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Thanks, Charles

The irony was not lost on commissioner David Stern as he presented Philadelphia's Charles Barkley with the All-Star Game MVP award Sunday afternoon at Charlotte Coliseum. "Charles," said Stern, "we're really thrilled that you volunteered to be here."

Barkley never formally asked for permission to skip Sunday's game because of the injury to his left ankle that had forced him to miss seven 76er games between Jan. 12 and Feb. 1. But Barkley raised the issue publicly a few times in recent weeks, wondering to reporters if the league would look kindly enough upon his aching ankle to give him a pass.

Well, in a phone call from a league executive to Philadelphia general manager Gene Shue last week, the NBA made its position clear with words to this effect: Charles, don't bother to ask—you have to play.

Meanwhile, the Celtics' Larry Bird, who was chosen along with Barkley to start at forward for the East team, was permitted to miss the All-Star Game because of his bad back. Bird had missed 14 Celtics games, the first on Jan. 8, but had returned to play Feb. 6 against the Hornets in Boston Garden. However, the Celtics told the league that Bird would not be playing the following night in New York, and asked that Bird be excused from the festivities in Charlotte. The league said O.K.

The Celtics were aware of one of the NBA's unwritten but strictly observed rules: If a player competes in the regular-season game immediately preceding the All-Star Game, then he must also play in the All-Star Game. Bird did not play in the preceding game, Barkley did.

Which raises two questions:

First, is Barkley's injury any less genuine than Bird's just because Barkley played in the game closest to the All-Star Game? Second, did Bird know before Feb. 6 that he was not going to play in the All-Star Game?

There's no easy answer to the first question. Both injuries are serious, and obviously both players could use some rest. But the NBA's position is that if a player is healthy enough to help his team, he is healthy enough to help his league. And if that player chooses to use the All-Star break to recover from an injury, he will have to pay the penalty by missing one regular-season game. That certainly deters management from encouraging a player to forgo the All-Star Game.

As for the second question, Bird never spoke publicly about his injury or his availability for the All-Star Game. But Celtics teammates and coaches say that he truly wanted to play in Charlotte and expected to do so. It was the Celtics' medical staff that concluded Bird should not play in back-to-back games or travel to Charlotte.

One unfortunate aspect of all this was the treatment of the Sixers' guard Hersey Hawkins, who was added to the East team by Stern after Bird was excused. Hawkins's worthiness to be an All-Star player was openly questioned, particularly in Detroit, where it was thought the Pistons' forward Dennis Rodman deserved Bird's spot.

"It's a dark day in the NBA for effort, enthusiasm, talent and hard work," said Piston general manager Jack McCloskey, thereby inferring that Rodman had those qualities and Hawkins did not. To which Barkley replied, "If it's dark in Detroit, tell Jack McCloskey to turn on the lights."

As long as there are injuries and All-Star Games, the dilemma of who can be excused and who cannot will remain. But the league should make every effort to find out as quickly as possible whether a starter intends to bow out, if only to minimize the pressure on his replacement. And superstars who are healthy enough to play should do so without question.

To his credit, Barkley certainly did not take the weekend off. He scored 17 points and grabbed 22 rebounds in 35 hard-played minutes in the East's 116-114 victory, and as he left the Coliseum on Sunday afternoon, no one was happier to be in Charlotte than Sir Charles.

That's Cold, Man
Michael Jordan emerged from a locker room with the Hornets' Muggsy Bogues in tow before last Saturday's All-Star Stay in School JAM. "Listen," Jordan asked a crowd of onlookers as he put his hand on the head of the 5'3" Bogues, "did anyone lose their child?"

Trouble's Lightning Rod

The debate over which young Knick point guard was the better player—Rod Strickland or Mark Jackson—seems almost silly-now, doesn't it? After Strickland was traded to San Antonio on Feb. 21, 1990, Jackson got the Knick job by default and promptly fell on his face. Out in the Alamo City, meanwhile, Hot Rod flourished and helped the Spurs reach the semifinals of the Western Conference playoffs. But one gnawing doubt about Strickland remains: Is he too unpredictable, both on the court and off it, to be a real asset to a team?

It was Strickland who, in Game 7 of the Spurs' semifinal series with the Trail Blazers last season, unwisely threw a blind, over-the-head pass that ended San Antonio's chances for victory. Yes, it was only one play in a long season of relative success, but it crystallized what many observers consider to be the essence of Strickland's quarterbacking—he can take your offense places, but not always where it wants to go.

To his credit, Strickland was having a fine season for the first three months of 1990-91. But early on Feb. 2 he was involved in a scuffle at a San Antonio nightclub and broke a bone in his right hand. He is expected to be out for at least the next six weeks, possibly eight, which is a major blow to the title hopes of the Spurs, who now hope to squeak by at point guard by using journeyman Avery Johnson, CBA stalwart Clifford Lett and swingman Paul Pressey.

"You can get by in the short run with a substitute at the point," says All-Star point guard Kevin Johnson of the Suns, one of the teams that would benefit most from a San Antonio slump, "but not for any extended period of time. The Spurs play with a lot of confidence—a lot of it, naturally, because they have David Robinson, but a lot of it because of Strickland, too. They're just not the same team without him." Said Robinson, who took the injury hard, "What we'll miss is that ability Rod had to take over the game in the final minutes. You can't ask someone to come in as a reserve and do that."

Strickland claimed that he was provoked into fighting at the nightclub. But a point guard's most important attribute is judgment, and, whatever the circumstances at the club, Strickland did not exercise much of it when he chose to get involved in the fisticuffs instead of walking away. Sadly, that did not surprise a lot of NBA people.

The Heat's On

According to the standings, the worst of the NBA's four expansion teams at All-Star break was the Heat, with a record of 13-34 (.277). The Hornets and the Magic had 14-33 marks (.298), while the Timberwolves were the best of the new kids, with a 16-29 season (.356). And keep in mind that Miami (along with Charlotte) is in its third year of existence, while Minnesota and Orlando are only in their second seasons.

Yet, SI's poll of NBA team executives and coaches revealed that a majority of them believe the Heat to be the most successful expansion operation. Discounting the votes of the four new franchises, as well as an unusually high number of fence sitters, Miami received 11 first-place votes, Minnesota got three, Charlotte two and Orlando none.

"I appreciate what Miami has done, not so much for the talent but for the way they've gone about building a team," said Denver general manager Bernie Bicker-staff, sounding a familiar theme. "I like their patience—not panicking, always thinking for the long term, making the money available to pick up a free agent if it's a guy they think can help." Added another Western Conference general manager, "The basketball side and the business side are superb in Miami." Another executive praised the Heat's "player development and drafting."

Those who selected the Timberwolves liked Minnesota's on-the-court competitiveness, while those who favored Charlotte saw the Hornets as the most talented and potentially successful team. Then again, one Eastern Conference coach called the Hornets "a bunch of prima donnas."

The Magic got the strongest negative comments. Said one general manager, "It really is a Mickey Mouse operation. A paper house. All show and no substance."

The site of the 1992 All-Star Game, by the way? Orlando.



Bird had his eyes on the All-Star Game, but the Celtics' medical staff made him stay home.



The long and the short of it: During All-Star Weekend Jordan told a tall tale about Bogues.