry Durham finally makes the traveling call.
“Even I had that one for you, Terry,” says Charles.
After five minutes, Cedric Ceballos is pulled out of the game. Feeling a little under the weather and shooting 0-for-3, Ced sits silently on the bench next to Barkley. Charles tries his best to make him laugh – smiling at him, poking him, making faces – it doesn’t work.
Dallas’ Tim Legler, a notorious three-point bomber, nails a wide-open three in front of the Suns bench. “Duane! Leave ANYBODY open but Legler!” Charles exhorts Duane Cooper, who had left Legler open to double team down low.
The Suns score the final five points in the quarter to take a 28-20 lead.
Jimmy Jackson soars for a dunk and hangs on the rim just maybe a bit too long.
“Hangin’ on the rim! Hangin’ on the rim!” Charles screams at Mathis. Mathis remains mute and the play heads the other way.
“He’d call that on me,” Charles says to the bench. The bench laughs.
The Suns start to break the game open and take a 14-point lead midway through the quarter.
Dallas rookie Jamal Mashburn makes a lightning-quick spin move on the baseline and glides to the hoop for an easy two. “Hey, Mash!” Charles teases with a big grin, “That was kinda sweet.”
The scoreboard begins to malfunction. The buzzer wails and everyone’s eyes stare upward as the game is delayed a few minutes.
As the players return to the court after the delay, Charles spots veteran official Terry Durham. “Don’t call no fouls on anybody except them and let’s get out of here, Terry,” Charles pleads. “I want to go out tonight.”
His attention turned back to the game, Barkley notices old friend Danny Ainge near the Suns bench. “C’mon Ainge – you’re not here to eat lunch. Do something,” Charles pleads with a smile.
One minute and three Suns turnovers later, enter the profound Charles Barkley. “Bad teams make you play bad.”
At the end of the half the Suns lead by 12, despite 11 second-quarter turnovers.
Even though his teammates are not playing especially well, Charles seems relaxed. The Suns can play poorly, without Kevin Johnson and himself, and still grab a win against Dallas. As the second half begins, Barkley stretches out his arms and settles for the win.
A few minutes pass and Durham whistles Majerle for charging. It’s not an especially controversial call.
“That was a good call, Terry,” Barkley offers the lead official. “Now make up for it on the other end.” Sir Charles giveth, Sir Charles taketh away.
The Mavs battle hard and keep the lead to 10 for the first half of the quarter and Charles is beginning to get miffed as his team keeps turning the ball over. The Suns allow lay-ups on six straight Dallas possessions.
“A.C., you’ve got to step up,” Barkley yells at fellow veteran A.C. Green. “You’ve got to be the leader!”
Green scores the next six points for the Suns and the quarter ends with Phoenix up by 17.
The Mavs just won’t go away and cut the lead to 10 with 10:28 left. The Suns battle it back to 13.
“Hey, Joe,” shouts Barkley at referee George Toliver, “we’re supposed to be up by more than 13 on these guys. They’re the worst team in the history of civilization.”
“Joe” smiles a little, probably wondering if Chuck knows his name is really George.
Dallas center Sean Rooks scores six points within a couple of minutes on the same post-up move. Charles becomes coach Barkley.
“O!… O!… O!” coach tries to get the attention of his young center, Oliver Miller. Oliver finally looks his way. “He’s going middle to the baseline every time. Every time!”
Oliver nods. Rooks has scored his last point. But the Mavs still think they can win.
Dallas guard Jimmy Jackson spins to the hoop, takes an extra step or two, and the Suns’ lead is suddenly cut to eight with 4:46 to go. Phoenix timeout. Now Charles is beginning to become concerned.
“Hey, Joe,” says Barkley to Toliver. “Jackson travels every time. EVERY TIME! You have called it once.”
Green and Miller take over, scoring 12 of the Suns’ next 15 points and putting Phoenix up by 13 with 1:38 to go. The Suns will win and Barkley can finally relax.
A Suns three-on-one Fastbreak. Ainge has the ball in the middle with teammates on either side. He gives a ball fake to his left and goes up with the shot. It’s whacked out of bounds by a Mav. Charles has to laugh.
“Pass the ball, Ainge!” he needles. “Give it up – that doesn’t even work in practice!” Barkley turns to the front-row fans.
