PHOENIX -- Charles Barkley is about the most naturally funny man you'd ever hope to meet. Oh sure, there are times when brutal honesty is in order such as when he says kids should look to their parents, not celebrities, for role models. But mostly, Barkley keeps you in stitches. So when Barkley first said this weekend he is "99.9 percent sure" the bulging disk in his back will lead him to retire after this season, most people didn't take him seriously. Michael Jordan called a news conference to announce his retirement and Israeli radio carried it live. Barkley, after numb legs led to a collapse a week ago, said during a teleconference that he doesn't want to play through the pain of a bad back and the news was greeted with, "That's a funny one, Charles. Chuck, you're a regular riot."

In one corner of the Phoenix Suns locker room, Barkley grimaced while he pulled on trousers. In another, teammate Cedric Ceballos said, "If Charles retires he'd have to explain his golf game, why it's so bad." In his office, Coach Paul Westphal said of Barkley's "99.9 percent" certainty, "We all know Charles didn't major in math." So right there in his own locker room, they thought Chuck was a hoot, that Charles was just, you know, being Charles.

This is what happens when you're a funny, funny man who has beaten up Godzilla. Indestructability and outrageousness are presumed. Fact is, Charles Barkley, roughneck that he is, is flesh and blood. He has a back, and the pain resulting from that bulging disk is killing him. Barkley, because he can't help himself, was especially funny Friday night, talking about his bad back and the question of retirement before and after a preseason game against Golden State. But there were those brief moments when you knew just how serious and restricting the pain is, even when he isn't playing.

So why play in a meaningless exhibition game?

"I've got to know now," Barkley said. "I want to find out as quickly as possible if I can play or if I can't."

So he played. The Suns and many people watching the game would like to believe Barkley was pretty much himself, having come within two assists of a triple-double in limited playing time against the Warriors. Maybe Barkley's history of outrageousness and the fact that the Suns look like the best team in basketball have led to a false sense of security.

To that end, Barkley offers two words: Larry Bird.

He recalled going to Boston Garden three seasons ago and watching Bird stretch out on the floor when he wasn't playing because a similarly injured back wouldn't allow Bird to sit. He thought about how Bird could never practice and had to miss so many games, and said to himself: "Larry is torturing himself. I will never torture myself."

Yet, Barkley found himself clearing a space on the America West Arena floor on which to lie when he wasn't playing Friday night.

"I don't like laying on the floor during games," he said. "I don't want to be babied. Playing 24, 25 minutes a game, that's not my game. If we have to go through the whole season monitoring my minutes, that's not me. I don't want to play basketball in pain, it's no fun. I'd have to change my whole style and I can't do that. I'm like a kamikaze pilot and tonight I didn't play with that reckless abandon.

"If the doctors could guarantee they could do something to ease the pain or make it better, I'll keep playing. But one of those operations that keeps you out a year? No way. A two-month thing I'd consider. I know eventually I'm going to have to have surgery. But to play with this ... it's painful. The numbness is persistent. It's harder to get out of bed. Anybody who's had back trouble, people who don't even play sports, know what I'm talking about.

"I hear these fools saying, 'Charles will say anything to get attention.' Look, I'll get attention, regardless. Those tests showing a bulging disk and tissue damage are fact. There's nothing funny about that.

"This thing worries me, scares me. Common sense says it'll get worse because it's not like I'm just sitting around. If you start the season in pain it only makes sense it'll get progressively worse. I don't think God meant for people with disk problems to play professional basketball."

The NBA without Michael Jordan is already bad enough. Without Jordan and Barkley? Unthinkable. The Dream Team photo is like Marty McFly's family picture in "Back To The Future," where one-by-one, limb-by-limb, the McFlys start to disappear. Magic, Bird, Jordan, are already gone and Barkley's image could be fading.

Even worse, this should be Barkley's payoff season for all the work, all the knucklehead former teammates, all the injuries, all the times he should have been in a hospital but played (and dominated). Even had Jordan not retired, the Suns probably moved ahead of the Bulls with the addition of A.C. Green and Joe Kleine, two hard-nosed tough guys acquired for the specific purpose of making a difference against the Bulls or Knicks.

"We can win 70 games," Barkley said, "if everybody's healthy. K.J. {guard Kevin Johnson} missed 30 games last year, I was out for five {during which the Suns were 1-4} and we still won 62. And no {playoff} team added as good a player as A.C. Green."

But what if everybody is healthy except Barkley? Can Phoenix win anyway?

Of course not. The Bulls can barely win a game without Jordan. The Celtics and Lakers expired as we knew them without Bird and Magic.

In the wake of Jordan's retirement and the reminder that even the most joyous things in life don't last forever, it was a treat to see Barkley, even a diminished and obviously struggling Barkley, playing Friday night.

Major League Baseball sells its history and lore, the NFL sells great teams and the NBA sells its stars. This should be Barkley's time, deservedly. With Jordan's retirement, Barkley is basketball's brightest star, the best player in the world and a wonderful ambassador who realizes it's more important to discuss the issues of the day than to say the safe thing. With the best treatment the Suns can find and a wondrous physique whose recuperative powers perhaps only God understands, Charles Barkley for the moment will play on in pain. Those of us who hold basketball dear hope the grimace won't replace the laughter.