His bloodied left knee wrapped in ice, future NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley sat on a training table in the Houston Rockets' locker room at First Union Center tonight and began to cry as he talked to his wife on the phone.
"It's over," he said.
Barkley had intended to retire at the end of this season, but instead his 16-year career ended 10 minutes 51 seconds into tonight's 83-73 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers when he ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his left knee while trying to block a shot. Doctors told him that he will need surgery and that it will take him at least six months to recover, but Barkley said he didn't need anyone's prognosis to know he had played his last NBA game.
"I knew it was over when I saw it--I knew it was over when it first happened," said Barkley, who will turn 37 in February. "The way my kneecap was bulging through my leg, I said, 'Well, it's been fun.' I knew immediately it was over."
This game was supposed to be the first major stop of an extended farewell tour for Barkley, whose outspoken demeanor matched the relentless on-court style that made him an 11-time all-star. Though Barkley never won an NBA championship, he is one of two players to amass 23,000 points, 12,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. The other is Wilt Chamberlin.
Barkley started his NBA career in Philadelphia and still has strong ties to the city and to the 76ers despite being traded to Phoenix in 1992, and to Houston in 1996. When he stepped onto the court tonight, he received an extended standing ovation from the crowd, which included his mother and grandmother, both of whom had been flown in from Alabama by the 76ers.
But the festive mood ended abruptly when Barkley fell awkwardly trying to block a shot by Tyrone Hill. He had to be carried off the court and was quickly put in an immobilizing brace that extended up his thigh. By the time his grandmother and mother were escorted into the locker room, Barkley had broken down into tears, absorbing the news with his wife, who was in Houston.
After spending a few minutes gathering his emotions, Barkley made it back onto the Rockets bench to watch the rest of the game. He received another enormous ovation as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
"I guess the big fella in the sky wanted me to finish where I started," said Barkley, who still has a house in Philadelphia. "I'm sad and disappointed it happened, but it is ironic it happened like that tonight. There are a lot of people here tonight who saw me play my first game, who now saw me play my last game.
"You never want it to end like this, but it was supposed to happen like this, it was supposed to end in Philadelphia."
Rockets Coach Rudy Tomjanovich could not be as philosophical, saying "it was just a horrible night," and 76ers Coach Larry Brown seemed equally crushed.
"I'm sick the way it ended because he's done so much for us," said Brown, whose assistant coach, Maurice Cheeks, is a former teammate of Barkley's. "Anyone in the sport at this level is lucky that Charles was part of it."
Barkley's career has been studded with almost as many controversial comments as spectacular on-court performances--he was fined $20,000 for criticizing an official less than a week ago--and he could not let his final game pass without one last joke. As he was being led off in a golf cart after his farewell news conference, he quipped "just what the world needs--another unemployed black man."
Still, even as he laughed, Barkley realized how deep a hole tonight's injury will leave in his life.
"I cried a little bit--a lot--and I'm probably going to cry again," he said. "Late tonight when I'm sitting in my room, it'll probably hit me that it's over, but the negatives cannot come close to the positives."
Career highlights for Charles Barkley, who ended his 16-year NBA career last night:
One of two players in NBA history to surpass 23,000 points, 12,000 rebounds and 4,000 assists. The other is Wilt Chamberlain.
Selected as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
13th on NBA all-time scoring list. 15th on NBA all-time rebounding list.
Currently fifth in the NBA with 11 double-doubles. Currently sixth in the NBA in rebounds per game, averaging 11.4.