Charles Barkley, chairman of the board of Buttkicking Inc.,
strutted into the Phoenix Suns' locker room to conduct a brief
business meeting moments after his team defeated the NBA
champion Houston Rockets 114-110 on Sunday to go up 3-1 in their
best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series. Barkley grabbed
a piece of chalk and scribbled feverishly on the blackboard
while all the other board members gathered around. What he wrote
came as a huge relief to them all: BACK IN BUSINESS. AND IT'S
Who could blame the brass at Buttkicking Inc. if they had begun
to doubt themselves for just an instant? After all the heartache
and near misses Phoenix has endured over the past few seasons,
it appears that the Suns' most dangerous antagonist these days
might simply be bad karma. True, Phoenix had finished a 59-23
regular season by winning eight of its last nine games, had
swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the opening playoff round
and then last week had blown out Houston in Games 1 and 2 in
Phoenix. But when the Suns finally lost one on Saturday -- by 33
points! -- they couldn't have been thrilled to see Rocket guard
Kenny Smith parading around in what he claimed were magic
That morning, Smith had pulled the shoes, with 2 Ws scribbled on
the sides, from his closet. They were the same prophetic kicks
Smith had donned last year during the conference semifinals
after the Rockets had dropped Games 1 and 2 against the Suns at
home; Houston then had stormed back for 2 Ws in Phoenix and went
on to win the series. And when the Rockets jumped ahead by 15
points in Game 4 on Sunday, it looked as if the shoes' magic
might be kicking in again. But thanks largely to point guard
Kevin Johnson's 43 points, the boys of Buttkicking survived,
striking back to steal the pivotal game of the series before
heading back to Phoenix for what they hoped would be the
clincher on Tuesday. Game 6, if necessary, would be played
Thursday in Houston, but the way the Suns were talking, nothing
short of ruby slippers would get the Rockets back home alive.
It was May 8, on the eve of the series opener, when Barkley
entered the Suns' clubhouse, gave the team its new nickname and
then engaged shooting guard Dan Majerle in the following
Barkley: What business are we in?
Majerle: The butt-kicking business.
Barkley: And how's business?
Majerle: Business is good.
Fortunately, Buttkicking was incorporated with a comprehensive
medical plan. Johnson, who had been dogged by injuries all
season and missed the last three practices before Game 1 with a
sore left hamstring, was receiving acupuncture treatments for
his pain. And Barkley came down with a stomach virus on the
morning of the opener. He was hospitalized and treated with
intravenous electrolytes but didn't recover sufficiently to keep
down his pregame meal.
The Rockets weren't exactly in the pink themselves. Forward Carl
Herrera, whose job it would have been to shadow Barkley, was on
the bench for the series with a dislocated right shoulder.
Mercurial guard Vernon Maxwell wasn't even on the bench, having
been granted a seemingly permanent leave of absence to discover
once and for all what Mad Max is so angry about. The rest of the
Houston players were simply battered, having just survived a
bruising five-game first-round series against the Utah Jazz. The
fingers on All-Star center Hakeem Olajuwon's shooting hand were
so swollen that he couldn't even wear his 1994 championship ring.
As it turned out, All-Star guard Clyde Drexler would also sit
out most of Game 1, but not with an injury. He was tossed with
10:12 left in the first half after receiving two technical fouls
from referee Jake O'Donnell for arguing a foul call. It was
hardly surprising that O'Donnell was amid the ruckus, because he
is a referee so reviled by Olajuwon that during the series
against Utah, the Dream had asked him, ``How do you sleep at
night? You must have no conscience.''
After (Up)Chuck Barkley had risen from his hospital bed to score
26 points in the 130-108 Phoenix win, Olajuwon had this to say
about O'Donnell's ejection of Drexler: ``You have to understand
the way I look at it from the Islamic point of view. If you are
unjust, there will be a day of retribution.''
With O'Donnell now working another series, Drexler was available
for duty throughout Game 2, but he probably wished he hadn't
been. Phoenix's secret weapon, journeyman center Joe Kleine,
scored nine points, capping a two-game, 10-for-13 shooting
performance, and the Suns scorched the Rockets again, 118- 94.
``We didn't play with much toughness in these two games,''
Drexler said afterward. ``It's like we had on white suits and we
didn't want to get them dirty.''
Naturally, Phoenix's 2-0 series lead sparked memories in some
quarters of last year's debacle -- but not among the Suns
themselves. ``I don't remember last year,'' Barkley said. ``What
happened last year? Joe Kleine hit me in the head in practice,
and I have amnesia.''
The Rockets, in turn, were using history -- and their return
home -- as a crutch. Said Olajuwon, ``It's a good flashback to
remember. We may be down two games, but we're actually better
off than we were last year.'' Smith attempted to recapture the
voodoo with his old shoes. ``When I saw Michael change numbers I
decided to give this a try,'' Smith said, alluding to Chicago
Bull Michael Jordan's uniform switch, for which the Bulls were
fined by the NBA. ``The leather is starting to crack, and
they're looking pretty nasty, but it worked for him, so I
thought it might work for me. And the best news is it didn't
cost me $30,000.''
