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Hey, Charles, How's The Back?

That's the most pressing of many questions bouncing around the NBA as teams head to camp

Everywhere Charles Barkley goes, the question goes with him. it follows him around in Phoenix, and back in Philadelphia, and down to his hometown of Leeds, Ala. It's the question that everyone around the NBA wants to ask when they talk to Barkley. It's only one of several important questions being asked around the league as the teams prepare to open training camps on Oct. 6. But it's the biggest one, the one that must be answered before there can be any predictions about who will win the championship next June: "Hey, Charles, how's the back?"

For the first time since he was traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 1992, Barkley, Phoenix's power forward and meal ticket, can finally give the answer everyone in the Valley of the Sun wants to hear. "The back feels great," he says. "I feel great. I'm probably in the best shape I've ever been in." Which means the same can be said of Phoenix, which signed free-agent forwards Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale during the off-season and appears primed to make a run at the title that Barkley so badly wants before he retires.

It looked as if Barkley would have to abandon his quest when the Suns lost to the Houston Rockets in the second round of the Western Conference playoffs last spring. He had said throughout the season that he was seriously considering retirement, and those who watched Barkley drag himself around the court in Game 7 of the series against the Rockets—hobbled by the bulging disk in his back as well as a groin injury—had to believe they were watching the finale of his career.

But things changed over the summer. Barkley says teammate Danny Ainge "was like an elf on my shoulder," urging him to come back. And Barkley's doctors told him that he could avoid surgery by undertaking a program of stretching and weight training. He has done that, and now he thinks his back is strong enough to carry the Suns. "If I play well, we're going to win," he says. "If I don't, we won't." Barkley must adhere to his stretching and weight programs, which he hasn't always been religious about. Will things be different this year? It's too early to answer that question, but here are others to ponder:

2 Does Horace Grant mean title magic for Orlando?

Maybe not immediately. It's hard to envision the Magic, a team that has never won a playoff game, making the jump to a championship right away. But it is true that Grant, who left the Chicago Bulls to sign with Orlando as a free agent, seems to be a perfect fit. The Magic needed a tough rebounder and defender at power forward, next to center Shaquille O'Neal, and it needed a veteran to add wisdom and playoff experience to its talented but youthful mix. Grant, who earned three championship rings with the Bulls, will take care of all that.

Still, Orlando is trying not to raise expectations too high. To win the title, "we'll still have to have a little bit of luck," says O'Neal. Whoa—the Magic won the draft lottery in consecutive years, which brought to Orlando O'Neal and superstar-apparent Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway, plus three future first-round draft picks. Now Grant all but falls in the Magic's lap. How much luckier can a team get?

3 Do the Dulls want Scottie Pippen, and does Pippen want them?

Yes and yes. For now. The signing of free-agent guard Ron Harper, late of the Los Angeles Clippers and a friend of Pippen's, apparently was a signal that Chicago hopes to keep oft-disgruntled star forward Pippen in the fold, at least temporarily. "Everything [Bull management] said to me indicated Scottie was going to be here," Harper says. Chicago hasn't been offered anything as attractive as Shawn Kemp of the Seattle SuperSonics for Pippen since that deal fell through on draft night last June; now, the Bulls' management will probably go into the season with Pippen and then evaluate their team's chemistry as the schedule unfolds. If the bosses don't like what they see, they have offers for Pippen that they can probably resurrect at any time: from the Washington Bullets for swingman Calbert Cheaney and forward Juwan Howard; and from the Miami Heat for center Rony Seikaly and cither forward Glen Rice or guard Steve Smith.

Although he has been hurt by the Bulls' willingness to trade him, Pippen also wants to stay. "I love it in Chicago," he says. "I don't want to leave, but I'm a professional, and all I can do is take the floor and give it everything I have, no matter where I'm playing." The bottom line is that Pippen, who angered the Bulls when he benched himself at a crucial juncture in last spring's playoffs, is almost certain to start the season in Chicago but is far less certain to finish it there.

4 The defending-champion Houston Rockets must be happy campers, right?

Let's see. The Rockets had barely finished celebrating their victory in the NBA Finals last June when owner Les Alexander fired several members of his front-office staff and even dumped Turbo, the team mascot. In July coach Rudy Tomjanovich was arrested for driving under the influence, although the charges were quickly dropped, and last month he had surgery on his right elbow. Guard Vernon Maxwell found himself in the midst of a messy divorce. And with the conference rival Suns so much stronger, most observers give Houston little chance of even returning to the finals. Other than that, Houston had a "real summer, thanks.

5 Which team wishes the playoffs could start now?

The SuperSonics. That's because nothing Seattle will do in the regular season will eliminate the memory of its first-round playoff loss to the lightly regarded Denver Nuggets. "We could have the best record in the league, wc could win 70 games, and people would still say, 'Well, they'll probably choke in the playoffs,' " says Sonic guard Gary Payton.

Seattle made highly publicized changes in the off-season, with team president Bob Whitsitt departing (replaced by Wally Walker) and guard Ricky Pierce being traded to the Golden State Warriors. But one little-noticed change might be crucial: The Sonics added Dwayne Casey, best known for his career-derailing role in the 1988 Emery Air Freight scandal at the University of Kentucky, as an assistant coach. The personable Casey may be able to serve as a buffer between fiery coach George Karl and some of his equally combustible players.

