The 93 ring: the divine Jordan and the threat of 'Fat' Barkley

Charismatic and not at all athletic in physique, Charles Barkley had a legendary career, but fell in the 1993 Finals, the only of his career, against the Bulls.


A triple by John Paxson and a cap by Horace Grant. They were the two plays that definitely buried the dream of the Suns, who fell in the 1993 Finals against some Bulls who certified the first three peat since 1966, when Bill Russell's Celtics took their eighth consecutive title, the ninth of the eleven that that team as historical as prehistoric won and that dominated the NBA as no one has done before. Probably the closest were those Bulls to Jordan, with his six titles in eight years, including two triplets that caused Pat Riley, creator of an expression (that of the three peat) that he patented and popularized in the 80s, to take their share of the pie each time it was used.

The Bulls' triumph was also the defeat of the Suns, probably the most reliable of the three teams that had clashed with the eternal (and eternal) figure of Jordan in the Finals in recent years. The 1991 Lakers veterans, already without Jabbar and with significant injuries during the series, or the Clyde Drexler and Rick Adelman Blazers, had not generated such a great favoritism before the tie, nor did they possess, a priori, the necessary weapons to Defeat a team on the way to confirming its already familiar dynasty Before all that, Charles Barkley landed in Phoenix in the summer of 1992 in exchange for Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry in a transfer motivated by the move of the franchise to the center of the city to play at the America West Arena (now Talking Stick Resort Arena), a movement that was accompanied by a star that would quickly fill the stands, allowing a transition that was transformed into economic gains that also put the Suns on the map and made them candidates.

Being one of the teams vying for the title wasn't exactly something the Suns were used to. In its 24 seasons of existence, the franchise accumulated 10 negative records, a top of 57 victories in 1980-81 and the 1976 Finals against the Celltics as the closest time they had been in the fight for the ring. Of course, despite not having a particularly brilliant history and no title in its showcase, the entity came from a progression that it had had, with Cotton Fitzsimmons on the bench, a small period of relative success: four consecutive playoff appearances, all them over 50 victories, the first two settled with West finals (losses to Lakers and Blazers) and a promising block led by talented point guard Kevin Johnson or gunman Jeff Hornacek. The good vibes of the last few years, coupled with the void that the Magic Lakers had left in the West, caused General Manager Jerry Colanguelo to see an opportunity and go for it. Perhaps motivated by the delayed change of stadium, he promoted the transfer that took Barkley to Phoenix, getting rid of an All Star idol such as Hornacek for the fans and breaking with the tradition of the small market that Arizona represented, with a lot of desert and little attractive for free agents.

It wasn't the only move Colanguelo made, which promoted Paul Westphal, an assistant to a Fitsimmons who accepted a television commentary job for nothing as stressful. Westhphal, a man of presence, energetic, good communicator and with a preference for the offensive game, was one of the few old glories that the franchise had. He played six seasons in the Suns between the 70s and 80s and knew the idiosyncrasy of a city that mixed the new faces of the coach and Barkley with others already known as Johnson and forming a squad that combined the old and the new, counting on Don Marjerle ( 16.9), Tom Chambers (12.2 points per game in 1992-93), Danny Ainge (11.8) the troublesome Richard Dumas (15.8) or Cedric Ceballos (12.8). The Suns had enough pieces to consider themselves a true contender, and the summery moves earned Colanguelo his fourth Executive of the Year award (more than anyone else) two seasons before retiring to make way for his son Bryan. to a stage that had extended as long as the life of the franchise.

With Barkley on the track and the strength of Westphal, who came with all the enthusiasm in the world, the Suns curdled a season of 62 wins (20 losses) in the first year of America West Arena. The arrival of the power forward, one of the best players in the competition, catapulted the franchise to the top of the NBA, with a winning record included and a versatile, fast, to a certain extent revolutionary game, without a very dominant center. frequent during that time and very attractive to the viewer. Nobody got bored watching the Suns, who led the NBA in points (113.4), were second in percentage of field shots (49.3%), first in percentage of shots of two (51.6%) and above all, third in percentage of triples (36.3%), scoring (4.9) and shooting more (13.4) than any other team in the competition. In fact, they were shooting five triples more than the Bulls, their rivals in the Finals, more focused on the offensive triangle, post play and use of the zone. Arizona became the basketball capital of the United States, with Charles Barkley elected MVP in his debut season with his new team, with which he went to 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.6 robberies, also getting 55 double-doubles and 6 triple-doubles.

