Charles Barkley - irreverent, irrepressible, irresistible.
I can still remember exactly where I was on June 17, 1992 when I heard that Charles Barkley had been traded to the Suns. This was before the wizardry of text messaging and Twitter. Twenty years ago breaking news like this spread by word of mouth rather than iPhone alert. I was playing basketball at my junior high. It was baseball season, but there was always time to get in a pick-up game of basketball on an off night. The buzz of the trade reports swept across the ball fields like a wildfire. I remember thinking that this was going to be the missing piece to the puzzle. It almost was.
Forgive me if I sound mawkish, but the 1992-93 NBA season may have been my favorite experience as a sports fan. I have never seen the residents of Phoenix bond together behind ANY cause like they did in support of the Suns that year. The civic pride was palpable. The love for the Suns was tangible. It was the true essence of mania. There was an electric feeling that permeated the city to its very core. The kind that causes horripilations. The kind that entrenches young followers as life long fans.
And it was all the result of one acquisition. The best trade ever made by the Phoenix Suns. The arrival of round rebounding royalty to the Valley of the Sun. Flip for more on the Suns edition in the #NBABestTradeEver series.
The Suns swindled the Philadelphia 76ers by taking the maligned Charles Barkley off their hands in exchange for Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang. Jerry Colangelo won the executive of the year award for his role in the fleecing. Barkley's checkered past made him available at a bargain price and the Suns pounced.
Charles Barkley was more than just a basketball player. He was a celebrity. He was a rock star. He was a media darling. His brash, unrestrained and often hilarious demeanor off the court was exceeded only by his performance on it. His star burned brighter during the brevity of his career with the Suns than any player before or since. Barkley created his own gravitational force. He was the sun at the center of Phoenix's solar system.
Barkley won the MVP award for the 1992-93 season. He averaged 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and a career high 5.1 assists per game. The team set a franchise record with 62 wins (since matched). The Suns reached the NBA Finals for the second time in franchise history. They have not returned since. Barkley's playoff heroics seemed to coincide with the Cinderella season. He hit the series clinching shot in San Antonio, had 44 points and 24 rebounds in a game seven against Seattle and even recorded a triple double in the Finals against the Bulls. The Suns would eventually fall to Chicago in six games.
The next two seasons saw the Suns and Barkley continue to play at an elite level as the team won 56 and 59 games, respectively. Both years they ended up losing to the eventual NBA Champion Houston Rockets in the Conference Semifinals. The Suns squandered a 2-0 series lead in 1994 and a 3-1 advantage in 1995, losing in seven games both times. The losses were heart wrenching - in a way, even more so than the loss in the Finals.
Barkley would leave Phoenix and finish a hall of fame career with the Houston Rockets - the very nemesis that thwarted Phoenix's championship aspirations. It was not the most amicable split and the Suns didn't fare quite as well in the trade that facilitated Barkley's departure. Despite the apparent ill will stemming from these events, both parties agreed to move past these issues and Barkley became the 10th member in the Suns Ring of Honor on March 21, 2004.
While the trade was a resounding success for the Suns, it didn't work out quite as well for Philadelphia. Jeff Hornacek was traded to Utah less than two years later and would play six more seasons for the Jazz while finishing a solid career. Tim Perry was never effective for the 76ers, posting scoring averages of 9.0 per game in two consecutive seasons before playing in a reserve role and finding himself out of the league after the 1995-96 season at the age of 30. Andrew Lang was released by Philadelphia after one season. He would go on to start 276 more games for an assortment of teams as a journeyman. The 76ers would go on to miss the playoffs for six consecutive seasons after the trade.
For those of you too young to have experienced Barkley's time as a Sun, I hope this gave appropriate due to the magnitude of this brief era. For those of you old enough to remember, please share your comments below.