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He Has Magic Touch, Flies With Jordan : Barkley Raises 76ers, Lifts Himself to the MVP Level

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Your worst nightmare rumbles this way on heavy hoofs. You’re back against the fast break and out of the corner of your eye, you see something the size of a land mass, except it’s . . . moving rapidly?

A second glance reveals it to be a man, if one the size of a water buffalo, picking up speed, seeming to suck up all the air in front of him and heading straight for you!

You forget about playing defense. Take the charge? Get real. You do what every other player in the NBA does--step adroitly aside.

The behemoth suddenly screams airborne over you. You feel as if you’re standing on the pad for a space shuttle launch. There’s a fearsome explosion as he dunks the ball through the breakaway rim, as if he’s trying to bury it six feet into the floor.

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The crowd roars. The scoreboard blinks. Whatever this was lands lightly as a ballerina and purrs on the way back upcourt. All you can think is, “What if he comes back?”

He will, he has, he’s Charles Barkley.

Six years with the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA and this 6-foot-6, 252-pound menace is long past his fat-joke Round Mound of Rebound days. He’s a perennial all-star and an MVP candidate. You would think the operative word would be candidate , that it would take simultaneous retirements by Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan to get Barkley over the top, except that an informal canvass of NBA writers shows a lot of them voting for Charles.

Maybe the writers are bored with the Magic-Michael impasse.

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Maybe they’re thanking Barkley for years of outrageous copy.

Maybe he deserves consideration.

“The Lakers have three all-stars,” 76er teammate Scott Brooks says. “Chicago has two. We only have one. That should tell you something.”

The line of battered admirers grows. Winston Bennett, the 220-pound Cleveland forward was sentenced to guarding Barkley in their first-round series and spent a week feeling like a tot tied atop a bronco.

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“A phenomenal player,” Bennett said after Barkley’s 18-point, 19-rebound performance in Game 5. “Just a phenomenal player.

“He was just overpowering. It’s awesome to be in there with him, You know, I tried as best as I could.

“He’s in a world of his own. Pound for pound, he’s the best guy in this league. If I had an MVP vote, it’d be Charles Barkley, no question. I mean, Jordan does a lot of things for his team, (Larry) Bird and Magic do a lot of things for their teams. But I feel Charles is just the ultimate player.”

With Barkley’s new status comes word of a new maturity. He, himself, denies it, not without credibility.

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“Is he more mature?” says a Philadelphia writer. “You mean aside from the 26 technicals, five ejections and $32,000 in fines?”

In the sense that Barkley has married, fathered a daughter, plays more consistently and occasionally checks his volatile on-court temper, he is growing up. Of course, he started out as Baby Huey and he’s still closer to Dennis the Menace than Solomon the Wise, but that’s progress.

If you’re not his coach or intimately concerned with the 76ers’ fate, why complain? Jordan takes your breath away, and Johnson takes your championship more often than not.

Barkley?

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He’s fun, fun, fun.

TEEN-AGE MUTANT NINJA SIXERS

Or, Thump and Bump go on TV.

Thump and Bump, in no particular order, are Barkley and Rick Mahorn, whose growing friendship and head butts threaten to decapitate the league’s guards and create a dangerous new vogue in manly celebratory chic.

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It’s minutes after the Game 5 victory over Cleveland. Barkley, having laughingly turned down CBS’ first invitation (“Hell no! They ain’t had us on TV till we started winning. . . . CBS! I don’t like front-runners”), has relented in the batting of an eyelash. The eyelash belongs to Lesley Visser, a CBS reporter whom the network has sent to re-extend the invitation.

Barkley, seated bare-chested in front of his stall in the 76ers’ dressing room, puts an earpiece into the ear without the earring.

Mahorn walks through the camera shot. Too soon, they’re not on the air yet.

Mahorn retires to his stall but keeps up a stream of banter, some of it printable.

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“What they have a mushroom head . . . on TV for?

“Charlie, you ain’t been in the second round in a long time. (Mahorn, of course, played with the NBA champion Detroit Pistons last season). They’ve got great teams there.”

Says Barkley, feeling the heat at last: “Ricky, we’re going live!”

Mahorn, coming over and slapping Barkley’s head: “What do I care, going live?”

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Barkley starts talking politely to Pat O’Brien and Bill Raftery, who are off in some faraway studio. Barkley praises the Bulls, the next opponent, and is up to Scottie Pippen, when Mahorn walks back into the shot, slaps Barkley on the head again and says, “Pip this.”

Mahorn then retires to his stall and starts chanting, “We want Musburger, we want Musburger.”

The CBS guys say they’ll have to retape. Recognizing the obvious, they tell Mahorn to sit in.

“Y’all better get a wide . . . lens,” Barkley says.

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CBS finally gets an acceptable sound bite.

Sixer center Mike Gminski, shaky after taking a pounding from the Cavaliers’ Brad Daugherty all week, walks out.

“Hey G-man, good job!” Barkley yells. “You deserve a beer.”

Gminski, feeling unsentimental, just grunts.