6 Why are Bill Cartwright and Robert Parish still wheezing it up and down the court?

Because traditional, low-post centers in the NBA are like lefthanded pitchers in major league baseball—not only can they almost always find work, but work also often finds them. Free ancient, uh, agent pivotmen had no trouble hooking up with new teams during the off-season.

Cartwright, 37, was leaning toward retirement at the end of last season, his sixth with the Bulls, only to discover during the summer that Houston, Seattle, the Sacramento Kings and the Utah Jazz were interested in him. He signed with the Sonics because he wanted a chance to win another championship, because $2.5 million for this season is hard to refuse and maybe because he saw he would be no more than the fourth-oldest center in the league. Also massaging Ben-Gay into their joints after games will be Parish, 41, who left the Boston Celtics and joined the Charlotte Hornets; Moses Malone, 39, who moved from the 76ers to the San Antonio Spurs; and James Edwards, 38, who said goodbye to the Los Angeles Lakers and hello to the Portland Trail Blazers.

Players of such advanced years do present management with some intriguing new concerns: Parish was excused from a recent Hornet minicamp because of the impending birth of a grandchild.

7 With all these vintage big men signed, who's next-Ralph Sampson?

As a matter of fact, yes. Before training camps open, the 34-year-old Sampson, who hasn't played since bad knees forced him out of the league during the 1991-92 season, is expected to work out for several teams, including Philadelphia, Phoenix and the Detroit Pistons. Anyone who saw Sampson struggle to run up and down the court during his last few seasons would have to be skeptical about his chances. But his agent, Alan Dial, says Sampson's knees have improved, and he has added about 20 pounds to his bony 7'4" frame by working with training guru Mackie Shilstone. "He's not the Ralph Sampson he was in his last year or so in the NBA," Dial says.

8 Have the New York Knicks gone from near the mountaintop to over the hill?

The Eastern Conference is still weak enough for the Knicks to have a shot at returning to the NBA Finals. But New York looked like a team that needed new blood at the end of last season, and except for the addition of draft choices Monty Williams and Charlie Ward, who aren't expected to make a big impact immediately, the Knicks haven't gotten the offensive transfusion they need. In fact, the biggest changes have come on the corporate side. ITT/Sheraton and Cable-vision bought Madison Square Garden and made Knick president Dave Checkers interim president of the Garden, putting him in charge of the NHL Rangers as well as the Knicks.

"People forget that we were seven points from a championship a few months ago," says guard Doc Rivers. "It's not like we needed a major overhaul." But the Knicks did need some tinkering and were stymied by the fact that they didn't have enough room under the salary cap to pay for the expensive likes of forward Dominique Wilkins (who signed with the Celtics) or Harper.

9 Why isn't Reggie Miller the NBAs most happy shooter?

Indiana's Miller, arguably the league's best long-range marksman, was dead set against the NBA competition committee's recommendation to move the three-point line from 23'9" at its farthest point to 22'0" all the way around the arc—a change virtually certain to be adopted by the league's board of governors for this season. "The shot is a challenge where it is," Miller says. "Why mess with it? You don't want everybody doing it."

Actually, the NBA would like to see more people doing it. Easier three-point shots mean fewer of the low-scoring, bricklaying contests that began to drag the league down last year. Established three-point artists such as Miller, Miami's Rice, Charlotte's Dell Curry, Chicago's B.J. Armstrong and the Cleveland Cavaliers' Mark Price will benefit. But the new distance might aid even more good shooters whose comfort zone is a step or two inside the old are, like Joe Dumars of Detroit, Hersey Hawkins of Charlotte and Mitch Richmond of Sacramento.

10 Did somebody say "lockout"?

Sorry. Stop us if you've heard this one before. The players and owners are at odds over several issues, the most important of which is the salary cap. Although the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players expired in June, there are no negotiations going on. The players are beginning to believe that the owners are trying to test the union's resolve. The owners say they're willing to talk, but the players won't come to the table....

It sounds like baseball's greatest hits from the summer of '94, but the difference is that the NBA (like the NHL) doesn't want to get caught in the same situation the baseball owners did, with players collecting their salaries for most of the season and then striking near the end and jeopardizing the postseason. That's where talk of a possible lockout comes in, with the owners barring the doors early, perhaps even during training camp.

"A lockout is one of many options," says deputy commissioner Russ Granik, "but we are hoping to resolve this amicably, as we have done in the past."

But the Players Association doesn't plan to come to the table until after its attempt to have the salary cap, college draft and free-agency system struck down in the courts as a violation of antitrust law has had a full hearing. A decision in the case, which went in the league's favor, is now under appeal in federal court. Several league sources suggest that the owners will probably allow the season to open on time (Nov. 4), but if there is still an impasse with the players around Thanksgiving, the rumored lockout could become a reality. Aren't you glad you asked?





Rudy T. won the championship but had a distressing summer afterward.



For Karl and Payton, defeat lingers.



Grant got quite an earful upon his welcome to the Magic's kingdom.