By Seth Sulka
It all began a little more than a year ago.
The precise day was June 17, 1993. And the ride that followed for Charles Barkley, the Phoenix Suns organization and its fans over the next 12 months could not be matched even by the creative geniuses at Disney World.
Barkley was coming to Phoenix. And he was bringing with him a toughness and a desire to win that the Phoenix Suns basketball team welcomed with open arms.
That Thursday in June marked a fresh start for Barkley. Not only was the All-Star forward acquitted on charges of assault in Milwaukee, but in the airport on his way home he learned that he would no longer be playing basketball for his team of the previous eight years, the Philadelphia 76ers.
“June 17th was one of the best days of my life,” Barkley said. “I got on the plane and bought drinks for everyone on the flight. And the best thing about it was that they didn’t even charge me for the drinks.”
“Good things started happening for me on that day. And they haven’t stopped.”
Indeed it was just the start of a fantasy ride. After a brief visit to greet his new team and fans in the Valley of the Sun, Barkley was off to San Diego and the Olympic warm-ups. Next was Barcelona, where he embraced the entire world with his vivacious personality while helping the Dream Team bring home the gold medal.
But the real question that basketball fans wanted answered was whether the change of scenery would put the spark back into Barkley’s animated and aggressive style of play, or if the seemingly controversial Barkley would simply remain his old, enigmatic self.
Fans received their answer as Sir Charles proved to everyone that he is undoubtedly one of the best players in the world, and, for at least the 1992-93 season, the best in the NBA.
His was a Dream Season beginning with Olympic Gold Medal and finishing two wins shy of an NBA Championship. And everything in between was just as memorable.
Including the league’s highest honor – the Most Valuable Player award.
“I can’t even explain the last year of my life. It just doesn’t get this good,” said Barkley. “To go from winning a gold medal with the Dream Team to having the best record in the NBA to winning the MVP… I just hope I don’t wake up.”
It was the first time in his nine-year career Barkley had won the coveted award – and the first time for a Suns player, as well. He had finished second to Magic Johnson of the Lakers in the 1898 MVP voting, even though he had a little better year statistically in 1989, but the 76ers finished the regular season with a 46-36 record (11th in the league) and lost in the first round of the playoffs to New York.
But this year Charles played with a Suns team that had posted a 217-111 record over the previous four seasons, the fourth best mark in the league. He helped propel the already-successful franchise to an all-time high. They finished this season with a franchise-best 62-20 mark, tops in the NBA. He led the team in scoring (25.6 points), rebounding (12.2 rpg) and total assists (a career high 385). He ranked fifth in the NBA in scoring and sixth in rebounding and finished with career-best number from three-point range (67-for-220, .305).
“I’m sure when I look back on this achievement in 10 or 15 years when I’m retired, it will mean something very special,” Barkley said in early June after winning the award. “But the only that that I came to Phoenix for was to win a world championship.”
Barkley received 95 first-place votes from the nationwide panel of NBA writers and broadcasters. Hakeem Olajuwon finished second with 22 first-place votes while Michael Jordan was third with 13. he became the third player ever to win league MVP honors in the season immediately following his being traded, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabaar (1975-76) and Moses Malone (1982-83).
“Chuck is largely responsible for the success we’ve had,” said Coach Paul Westphal. “He’s gotten a tremendous amount of help from his teammates, but his attitude and his toughness have been key to our record and our success. He comes ready to play, and he makes sure his teammates do, too.
“Any of the four could’ve won, but I think this is a special year for Charles. This is Charles’ year.”
As far as the Suns are concerned, MVP can easily be translated into GTG (Go-To Guy) – the player that not only wants the ball at the end of the game, at crunch time, but knows what to do with it once he gets it.
Phoenix was a very good team before Barkley. But the addition of a player that could score down low at crucial points in a game made the Suns a great team.
Undoubtedly, Barkley’s talent on the basketball floor was a key factor in the Suns’ rise to the top of the Western Conference and their second-ever trip to the NBA Finals. But Barkley brought more than just 25 points and 12 rebounds to this team. His unteachable desire to win spread throughout the organization – not only to other players on the team, but to the coaching staff, the front office and the entire Valley of the Sun.
“His competitiveness, his day-to-day attitude, his work ethic, that’s what is vital to his success,” said teammate Kevin Johnson. “He stepped up all year and did whatever we needed. He made it easier for all of us.”
Barkley did not waste any time displaying the kind of havoc he would wreak on opposing teams throughout the season. In the regular season opener at America West Arena, the 6-6, 250 pound Barkley, scored a game-high 44 points and grabbed a Suns record 21 rebounds.
But that was just the start. Barkley would go on to record a league and career high six triple-doubles. He was twice named the NBA Player of the Week and won Player of the Month honors for December as he led Phoenix to a perfect 14-0 record. It was only the seventh time in league history that a team had gone undefeated in a month. He scored his 15,000th point in January and finished the season No.16 on the all-time active scoring list.
“Charles is a one-of-a-kind player,” said Westphal. “He can do anything he needs to do on the court, and he does it enthusiastically and aggressively.
“It’s very rare to add a player like that in his prime to an already good team.”
Barkley, and the rest of the Suns organization, learned a lot this past season. But there might be somewhat of a bitter taste in their mouths. Getting close to the ultimate goal of winning a NBA championship is tough to swallow.
But one thing is for sure: Barkley and Co. will be raring to go next season and, with the NBA’s Most Valuable Player on your team, anything is possible.