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“Glad we’re not playing Daugherty any more!” Mahorn yells.

“Did Daugherty send that limo for you?” Barkley yells.

Those are just the highlights of 10 minutes worth of byplay. If you’re a 76er, get ready to laugh, fight back or fold.

LITTLE CHARLIE

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Well, young Charlie anyway.

In the beginning, in high school in Leeds, Ala., he was an unrecruited 5-10, 220-pound point guard.

“I was sweet, too,” he says. “I had a sweet handle.”

He means he was a good ballhandler.

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It wasn’t until his senior year, when he shot up to 6-3, that he moved to forward. It wasn’t until he demolished the state’s big star, Alabama-bound Bobby Lee Hurt, in a Christmas tournament that any big schools suspected that a player resided in that blubbery body.

Even then, the interested parties were all within Alabama. Auburn won out and a large legend was born.

Barkley’s college coach, Sonny Smith, says Charles played at anywhere from 259 to 279 pounds. Fans on the road threw pizza boxes on the floor during warmups. Nicknames abounded: Round Mound of Rebound, Bread Truck, the Flying Safe, the Human Area Code.

“Charles never did eat like everybody said he did,” says Smith, now at Virginia Commonwealth, from his office.

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“He was not the glutton that they made him out to be. I thought we did him a disservice in publicizing that at Auburn. What he did, he drank soft drinks all the time. He would drink 6-8-10 a day.”

Barkley was an instant hit as a freshman, amazing everyone who saw him as he would throughout his career. Who had ever seen anybody so huge, so unearthly quick, so skilled?

So up and down?

Barkley lived for big games, such as Kentucky when he would wear out twin towers Sam Bowie and Mel Turpin.

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Against inferior opponents, he wasn’t always as devastating. In three seasons, a team with Barkley and another future NBA star, Chuck Person, made the NCAA tournament once. In that single appearance, the Tigers, coming off a memorable Southeastern Conference tournament loss to Kentucky, were upset in the first round by tiny Richmond.

“Charles had his own opinion about the way things should have been done,” Smith says. “But generally he was right. He was not a problem in that regard.

“Now off the court, he’s a great kid. He’s very mischievous, but he never was a real major problem. He was easy to coach. He was very easy to coach his junior year because he was playing for a contract.

“The only problem I ever had with Charles, he’d get so aggressive in practice he’d try to hurt the other players.

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“I actually hit him one time. He just kept knocking Alvin Mumphord, one of our forwards, out of bounds. I told him if he did that again, I was gonna hit him. He did and I hit him.

“It wasn’t much of a lick, a half-punch, half-shove. He just looked at me and said, ‘Don’t hit me anymore, Coach. If you do, I’ll kill you.’ He could have, too, very easily.

“Where he irritated me more than anything, he loved to hear the breakaway rims break down. When they first put ‘em out, they’d make an unbelievable noise when you broke ‘em down. And I didn’t want that. I’d tell him every time and he’d break ‘em down on purpose just to hear me scream and holler.

“Charles was fun-loving, and that made you think he was less mature than he was. But if he wanted to be mature, he could be whatever he wanted to be. He’d fit into any situation.

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“The thing that’s never been said about him, Charles is unbelievably intelligent. You notice how quick-witted he is? He never really is given credit for that because he didn’t like school. All he cared about was being eligible.

“I think Charles would have been a great, great player in college had I let him do the things that he does now as a pro--make gestures to the crowd, do all those showmanship deals that he does now. If I had allowed him to do that, just be a free spirit, I think he would have been a great, great player. I think it elevates his game to another level.

“If I had it to do over, instead of trying to make him meet the standards of what the alumni needed, to make contributions and that type of thing, get good press, I would have allowed him to do that, and I think he’d have been a heck of a lot better player. He was good anyhow, but he would have been better.”

ALMOST OLYMPIC

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Barkley began thinking about leaving Auburn early in his junior year. After his sensational Olympic tryout camp in April, he was NBA-bound.

A regional sensation unseen by most of the nation, he dominated a camp full of bigger names: Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Sam Perkins, Karl Malone, Pearl Washington, ad infinitum. Charles’ name was on everyone’s lips, disbelief on everyone’s mind.

All anyone talked about, fellow players included, was Charles.

One day a forward named Steve Halsel from Northeastern challenged a dunking Barkley. Barkley threw him aside and threw the ball down.

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“After that, me ‘n’ Charles--I been trying to be his friend ,” Halsel said. “He didn’t want me to interrupt him.”

Nor was it superior conditioning. Barkley tried crash dieting for the camp, trying to live on fruit juice and wound up in the hospital. He weighed in at 282 pounds.

After the writers and NBA scouts had gone home, however, Olympic Coach Bobby Knight cut Barkley.

Barkley has since said he has a love-hate relationship with Knight--"I love to hate him"--but in truth, he didn’t seem to mind. He told friends that he was only there to dial up his NBA worth and didn’t care to spend a summer being harangued by Knight, whose fuse was considerably shorter than Sonny Smith’s.