The Suns reached the playoffs as the top favorites in the ring and the rival to beat, the greatest threat also for those Bulls who had just won the last two seasons and with Jordan already established as one of the best players ever. Unlike the last two years, especially the previous one, Chicago did not monopolize all the spotlights, and saw from the East how the Suns finished with the second Lakers post Magic in a very suffered first round that we will now talk about (3-2 with 27.6 points and 14.4 rebounds from Barkley), with San Antonio in the semifinals (4-2, with 26 + 13) and with the Sonics in the Conference finals, that ceiling they surpassed for the first time in their career. They did it not without difficulties, against that squad led by Shawn Kempt and Gary Payton who had their own style, so well represented by George Karl on the benches and that it took Barkley and company to exhaustion. The power forward was not having a great series and arrived with just 22.5 points on average to the seventh and final duel, in which he exploded in one of the most memorable exhibitions of his career: 44 points, 24 rebounds (10 offensive) in what is probably the most important game that the city of Phoenix has ever witnessed, one in which up to six local players scored 10 or more points, tying the rebound of the mythical (and longed for) Supersonics (46 by 31) and leaving Kemp at 19 points and Payton ... at 9. The rest were done by fan momentum and somewhat homemade refereeing: the Suns fired 64 free throws, with Barkley and Kenny Johnson (22 + 9) shooting more from the line. of staff combined (38) than the total of George Karl's team (36). Something that does not mean, of course, that the Suns were fair winners and that no one could stop Barkley, who ate Kemp. But there is the data.

The dreaded Bulls waited in Finals that promised to be historic. That first batch of a champion team, in which Jordan and Pippen were surrounded by John Paxson, Horace Grant or BJ Armstrong, came with the opportunity to get that treble that nobody had achieved since time immemorial, and with all the farce of journalists and analysts talking of such a feat and of how good the Suns were, with such an extraordinary game that it raised the sympathy of all the fans in contrast to an offensive triangle that for many was beginning to be repetitive. And of course, there was the duel between Barkley and Jordan, with the power forward arriving at the meeting a year after winning Olympic gold with his then friend in Barcelona, in that Dream Team for the history of which nobody would remember in that eliminatory, that would monopolize everything. Two men that the press wanted to face, personalizing the duel as they had done before with Magic and Drexler but with the feeling, very evident in the regular season and slightly diminished in a playoffs in which the Suns saw them and wished them, that Barkley and company were favorites. Of course, what everyone agreed on was that the power forward was facing his great opportunity. And the opportunities, you already know in an NBA that does not wait for anyone, you have to take advantage of them.The legend of Charles Barkley, 'El Gordo'

Charles Barkley's physique was what marked his career. It is difficult to stop and analyze from another perspective the story of a charismatic man but also possessor of a complicated character that has made him win more than one enemy (better not even Draymond Green), especially in his time as a former player and analyst of TNT. In his childhood, Barkley was characterized by being a joker and affable boy, but always self-conscious about his weight, greater than average, and a low height to play basketball. It wasn't until he grew a few inches that he took over the starting job at the Leed Institute, where he averaged 19 points and 17 rebounds in his senior year, demonstrating his incredible ability for this last facet. Charles led his team to the state semifinals without yet having the interest of any university, but there he exploded with 26 points against Bobby Lee Hurt, a recent signing from the University of Alabama, drawing the attention of an assistant of Sonny Smith, a coach at Auburn , which defined him as "a fat guy ... who plays like the wind" .