“He’s always trying that in practice and it doesn’t work there, either.”
Suns win 113-103.
Suns vs. Blazers
Jan. 22, 1994
America West Arena
The Suns have become the walking… limping… wounded. Charles is out. KJ is out. Ainge is out. Cooper is out. Someone named Elliott Perry is starting at point guard. Michael Jordan is in the building visiting his buddy Barkley and wondering who these guys are starting the game in the Suns uniforms. None of them started against his Bulls in the NBA Finals just six months ago.
The Blazers have won five in a row and their sixth seems a foregone conclusion.
Barkley is wearing a green suit; probably pretending he’s Irish for the day and hoping the luck will rub off on his teammates.
The Blazers’ first shot is blocked by someone named Joe Courtney and Ceballos glides in for a dunk at the other end. Barkley leaps to his feet waving a towel. If Charles’ will can win a game, he’s going to chalk this one up in the victory column.
The makeshift lineup hangs in there and trails by only four with 3:13 to go in the quarter. Green hacks Portland’s Buck Williams and a whistle sounds.
“Jimmy!” Charles screams at referee Jimmy Clark – yes, the same Jimmy Clark whose life seemed to hang in the balance as Chuck hurdled a New York scorers’ table a year before. Clark turns quickly and stares at his “nemesis.”
“That was a good call,” Barkley says sweetly.
“Thank you, Charles,” Clark answers.
Ceballos has scored eight quick points in the first. But, apparently, that’s not enough for Barkley. “Hey, Ced! Do something!”
Ced battles for two offensive rebounds but cannot convert the hoops. The effort was there and that’s all that matters to Barkley. He shakes his fist at Ceballos to say, “That’s it! Keep it up!”
There’s a timeout on the floor.
Ainge, with a sprained ankle relegating him to a role as Barkley’s bench buddy, quietly pops a piece of gum in his mouth as everyone gathers around coach Paul Westphal during the break. He chews quickly and glances toward the huddle. In one swift move – it’s obvious he’s done this before – he takes the gum from his mouth and drops it into Barkley’s cup of Diet Coke. And waits.
He doesn’t have to wait long. As Charles brings the cup up to take a sip, his eyes become as wide as golf balls. He turns to his giggling friend and puts him in a playful headlock. And then gingerly picks the gum out of his drink.
Blazers ball. Majerle knocks it out of bounds and the refs point Portland’s way. But Charles has a different call. “I thought that was an offensive foul on one of the Portland guys.”
The quarter ends with the Suns down 26-31.
Ceballos and Mark West combine for eight points to start the quarter and the Suns trail by only one.
There’s a loose ball in the corner. Ced and Portland’s Clyde Drexler both battle for it. From across the court, behind the play, rookie official Sean Corbin calls a loose ball foul on Ceballos.
“Jack, he couldn’t even see that call from over there,” Charles pleads to veteran ref Jack Madden, “unless he has Superman’s jock and X-ray vision.”
Even Madden has to smile.
Play starts to get physical, as is the norm when the Blazers come to town.
“Hey, Jimmy,” Charles starts to work the officials. “You’ve got to watch Buck Williams – he’s hit everybody in the building tonight.
“He holds tighter than some women do, Jimmy.”
The next foul is called on Buck.
With the Suns down by three, Drexler drives to the hoop and scores. Majerle, who may or may not have brushed Clyde’s arm, is called for the foul.
“Jimmy, that looked like a good ‘no call’ from here,” Charles continues his work on Clark. “I know I’ve been wrong before, but…”
Frankie Johnson hits a jumper to pull the Suns within two and the half ends. The makeshift Suns 56, Blazers 58.
The action gets fast and furious, but the Blazers build an eight-point lead. Charles is still working the officials.
Perry has the ball on the sideline and is double-teamed. He steps on the out-of-bounds line and is fouled, or vice versa. Clark calls Portland ball, Madden calls the foul. After a short discussion, Clark’s call stands.
“Why didn’t you overrule that call, Jack?” Barkley asks of the lead official. “You’re the oldest guy in the building. They HAVE to listen to you.”
Majerle enters the game. “Do something, Majerle,” Charles whispers.
