The Barkley Show is on. Not the local television program that features Charles Barkley, not the commercials that feature Barkley as the host of a fictitious talk show, but the actual guy, the all-star forward for the Phoenix Suns. He's holding court in another locker room, talking basketball, making trouble for himself.

A young television reporter is looking for a sound bite. Barkley's teammate, Joe Kleine, had been excused from the Suns' game with the Charlotte Hornets so he could be with his wife, who was about to deliver the couple's next child. It will take a few seconds to wish the Kleines good luck.

"We all feel bad for Joe," Barkley says, completely deadpan to the camera, "because it's not his. He thinks it is, but when it comes out, he's really going to be depressed. So we won this game for him."

A couple of hours later, the comments about Kleine are on the Suns' highlight show. And this is the same Joe Kleine who, 24 hours earlier, said he would have no problem leaving his kids to Barkley to raise.

Barkley, who will be making his only local appearance Thursday night against the Washington Bullets at USAir Arena, often flashes contradictory signals. He was raised by two women he loved dearly -- his mother and grandmother -- and he is a doting parent to his daughter, Christiana. Yet he joked after one loss that he felt like beating up his wife -- and when asked if he wanted to take back what he said, he replied, "Naw. Piss off those women's groups." He is wedded to the team concept of basketball, yet eviscerates teammates he doesn't feel meet his standards: One night, he was asked if he had the same clout in personnel moves that Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson appeared to have had with their respective teams.

"You know I don't," he said. "If I did, we wouldn't have some of these sorry {bleeps} in here." Offender of All

When a Barkley burst escapes the locker room and just hangs there, in the air, it often offends people on the outside. He drove Manute Bol, his former Philadelphia 76ers teammate, crazy with all of his jokes about Bol eating lions and tigers in his native Sudan. How could a man honestly claim, as Barkley did, that he was misquoted in his own autobiography? If that were the complete Barkley, his image would be one of ugliness.

But Barkley is complex. When he jokes about race, as he did at the all-star weekend in February, saying "That's why I hate white people" to a white friend after answering what Barkley felt was a stupid question, he got himself into trouble. Even Barkley was surprised by the hate mail -- and, in this information age, hate faxes and hate voice mail -- that he and the Suns received in response.

At first, Barkley thought he was under a political correctness attack -- "you can't say anything. You can't joke. It's always something," he said. And then, he acknowledged that any perception of racial insensitivity on his part would hurt him deeply.

"People are going to judge you on different things that they see, but I would hate for people to think I was a racist person," he said in a recent interview. "I have just as many white friends as I do black friends. And I would hate for anybody to think {he is racist}. I feel like that would be the worst thing I could be called. I might be called cocky, conceited or whatever. But for somebody to call me a racist, I think that would be as low as I could go."

He doesn't show any of the letters, but he's got them. He won't show them to his wife, Maureen. But they've come, in bulk. The Suns' secretaries, who usually get inquiries for autographs, were shook up -- "they were physically drained," a Suns official says -- by what people were saying about Barkley on the telephone in the first couple of days following the incident.

Barkley remembers the content of the letters enough to paraphrase.

"You {bleeping} nigger, we hate your ass," Barkley said. "The NBA got, I think they told me, 6,000 calls in one day wanting to ban me. Seriously. The thing that makes you mad is it brings out the real racists . . . it promotes racism to start something like that. The letters don't really bother me. {But} it upsets me a little bit, because it lets me know how many racist people are out there." Friend to All

Friends and people who know Barkley do not think he is a racist. They point to Barkley's relationships with his best friends on the Suns, Danny Ainge and Kleine, both of whom are white. They point to his wife, Maureen, who is white. They point to his white agent and the friendships he has with people such as former Orioles pitcher Rick Sutcliffe.

And while Barkley indeed has antipathy for some white writers -- most of whom are in Philadelphia -- the person he made the "I hate white people" comment to was Barry Bloom, a white writer from San Diego.

"If he's a racist, his wife's got a major problem," said Washington Bullets General Manager John Nash, who was in Philadelphia with the 76ers during Barkley's entire stay. "And his daughter has got a major problem. Charles is unlikely to win an election because he's going to be picketed by whomever he offended the previous day. But Charles is not a racist."

Ainge acknowledges there's a lot of sensitivity to go around when it comes to race, and to people on the outside not used to that type of banter, Barkley's jokes may have a more bitter sting.

"But we're talking about guys in the locker room who are friends," Ainge said. "The guy he said it to was a good friend of his. Charles says it to us. Joe Kleine and Charles talk race all the time, and they're the best of friends. Charles refers to us as whitey' and crackers,' all that kind of stuff. Although he calls me a Ritz cracker, because I'm no ordinary cracker, he says. But that stuff's hysterical. That's funny." Retiring? But Not Shy

Nonetheless, Barkley is talking again about retiring after this season. Unlike last year, it's not because of his aching back. The back has actually held up pretty well, and despite a sprained knee suffered in February. He's averaging 23.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, and even though the Suns lost Danny Manning for the season with a knee injury, they still have clinched a playoff berth.

"He's a little more mellow, and I think he realizes his limitations," said guard Kevin Johnson, who has missed much of the season with a pulled groin muscle. "He's still a great player, but he knows he can't do some of the things that Charles Barkley could do {once} for 48 minutes.

"He can do them in the fourth quarter, when we need him. He paces himself. And I think he's trying to play defense, which is good."

But Barkley says he is "close to the point" of quitting because he thinks he's been the subject of unrelenting media criticism. And he says he's reassessing "his plan" to seek the Republican nomination for governor in his native Alabama in 1998.

"If I do something wrong, I can take criticism," he said. "But the last couple of things that have happened to me have been like they just wanted to {mess} with me . . . I want to make a difference for black people and poor people. They've got to catch up. They've got to stop waiting on the system to help them, because the system's not going to help them. I want to tell them, Y'all have been waiting for this system to help you for 400 years, and look where we're at now.'

"But I don't want to go in there {and run for governor} if all they're going to do is try to bring up skeletons and try to crucify me. But I feel like I've made enough inroads, I've got enough help, I know enough powerful people to make a difference. I've got a lot of the politicians in my corner. I've got a lot of big companies in my corner . . . but if I'm going to go in there and just get crucified, I don't need that." Live and Learn

In the past couple of years, Barkley has expressed genuine regret at some of the things he's done, like the infamous incident in New Jersey in which Barkley tried to spit at a heckler, but missed and spit on an 8-year-old girl. And now, sometimes, he sounds like a man who might change, who might not say the first thing that comes to his mind.

At the brink, however, The Barkley Show comes back on. Jokes will be told. He will continue to wage his "parents should be role models" campaign. Things will get back to normal.

"I can't live" quietly, he said. "I'm in the best time of my life. Let's don't even kid ourselves. I think the best time of your life is from when you're 20 to 40. And I think the best active years {are} 20 to 35. And I have spent the great part of my life -- wasted it, sort of. A normal person can do this and that. But I've wasted, basically, those great years by working and being in the limelight. So why shouldn't I enjoy it?" CAPTION: With his run in Phoenix nearing its end, all-star Charles Barkley had considered a run for governor of his native Alabama in 1998. CAPTION: Charles Barkley, who contemplated retirement last season because of back trouble, is healthy again but, at 34, he knows he's not the "Sir Charles" of old. CAPTION: CHARLES BARKLEY NBA STATISTICS (This chart was not available)