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“Charles didn’t like anything about Coach Knight,” said Alvin Robertson, who made that ’84 Olympic team. “There were a lot of confrontations with Knight.

“The coaches would talk about being on time. (Knight) was telling us all to be punctual, and then one time he showed up about 10 minutes late.

“Charles got up and said, ‘It’s 10 after 5, where the hell have you been?’ And Knight just went off--'Let me tell you something you fat . . ., there’s only one leader in this army.’ He just went totally nuts.”

Smith says that Knight cut Barkley because the Soviets were boycotting and he knew he didn’t need Charles.

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Since Barkley went No. 5 in that summer’s NBA draft--after Akeem Olajuwon, Sam Bowie, Jordan and Perkins--you could say it worked out for everyone.

THE BIG TIME

Of course, he had to show them all over again.

Watching the rookie Barkley line up in an exhibition opposite 7-4 Ralph Sampson, then of Houston, Boston Celtic announcer Bob Cousy said, “Who’s he going to guard in this league?”

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In the ensuing months and years, everyone learned that no one could guard him; that he was a 20-point scorer and a near-60% shooter; that he was a rebounding fool who would annually finish in the NBA’s top three; that he was a great shot blocker, passer and ballhandler.

Except for mediocre free-throw shooting and his fondness for three-pointers that are about 10 feet out of his range, he’s a perfect player. But how can one deny him anything? When he came into the league, he didn’t even shoot a jump shot. Soon, he might be knocking down a respectable number of threes.

“He’s as good an example of the word unique as you can get,” 76er Coach Jimmy Lynam says. “He’s capable of doing things, with that frame, that defy description.

“Of the many attributes of Charles Barkley that I find astounding is what I call the A to Z. What is there that Charles Barkley is incapable of doing? He rebounds the ball, goes on the break, dribbles behind his back and throws a bounce pass to a cutter. If your point guard made just that last part of the play, you’d be, like, ecstatic.”

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However, the aging 76ers were on the downside of their Julius Erving-Moses Malone peak, and Barkley was soon left in charge of what was left.

He didn’t handle leadership well. He was ejected often. In a first-round loss in the ’87 playoffs, he tongue-lashed the Milwaukee Bucks into a rage. The 76ers didn’t make the playoffs in ’88, and were swept in three games a year ago by the New York Knicks.

All that seemed to change this season, the moment Mahorn got off the plane after being acquired from from Minnesota. Finally, Barkley had a kindred free spirit--and wide body--to bounce off.

Together, they happily instigated rumbles like the one at the Palace in April, where they went around asking the Pistons what it was that smelled. When Barkley almost caved in Craig Ehlo’s rib cage with a cross-body block in Game 5, it was just a promise of what new terrors to expect.

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Mahorn can be seen endlessly congratulating Barkley after great plays, and lecturing him profanely after headless ones.

“I’ve been mature the whole time,” Barkley says. “No, I’m serious. I’ve been mature the whole time. I’m the same way I’ve been. I’ve got more technicals than I ever had and we’re winning. Just ‘cause I’m playing with better players, everybody’s swinging on my vine now, telling me what a good player I am. I’ve been good the whole time.”

It’s a full two hours after Game 5. Barkley will still stay until the last question is asked. This is one of the NBA’s great marketing attributes, the graciousness of its top players. Even a cooperative baseball player will talk for a few minutes, say “You got enough?” and head for the showers. A great star in the NBA will entertain questions until darkness falls or day breaks.

None is greater postgame than Barkley, the reigning Mr. Say-Whatever’s-On-My-Mind. He has ripped himself, owner Harold Katz and confessed to taking under-the-table cash at Auburn. Even in the resultant furor, he has generally remained approachable. The Philadelphia writers say he doesn’t have a vindictive bone in his body.

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Now there is only the matter of claiming his due.

So Jordan, the next foe’s main man, lifts his teammates’ play?

“I can lift people, too,” Barkley says. “I haven’t got the credit in the past ‘cause I ain’t had nothing to lift.

“Take a guy like Hawk (second-year guard Hersey Hawkins). I said months ago, he’s the reason we’re winning ‘cause he makes my game so much easier. When I get double-teamed, it’s refreshing to have a player over there who can shoot jumpers. ‘Cause I’m gonna get doubled every time and to kick the ball over to a guy who can’t play, like I have in the past, was very frustrating. John Nash (general manager) and Harold Katz, Albert King, right? Uh huh. Kick it over there to a 35% shooter.”

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It’s late in the afternoon after Game 5. A Nike representative drops by.

“I’m going to be all over your boy’s tail,” Barkley says, referring to Jordan, Nike’s top star. “This is my chance. I want some of that prime-time Nike money. One of us got to go.

“It’s a party . . . and I’m invited.”

Indeed, he is. He started the Chicago series with a playoff average of 25 points, 14 rebounds, making 55% of his shots . . . and 45% from three-point range. He’s a 250-pound boulder going downhill. Best not stand in the way.

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No, really, he’s serious. At last.


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