Dan hits three three-pointers and scores 16 points in the last seven minutes of the quarter. Ceballos adds nine points and grabs six boards in the quarter. Makeshift Suns 94, Blazers 94.
They start over.
It’s crunch time. This is when Barkley usually says, “Climb aboard, fellas,” and carries the Suns to victory. They’ll have to settle for his support from the sidelines, which is no small advantage.
His work on the officials continues.
“Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy,” Barkley shakes his head after Ceballos misses a shot on which he might have been fouled, “you could get arrested in six states for the ‘no call’.”
The Suns get the rebound and, moments later, Green is fouled by Jerome Kersey. The call is made by Clark. Kersey, who has been listening to Sir Charles’ constant commentary all night, is not happy and approaches the official, who begins describing the play and why the foul was called.
“You don’t have to explain nothin’ to Jerome Kersey,” Charles shouts. “I’ll buy you dinner, Jimmy. And some Ping golf clubs, too.”
The Suns’ bench laughs.
Kersey doesn’t find any of this humorous.
The teams line up for the free throws and Green misses the first – the Suns’ twelfth miss of the night. Kersey enters the lane a little early as Green misses the second while Barkley is screaming, “Too early! Too early!” at Jimmy Clark.
Clark whistles the lane violation.
“You don’t have to call it just ‘cause he says so,” Kersey yells at Clark.
“Everybody saw it, Jimmy,” Charles reassures the ref. “I’m just the one who told you about it.”
Green makes good on his second chance and the Suns lead by four.
Six ties and five lead changes later, the Suns and Blazers are knotted up at 114. The crowd is on their feet screaming. Charles is standing, waving a towel.
“O! O!” Barkley yells above the din to Miller. “Step up to the plate!” Miller slowly nods his acknowledgement.
The Blazers have the ball, but the Phoenix defense – led by Miller and a blocked shot from Green – clamps down. Twenty-four seconds tick off the clock and the Suns hold.
A timeout is called and Barkley is out on the court, congratulating his teammates on their defensive effort, high-fiving Oliver and A.C. The team huddles and Charles leans in, clapping his hands.
Ceballos scores on a lay-up, Suns by two. Clifford Robinson scores and is fouled. The free throw is good, Blazers by one with 1:20 to go.
Nobody can score as the clubs trade possessions. With 0:12.7 on the clock, the Suns get the ball and call a timeout. The crowd is at its nosiest since last June and Charles is there waving a towel and egging them on.
The ball is inbounded. A pass down low for Ceballos is just out of reach. “Foul! Foul!” bellows Barkley as a whistle sounds. Drexler held Ced as he broke for the ball and is called for the foul. In the penalty. Time out, Blazers.
Barkley runs out to Ceballos, talking the whole way. Only Ced and Charles can hear. After 60 long seconds, Ceballos steps to the line looking for his 39th and 40th points.
The Suns have missed 17 free throws in the game but can erase those with just two makes. The first free throw is nothing but net. The crowd erupts as the scoreboard shows the tie.
Barkley’s eyes meet Ced’s. With a clenched fist raised, Charles says only, “Do it.” Ced nods, toes the line and sinks the second. Time out, Trailblazers.
With sore knee and all, Chuck is the first to greet Ceballos with a bear hug and a smack to the back of the head.
After the timeout, the defense holds once again and the Makeshift Suns escape with the improbable win.
It’s definitely one of the best wins of the year, if not in recent Suns history. No Charles, no Kevin, no Ainge, Portland Trail Blazers, Suns win – which one doesn’t fit? The team is ecstatic, the fans are ecstatic.
But earlier in the game, with the Suns down, the outlook wasn’t quite so rosy.
Charles Barkley is a marquee player, a go-to guy, possibly one of the greatest individual talents to ever play in the NBA. He talks and walks a good game, to be sure. But one thing about Charles that must be understood – he lives to lead his team. If his teammates give 100 percent, he gives back 110. To a man, the Suns give 100 percent and he knows that. It kills him to be on the bench, unable to five the full 110 back.
They may have beaten the Blazers, but earlier in the game his team was down.
“They miss you, Charles,” a woman in the stands said loudly.
Eyes staring down at the court, talking to himself, barely audible, Barkley could only sigh, “I miss them, too.”