Barkley's qualities were already clear and he would develop them to the fullest during his career. At 1.98, he was smaller than other greats in history who have not played precisely in interior positions, such as LeBron James, and practically the same as Michael Jordan, that generation partner with whom he arrived in the 1984 draft, in the who was chosen in fifth place by the Sixers, who ignored the 136 kg he had weighed with the Tigers and focused on his qualities: the rebound, a shooting range that allowed him to shoot from the mid-range and even three , ability to pass and two good hands with which he stole countless balls. Barkley represented a profile diametrically opposed to that of, for example, Dennis Rodman, another few inches inside man, and could not defend centers like Shaquille or fast and imaginative bases interchangeably; However, he knew how to make the most of his virtues, rebounding a lot in attack and defense and focusing on scoring and helping in the passing lanes, preventing the ball from reaching his pairings and being one of the best offensive rebounders in history. .

Barkley came to the Sixers after three years with the Tigers in which he averaged 14.1 points and 9.6 rebounds, going 23 + 17 in the only NCAA tournament, already in his third year. He was landing in a franchise full of stars with still some light that two years before had won the ring with Julius Erving and Moses Malone at the head, that of the four four four of an immeasurable pivot who had developed his maximum potential with Billy Cunningham, who he was in his last year on the bench. For The Round Mound of Rebound (that's what Barkley was called in Auburn), it was the perfect place to develop, in the wake of a great rebounder like the center and veteran players (Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney ...) who would help him in his training. Moses soon mentored him, helping him control his eating problems and becoming his mentor and his partner in the zone, one that produced a lot in the power forward's rookie year, which went to 14 points and 8.6 rebounds. that year for the 24.6 + 13.1 of his partner in the painting; it was also the last season in which Doctor J would reach his twenties in his entire career. The Sixers fell in the East finals against the Celtics (4-1) with 14 points and 11 rebounds from the rookie, who was beginning to gain a foothold in the League at a safe pace, although more slowly (how could it be otherwise) ) than a Jordan who already took all the covers.

In the following seasons, Barkely developed his skills more and more as Moses and Erving lowered their numbers, and took a step forward when they retired. In his sophomore year, the power forward was already at 20 points, 12.8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2.2 steals, playing his first All Star the following season, when he led the NBA in rebounds (14.6). Of course, as the fledgling star improved, the Sixers broke down: Moses Malone was traded to the Bullets in the summer of 1986, and Erving retired in 1987, leaving the power forward as leader of a team in which Matt Goukas did not. It lasted a long time replacing Cunningham and with Cheeks (transfer in 1989) and Toney (retired in 1988) saying goodbye to that project that ended, after much effort, with an eternally postponed ring on a finger that came to seem that he would never wear it.

Barkley, meanwhile, improved: 28.3 + 12 in 87-88, 25.8 + 12.5 in 88-89 and 25.2 + 11.5 the following year, in which he faced Jordan in the semifinals of the East falling in five games and with 23 points and 17 rebounds on average ... for the 43 of his rival, who always had a particularly good match with the power forward. The tie was repeated, with the same result, the following year, this time with more than 25 points per game from the former Tigers and 33.4 (+ 8 + 7.8) from a Jordan flying towards his first ring. One elusive for Barkley, who did not see it closely with either Goukas or Jim Lynam on the bench before living a farce in the 1991-92 season, with a poor record (35-47) that left Philadelphia without a playoffs and with a man who already expressed his desire to seek his next great adventure.A new home and heart-stopping playoffs

"When I got Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson, I thought I was in heaven." That's how clear Barkley was a few days ago when he talked about his arrival in Phoenix, which soon became his new home. The power forward assured Fitzsimmons a few days before he accepted his aforementioned position as commentator that that year they would play the Finals against the Jordan Bulls, as revealed in recent statements, collected by Gerald Bourguet in the middle Fansided. Of course, they were more than premonitory words and 100% fulfilled after a previously mentioned regular season to remember, in which the franchise broke its own records, including a spectacular balance at home of 35-6, the second best of The competition tied with Wilkens' Cavs and only after Riley's Knicks (37-4) .

