After being traded from the Philadelphia 76ers in the summer of 1992, Dream Team superstar Charles Barkley rejuvenated basketball in Arizona, starring for the Phoenix Suns. It’s not that the Suns weren’t recognized on the basketball map up until then, but Sir Charles’ arrival, along with the new American Airlines Arena and new uniforms, made the 1992/93 Suns a smash hit globally.
Barkley took the 1992/93 Suns on an entirely new level of professionalism, recognition, and success, helping them reach the NBA finals for only the second time in their entire history. That year, it was only Jordan’s Bulls on their way to historic three-peat (1991-1993) who stood and reclaimed higher ground between Barkley’s Suns and Larry O’Brien’s trophy.
Back then, even with Suns losing it, it seemed that the nucleus made of Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson, Dan Majerle, Cedric Ceballos, Mark West, A.C. Green, and promising rookies Richard Dumas and Oliver Miller, was destined to stick around and contend for the NBA championship title throughout the 1990s.
And make no mistake – they did – but it was more of a regular-season success story filled with achievements than a real commitment to gain recognition and make it to the top. The same thing that made Barkley mad and eager to left Philly in the early 1990s, lack of the dominant ‘man in the middle’ who would relieve him of some of his duties (inside defense and boxing out). That enabled him to roam around more freely, which became evident with the Suns as the time went by.
Sure, both Wayman Tisdale and A.C. Green were enough consistent frontcourt contributors for a post-Jordan era. Still, it would be a dominant big man like Olajuwon, Ewing, O’Neal, Robinson, and Smits who proved to hold the ‘winning tickets’ for their respective teams on their way to NBA prominence.
The best the Suns did in that ‘big man’ department over Barkley’s years was to bring over longtime Cleveland Cavaliers anchor, 9-year veteran John’ Hot Rod’ Williams, before the 1995/96 season. But, even Williams, with his respective experience and skill level, wasn’t enough to help Sir Charles in battling some of the most dominant inside forces in all of basketball history, not just in the 1990s.
However, there was a short opening, a ‘ray of light’ if you prefer, when it seemed that Barkley’s consistency and blue-collar persistence could pay off dividends and ensure championship magic for the Suns.
The Houston Rockets, the 1994 NBA champions, who eliminated the Suns by 4-1 in the 1994 Western conference semifinals, somehow decided to shake things up and get rid of their longtime starting power forward – Otis Thorpe.
The flamboyant Thorpe was sent to Portland in exchange for Olajuwon’s college teammate, an original Phi Slama Jama (Houston Cougars 1982-1984) member, Portland Trail Blazers superstar Clyde Drexler. The surprising move made on February 15, 1995, seemed to shake not only the Rockets’ power equation, but it also changed the complete balance in the Western Conference’s power rankings.
Soon after, on March 7, 1995, the visiting Suns led by Sir Charles’ 26 points, 14 boards and 5 dimes, completely dominated the game in Houston’s Summit Arena, winning it by 113-102. Seventeen days later, on March 24, 1995, the Suns hosted the Rockets, and Barkley was full of confidence.
Knowing that Otis Thorpe was gone and the best Rockets’ post defender at his position who he would face is Carl Herrera, he felt very confident and invincible, before going on to another unstoppable tear. Using his limitless arsenal of low post moves, he made 11-20 shots from the field and converted 11-12 trips to the charity stripe, posting 34 points in 42 minutes of action, in the Suns’ 97-99 home loss.
What stood out from his stats line was his rebounding total – that night, he collected a season-high 26 rebounds, with 11 of those being on the offensive end of the court! What was even more impressive about this game was that The Round Mound of Rebound almost singlehandedly outrebounded the complete Rockets team – Barkley collected 26 of 50 of the Suns’ boards, while the Rockets, as a team, managed to grab a total of 30 boards (4 offensive and 26 on the defensive end)!
But the regular-season numbers, on any level, become secondary or even irrelevant with the start of the play-off. The Suns finished the regular 1994/95 season with a blistering 59-23 record, winning the Pacific Division. On the other hand, the Rockets finished the season with a 47-35 record.
However, in the Western Conference semis, it was that same Rockets squad that would prevail over the Suns in the seven-game series en route to winning their second consecutive NBA championship title. After overcoming the same old post-season frustrations with the Suns, which he believed he had left behind in Philly, The Chuckster was traded to Houston, where he joined forces with The Dream and The Glide before the 1996/97 season.
During the second half of the 1990s, even with the dominant frontcourt trio of Olajuwon, Drexler, and Barkley, the Rockets were able to advance as far as the Western Conference finals. And this happened only once – in 1997 when they lost the WCF series to the Utah Jazz by 2-4.
Barkley was forced to end his distinguished career at the age of 36 after rupturing his left quadriceps tendon on December 8, 1999, in Philadelphia, the place where his NBA journey began back in 1984.
Basketball Network contributor Murray A. a.k.a. Marjan Crnogaj is the 1980s and 1990s basketball specialist, proud author of the Amazon.com TOP 100 basketball biography ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon’.