Before he became a TNT commentator, Barkley was a fearless, brash and occasionally violent player, willing to share whatever was on his mind and unwilling to be politically correct. That made him a big and easy target, and he retired in 2000 with the worst possible Achilles’ heel: He never won a ring.
Watch any episode of TNT’s “Inside The NBA,” and Shaquille O’Neal will probably remind Barkley that he “ain’t in the club” or that he’s stuck “on the outside in line.” There’s no adequate retort. If there were, the loudest mouth and wittiest jabber would have thought of it by now.
Of Michael Jordan’s many foils so far in “The Last Dance” documentary, Barkley should inspire the most sympathy. Isiah Thomas and the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons were objects of Jordan’s “hate,” but they had two titles to show for it. The Los Angeles Lakers were no match for the Bulls in the 1991 Finals, but Magic Johnson won five titles during the “Showtime” era. While Clyde Drexler got destroyed by Jordan in the 1992 Finals, a trade to the Houston Rockets made him a champion in 1995. Even Gary Payton, whose Seattle SuperSonics lost to the Bulls in the 1996 Finals, claimed a ring with the 2006 Miami Heat.
But Barkley never found validation. He arrived in 1984, selected two spots behind Jordan in the draft. He initially took a back seat to established stars Julius Erving and Moses Malone in Philadelphia, but he got a taste of the Eastern Conference finals as a rookie.
His next eight seasons would be a fight to get back to those heights. First stymied by the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, the Sixers gradually became Barkley’s team in the late 1980s. His ascent earned him national recognition, but Jordan was rising higher and faster at the same time. In 1990, the Bulls eliminated the Sixers in the second round in five games. Ditto in 1991.
Those matchups have been largely forgotten because Jordan had bigger fish to fry in the Pistons. For Barkley, they represented a hard ceiling. Something needed to change, and he was traded to the Suns after the Sixers slipped out of the playoffs entirely in 1992.
Barkley hit the ground running in Phoenix, winning MVP honors and leading the Suns to the league’s top offense and best record. His individual numbers — 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game — were monstrous, and he posted advanced statistics that compare favorably with virtually any player from the 1990s.
The 1993 playoffs saw an all-timer at the peak of his powers. Barkley had 31 points and 14 rebounds to close out the Lakers in the first round. Twenty-eight points and 21 rebounds to eliminate the San Antonio Spurs in the second round. Forty-four points and 24 rebounds to bounce the SuperSonics in the conference finals. And 42 points and 13 rebounds in a Game 2 loss to the Bulls in the Finals, a performance after which Barkley said he “played as well as I could play.”
Barkley was in wrecking ball mode, but Jordan wrecked his dreams. Jordan, spurred on by Barkley beating him out for MVP, averaged 41 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists over six games in the 1993 Finals, shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 40 percent on three-pointers.
“I was a little bit upset that I didn’t get the MVP,” Jordan said. “You can have that, but I’m going to get this [title].”
Jordan scored 42 points to match Barkley in Game 2, and he poured in 55 in Game 4, the series’ pivotal contest. All told, it was arguably the most impressive playoff series of Jordan’s career and one of the greatest Finals showings in NBA history. Barkley didn’t bother with excuses, nor should he.
“That was probably the first time in my life that I felt like there was a better basketball player than me,” Barkley said. “Losing to Michael, there’s no shame in that. Sports are like a gunfight. We lost to the fastest gun.”
Barkley fell two wins short of the 1993 title and never got a second crack at the Finals. In 1994 and 1995, the Suns lost in the second round to Hakeem Olajuwon's Rockets, who went on to win back-to-back championships. In 1996, David Robinson’s Spurs knocked out the Suns in the first round, and Barkley, whose supporting cast had splintered, again saw the writing on the wall.
His last gasp came with a trade to Houston, where he hoped to chase a ring alongside Olajuwon and Drexler. By then, though, he was 34, and his game was declining. Houston fell to the Utah Jazz in the 1997 Western Conference finals, and Barkley’s career sputtered out.
There are other great players who can relate to Barkley’s plight: Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Karl Malone and John Stockton, to name a few. Yet Barkley’s pain is uniquely visible. Ewing didn’t capture the public imagination or media headlines like Barkley. Miller couldn’t match Barkley’s on-court skill and impact. Malone and Stockton got two Finals shots at Jordan but shouldered the losses together.
In retirement, Barkley has held court in front of cameras and microphones, haunted by Jordan’s dominance and taunted by lesser players with rings such as Draymond Green. He has had to swallow his pride and take his lumps, all because he couldn’t beat the greatest player of all time at his apex.
On the court, Barkley checked so many boxes: strength, confidence, drive, quickness, power and agility. He had good feel, dependable go-to moves on the block and a soft shooting touch.
The only things he lacked were better timing and a place to hide.
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