Of course, the basketball played in April is nothing like the basketball played the rest of the year. And less now, load managment through; Before the difference was not so great, but the defenses were more aggressive and experience was a degree when deciding games that can send you home. The Suns didn't have anyone who had played in the Finals. Kurt Rambis, a former member of the Showtime Lakers, had set course for the Kings with only five games played, so Phoenix was soon left with an unhelpful profile, already 34 years on the court but representing a very important figure spiritually. Especially in the final phase, where these kinds of players are sure to convey calm and patience in the most tense moments. And let no one read what is not written, the suns did not make a mistake with Rambis or not signing any veteran, but maybe, just maybe, a format that had that kind of professional, with experience in the playoffs and entering years, It would have given a point of calm to the team when it comes to managing certain moments of pressure, especially in the Finals.

The Suns did not show the resistance on their court that they had during the regular season, and lost in their first two meetings against the Lakers. Those lost between his last two dimensionless generations, those of Magic on the one hand and Shaq and Kobe on the other, who had a James Worthy already substitute in his penultimate season as a professional, Vlade Divac, Byron Scott, Elden Campbell or AC Green . The Angelenos were about to become the first team in history that eliminated the first of their Conference starting eighth in the first round, something that the Mutombo Nuggets would do a year later with the Sonics. The calm transmitted by Westphal, who showed his well-known energy to convey to his people an optimism difficult to have in such a situation, allowed the Suns to come back in the series, with 31 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists from Barkley in the fifth duel, in which they survived in overtime. The favorites did not let go in Arizona against the Spurs, against whom they did not miss home games (and with a winning shot from Barkley in the sixth and final game), something they did in the second against Seattle ... and in the Finals, where they lost the first, the second and the sixth duel, the three they played at the America West Arena and a very large slab to win a title.

In total, the Suns lost six home games in the playoffs out of 13 possible, the same as they had lost in the regular season ... in 41 games. Home court advantage has traditionally always been more important in the East, but if you leave three games in your fiefdom in a Finals you will normally lose 99.9% of the time. And it is not the same to overcome a 0-2 to the limp Lakers in the first round than a 0-2 in a Finals against one of the best teams in history. Something that, by the way, has been done in the playoffs, but never in the series in which the championship is decided. One that slipped through the fingers of a team that arrived with five more games under their belt than their rivals (18 for 13), who only suffered against Riley's Knicks, against whom they started 2-0 before winning all four following matches. And with Jordan, by the way, already in another dimension: 32.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 7 assists and 2.5 steals in that series, with a spectacular 40% in triples and a crash, the fourth, of 54 points . Almost nothing.

Best Jordan ever?

It would be unfair to say the Suns played poorly. At least, not all the blame belongs to them, much as Barkley acknowledged that in the first game they did not come out as they should. It was, of course, the worst of all, with percentages of just 40% in field goals and 28 in triples. In the rest, they were always there, with opportunities to win and many minutes ahead, but without being able to do anything before that heavenly being that Michael Jordan represented, who probably lived his peak, the best moment of his sports career individually speaking. Far were 37.1 points per game from 1986-87 or 35 from the following season, in which he collected the MVP and the Best Defender award. Also the 32.5 + 8 + 8 that he had added in the 89-90 or the exceptional level shown in the 1991 or 1992 Finals.

Jordan was simply unstoppable. Dan Majerle's individual defense, Chambers or Barkley's inside assists and Danny Ainge's annoying pursuit didn't seem to affect a player who made 31, 42, 44, 55, 41 and 33 a few months before announcing his first retirement in a An announcement that made an immediate impact, gave rise to many theories and did not allow the Suns, who had their first and last chance in 1993, to get the ring. Jordan scored the highest score in a Finals game since Elgin Baylor's 61 points in 1962, had four straight games of 40 or more points and six of 30, all with the best scoring average (41 points per game) in the league. history of the Finals. Words are unnecessary.

