Phoenix Suns

Charles Barkley on his Suns, The Last Dance and Bad Boys Pistons

On a video conference call with the media, Charles Barkley talked about the 1992-93 Phoenix Suns, “The Last Dance,” the Bad Boys Pistons and more.

Despite having a Hall of Fame career in the NBA, winning an MVP award during his time with the Phoenix Suns and becoming a world-famous broadcaster, in this time of quarantine, Charles Barkley is a lot like the rest of us: trying to make the best of a tough situation.

“I’ve really been using it in a positive light,” he said on a conference call with local Suns media Tuesday. “Me and a bunch of guys, we’ve got a lot of old jocks out here, and we’re like, ‘Yo man, we cannot drink every day,’ ’cause we like to drink. So we made a pact about 10-15 guys, we only drink on Friday and Saturday. We work out every morning, we work out every afternoon, we play golf like two or three days a week, so we’re trying to use this in a positive way.”

Barkley says the best investment he’s made during the coronavirus pandemic is a bike, which he’s been riding every day, but aside from trying to stay active while staying isolated, another thing that Barkley has in common with the rest of us is watching The Last Dance.

As the leader of the Suns team that went head-to-head with the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals showdown that will be covered in upcoming episodes, Barkley knew from the beginning that he was destined to clash with Michael Jordan for a championship.

“When I got Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson, I thought I was in heaven,” he said. “When I first came to Phoenix, I was sitting around with Cotton [Fitzsimmons] and I said, ‘Cotton, this is what’s gonna happen: We’re gonna win the West, and we’re gonna play the Bulls in the Finals.’ And he says, ‘How do you know that?’ I said, ‘Because I think I’m the best player in the world, I just haven’t had any help.’”

It wasn’t an easy path to get there, of course. Despite winning a league-best 62 games and earning home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, the Suns found themselves trailing the 8-seeded Los Angeles Lakers 2-0 in the first round. Back then, the first round was a best-of-five series, and facing elimination in L.A., it was head coach Paul Westphal who provided a spark.

“We’re in the locker room and everybody kinda had their head down, and I remember the press coming in and running right to my locker, ’cause obviously that’s the way it works, and they said, ‘Did you hear what Paul Westphal said?’ Barkley recalls. “And I said, ‘No.’ Well he said, ‘Okay guys, we lost Game 1 and Game 2, we’re gonna go to L.A., we’re gonna win Game 3, we’re gonna win Game 4 and then we’re gonna come back and win Game 5. You guys are gonna say it was a hell of a series.’

“I remember looking up and saying, ‘Oh, coach said that? Well, we’ve got his back.’ So that’s the way it was gonna be.”

The Suns won the next three games, advancing to face David Robinson and the San Antonio Spurs in the next round. A game-winner from Charles Barkley with 1.8 seconds left in Game 6 advanced Phoenix to the Western Conference Finals.

“Paul said, ‘Where do you want the ball?’” Barkley remembers. “And I said, ‘Well, they’re probably gonna put a big guy on me, so I want it at the top of the key so it makes it difficult for double-teams.’

“So I said, ‘I’m gonna take my time, it’s gonna be less than five [seconds], but David’s gonna keep backing up, ’cause he don’t want me to get to the basket.’ And I just got right to the free-throw line.”

In an epic seven-game series with the Seattle SuperSonics, Barkley and the Suns were heading back to Phoenix for a decisive Game 7 with their heads hung low, and the league MVP knew he needed to find a way to inspire his teammates. A conversation with Frank Johnson, a teammate Barkley called his “sounding board” back then, provided the spark.

“I said, ‘Frank, how can I get this team’s energy up and get everybody ready to go for Game 7?’ And Frank says, ‘Oh I’m not worried about Game 7, I’m worried about you.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Charles, this team is gonna follow you. You’ve got to play the best game you’ve ever played. You’ve never been to the Finals, this is the best team you’ve probably ever been on, and if you play, we will follow.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ And he said, ‘Chuck, it’s been that way all season. It’s gonna be that way in Game 7. If you lead us, we will follow you.’”

Barkley responded with arguably the greatest performance of his career, a 44-point, 24-rebound masterpiece to lead Phoenix to its second Finals appearance in franchise history.

The ’93 Finals are covered in upcoming episodes of The Last Dance, which Barkley has watched and made his own observations — despite cracking a joke wondering why everyone is even watching at all when they already know how the story ends.

Going back to that championship series against MJ and the Bulls, Barkley says his biggest regret is not coming out more aggressive in Game 1 on the road to set the example for his teammates.

“It’s so interesting that you asked that question, because when I was watching The Last Dance, Michael said the exact same thing,” Barkley said. “It was so funny because we had never talked about it before, and he said, ‘Yeah, in Game 1, the moment just kinda got to [Phoenix] a little bit,’ and that’s the only bad game we played. Every other game was a one- or two-point game if you go back and look at the series, so my only regret about that series is not being like Game 7, like ‘Screw this, I’m not waiting on you guys, y’all better follow me.’”

Despite the nerves clearly holding Phoenix back in Game 1, the Suns had a chance to win Game 6 at home and force a decisive Game 7. They were leading by four points with under a minute to play at America West Arena, but a Jordan layup cut the lead to two points. After the Bulls got the ball back, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant both made the extra pass to find John Paxson open for the game-winning, series-clinching 3-pointer.

“The only regret is I wish we had gave up a 2 instead of a 3,” Barkley said of the play. “It was only two guys on the court who were gonna shoot: Michael and Paxson. ‘Cause Scottie had a layup basically and Grant had a layup, and we still would’ve been tied and had the ball. So that’s the only thing I regret: that we left the 3-point shooter open instead of [giving up] the two points, because we still would’ve been tied and had the ball with I think 6-7 seconds to go.”

Barkley believes his 1992-93 Suns team would fare well in the modern NBA, especially because opponents would be unable to hand check Kevin Johnson. Barkley said he’d probably average 3-4 more rebounds per game than he did back then due to all the 3-pointers teams shoot now, and he wanted to make it clear how much easier it is to play in today’s NBA without that same level of physical play being allowed.

The Last Dance has covered the topic extensively, especially in regards to the Bad Boys Detroit Pistons teams of the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“One of the reasons you’ve got to admire Michael Jordan, the physical beatings they were putting on that dude — you’ve gotta say to yourself, ‘Damn!’” Barkley said.

“I always used to tell people, ‘When you’re playing against the Pistons, you should always, just in case, call your family and tell ’em you love ’em, ’cause there was a chance you were not gonna come out alive.’ Because those guys were physically trying to beat you to a pulp.”

In any case, despite coming up short with the Suns team that Barkley called “his best opportunity to win,” the fans threw them a parade when they returned to Phoenix.

“It was just amazing, man,” Barkley said. “One of the reasons I root for the Suns, the reason I live here is they love the Phoenix Suns. It’s been really unfortunate the last X amount of years, we haven’t been competitive, because these fans are amazing.

“I really wanna see the Suns do better, because when the Suns do great, man, this city’s on fire.”

Next: 5 things we learned from Episodes 3-4 of The Last Dance

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