Houston jumped out to a 62-40 halftime lead in Game 3 and was
never seriously challenged in its 118-85 victory. So dominant
were the Rockets that with four minutes remaining in the third
quarter, Olajuwon had as many field goals (16) as the entire
Phoenix team. And with a little more than 10 minutes left in the
game, former Phi Slama Jama frat brothers Olajuwon and Drexler
had combined for 59 points, while Phoenix had 58.
Barkley's 0-for-10 shooting was the worst of his 11-year career
and only the third time in 91 playoff games that he had gone
without a basket. ``It's like an eclipse,'' Johnson said. ``It
happens now and then, and it's hard to explain.''
In fact, after Barkley was informed that he had scored just five
points, he sought out his coach, Paul Westphal, and asked,
``Hey, Coach, any chance the bus will leave me behind today?''
Barkley might as well have just loitered around the locker room,
because Game 4 was scheduled to tip off a mere 19 hours later.
Much to the dismay of many of the Sun players, to accommodate
NBC the NBA had scheduled a pair of games on consecutive days,
both of which began at noon in Houston -- 11 a.m. Phoenix time.
``It's hard on us with all these morning starts,'' Sun center
Danny Schayes said. ``Maybe we're all vampires.''
After three games decided by an average margin of 26 points,
Game 4 went down to the wire. But it began like another
potential home-team blowout. In the first quarter Smith made
three three-pointers, and Houston forged ahead by 10 points at
the half. But the Suns mounted a second-half charge, just as
they'd done the previous Mother's Day, when they erased an
18-point fourth- quarter deficit to steal a win in Game 2. The
comeback commenced with a lecture from Barkley to rookie guard
Wesley Person, who had been all but invisible since the series
moved to Houston. Said Barkley, ``I told Wes, `Will you please
do something? You're out here and all you're doing is taking up
space. You're like an astronaut.' '' Person responded with a
flurry of 10 quick points in the third quarter as the Suns wiped
out a Rocket lead that had grown to 15.
More important to the Suns was the sublime performance of
Johnson, the point guard who regained his old form in the
playoffs. No Rocket guard could stop Johnson as he made his way
to the bucket. He played the entire 48 minutes, shooting 18 of
24 from the floor and finishing with 43 points, his highest
total in a playoff game, and nine assists. ``When Kevin plays
like that, you just get out of his way,'' Kleine said. ``Go
where he tells you to go and then just stand there and watch the
The Suns had other heroes. Barkley, who also played the whole
game, bounced back with 26 points. Forward A.C. Green chipped in
with 12 rebounds. And Schayes outplayed Olajuwon over the final
three minutes, scoring five points and, with the help of most
of his teammates, guarding the Houston center so tightly that
the Dream could launch only two shots down the stretch.
Even with a 3-1 series edge, the Suns were not without worries.
Olajuwon was averaging 29.3 points per game, and Phoenix didn't
appear to have any convincing matchup answers. The Suns also
were wondering how the Rockets had stolen their Thunder, as in
Thunder Dan Majerle. During the two games in Houston, Majerle
scored just three points in 53 minutes. And Phoenix knew it
hadn't buried the Rockets yet: Beginning with the 1993 playoffs,
Houston had faced elimination in eight games and won seven. As a
reminder, Barkley wrote another message on the blackboard after
Game 4: THEY WANT TO DIE. YOU HAVE TO KILL 'EM.
But as Barkley left the Summit, he clearly did not expect to
return. The Chuckster stopped briefly to pose for a picture with
some of the Rocket dancers. Drexler arrived on the scene and
said, ``Don't worry, Chuck, you can get that picture on
Thursday.'' Responded Barkley: ``These girls are smart. They
know we're not coming back here.''
Meanwhile, Johnson was left alone in the locker room, where he
pointed out that he was sitting in the exact spot where his
season had ended a year ago after the Suns' Game 7 defeat.
``Last night I thought a lot about last year,'' he said, ``and I
felt that if we didn't win today, then it's, Here we go again.
I'd like to think that history has finally taught our team
something. I think we're much more humble than we were then.''
Sounds like one board member didn't get the chairman's memo.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH After shooting blanks from the field in Game 3, Barkley (34) fired away for 26 points in Game 4. [Charles Barkley attempting to make a basket]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH In Game 4 Houston saw Green (45) around the basket, where he had 12 rebounds and added 14 points. [A.C. Green jumping toward the basket]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH At crunch time in Game 4, the swarming Rockets could find no way to stop the quicksilver KJ from elevating or celebrating. [Houston Rockets team members blocking Kevin Johnson; Kevin Johnson and other Phoenix Suns team members raising their arms in victory]