The Suns did show a greater resistance than is historically remembered. With all the bad they played in the first game they fell by eight, in the second only three (42 + 12 + 9 from Jordan to 42 + 13 from Barkley), they won the third in an unquestionable show of resistance that lasted to three overtimes with 62 minutes by Kevin Johnson (Finals record), forced Jordan to go to 55 points in the fourth, they won unexpectedly in the fifth and were four up in the sixth, resolved by that genius of Paxson and the Grant plug to Johnson certifying the three-peat. Clin, clin, box for Riley and his expression and place in history assured for the Bulls, who achieved what neither Magic's Lakers, Bird's Celtics or Thomas' Pistons had achieved: win three consecutive titles.And Barkley ran out of rings

Barkley has stated that in that last play he regrets not allowing a layup from any inside player, leaving Paxson alone and open, the only real shooter of those Bulls. The reality is that the Suns only needed a little more to win that tie. The Doberman Defense (the three dogs), a term that was coined thanks to Johnny Bach, a defensive coach of the Bulls during those years who had the habit of creating an ultra-aggressive defense with Grant, Pippen and Jordan, blurred Barkley in these moments, but the power forward had a great statistical series: 27.3 points, 13 rebounds and 5.5 assists. And yes, Phoenix couldn't stop Jordan, something no one could have done at the time ... but he lost his 8, 3, 6 and 1 point games. Perhaps (again), with some more reinforcement (in the form of a veteran?), And some experience in those types of games, the Suns would have saved a loss at home that could perfectly have given them the tie. And there will always be the question of what would have happened in a hypothetical seventh, a repeated sensation after Jordan's basket (always Jordan) over Byron Russell in 1998. But one does not live with the conditions, of course ...

In the end, Barkley neither returned to the level that catapulted him to the MVP in 1993 nor was he that close to the ring. He averaged 21.6, 23 and 23.2 points over the next three seasons, but the Suns failed the Rockets in the 1994 semifinals, in which they blew a 0-2 lead again with noticeable weakness at home. Not in 1995, when they won 59 games ... wasting, this time in an unmitigated embarrassment, a 3-1, with the seventh game at home, that America West Arena that came with promises of change, but with many defeats at times. important and before his public and an unfinished transformation whose process ended with the dismissal of Westhpal, the return of Fitzsimmons and, in the end, with the transfer of Barkley, who headed to Houston to form a Play Station team that joined him with Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler (in 1999 also Scottie Pippen) and with whom he fell in the 1997 Western finals against the Jazz with a triple winner from Stockton in the sixth game.

It was the last time that Barkley was close to the Finals (which would have faced Jordan again) or the ring, always elusive, before retiring in 2000, already suffering from many physical problems, mostly from the waist down and derivatives of his overweight, which only allowed him to exceed 70 games in one of his last seven seasons as a professional. In the last of them, a Barkley, almost 37 years old, broke the tendon of his left quadriceps in, curiosities of destiny, Philadelphia, the city where he was born. El Gordo would be low for the rest of the season, but he refused to let that be the image that the fan would have of him. He returned for the last game of the regular season against the Vancouver Grizzlies, scoring a basket after offensive rebound, the last of his professional career, to which he said goodbye with a standing ovation that left behind 16 years, a historic season and some Finals that certified the end of a project that could be and was not. And that left the star without the championship, but also the Suns, who continued with their particular curse more than a decade later, with the seven seconds or less of D'Antoni and Nash, which ended with two West finals without luckily, three if we count the one from 2010, already without the technician on the bench.

Barkley, yes, retired like a legend (and his number 34 retired by the Suns), one of the best power forward ever and a man much loved by the fans, very given to remember with longing how he made the most of to a physique that seemed chastened but functioned flawlessly when cared for. In the end, the power forward surpassed the barrier of 10 rebounds in all his seasons except the first, and retired with averages of 22.1 points (54% shooting), 11.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists. And also with an MVP of the Season, one of an All Star who played 11 times, 11 selections in the best quintets, two Olympic golds, being chosen among the 50 best players in history in 1996 and, of course, a Hall of Fame whose inclusion took place in 2006. A legendary career for a character who continues to star (sadly, at times) alongside Shaquille O'Neal on TNT, where he makes acid comments, embarks on impossible discussions and gets involved with everyone he can, including a Jordan once his friend but with whom he does not get along particularly well today. All this and much more is Charles Barkley El Gordo, a unique and unrepeatable player, especially because of an unprecedented physique for the time he was in, but who retired without a ring. Because, of course, of Michael Jordan. And all that that entails.

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