“If you ain’t first, you’re last.”
Long before said manifesto came to define Talladega Nights, my ninth grade history teacher ironically preached the same premise. Second place is never celebrated and playing to win is the only way to approach any obstacle in life, especially sports. The NBA, the one league where an individual megastar can turn the tides of a franchise, has become known equally as much for those who have reached the mountaintop as those who never capped off their career with the label of “champion.” The record books speak volumes on the difficulty of achieving the feat. Throughout the past 30 years, only eight teams have captured the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Excluding Elgin Baylor, no other Hall of Famer may be remembered more for his lack of jewelry than Charles Barkley.
Sir Charles’ chance to stake claim at immortality came during the 1993 NBA Finals when his Phoenix Suns squared off against the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. What’s interesting to note is Chuck took home the MVP that year in a semi-controversial decision. It likely had everything to do with Chuck’s new and impressive beginning out West combined with voter apathy of awarding what would have been their third consecutive trophy to Mike. Still, his first year alongside the likes of Dan Majerle and Kevin Johnson provided him with more help than he had many years in Philly and his 26 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two steals per contest were admittedly hard to ignore (even though MJ averaged 33-7-6-3).
Regardless, the 1993 showdown presented arguably the most physically taxing one-on-one challenge Mike faced on his Finals resume up to that point. Barkley, for one, was more than confident and had every right to be. In his heart of hearts, Charles firmly believed he was the top star in the association and this was the stage to make a believer of the entire world. In a recent conversation with Bill Simmons, the now engaging TNT analyst revealed a story of how humbling an experience witnessing Air Jordan’s dominance first-hand truly was.
Transcription: Andrew Sharp
You know, I’d always thought that I was the best player, to be honest with you. I always thought, Michael Jordan when he started winning, he just had more help than me. So, when I finally came to Phoenix, I had told the late, great Cotton Fitzsimmons, ‘Hey dude, I’m the best basketball player in the world. We’re going to the Finals.’ And he said, ‘That’s why I traded for you.’
I actually thought I was the best. I thought Bird and Magic just had better players. So, I said, ‘Listen dude, I’m going to the Finals this year. Dan Majerlie, Kevin Johnson… That’s what I need. We’re going to the Finals.’ He says, ‘Well Michael’s gonna be there.’ I said, ‘Cotton, I think I’m better than Michael Jordan.’ He says, ‘We will see when you get there.’
So, we actually got nervous before Game 1. We struggled. The pressure got to the guys on the team. I played decent, but then I think the other guys were nervous. So Game 2, I’m talking to my daughter.
She said, ‘Dad? Are y’all gonna win tonight?’
I said, ‘Baby, your dad is the best basketball player in the world. I’m going to dominate the game tonight.’ And I remember… I think I had like 46, 47. I played great. [Ed. note: his numbers are slightly off, but it's been 18 years]. And Michael had 52.
And I got home that night, and my daughter was crying, and she said, ‘Dad, y’all lost again.’
I said, ‘Baby, I think Michael Jordan’s better than me.’
She said, ‘Dad, you’ve never said that before.’
I said, ‘Baby, I’ve never felt like that before.
“Tragic.” – ©Mr. Omar
If nothing else, Chuck’s undiluted candor is admirable. Unfortunately for him though, he ran into a Jordan who was A) at the peak of his visceral and psychological dominance B) pissed he did not win the MVP and C) not taking a Finals loss for an answer (his series average of 41 points, nine rebounds, six assists and two steals proved such). How the story played out is common logic and only a chapter in the legacy of Michael Jordan and the city of Chicago. The Bulls ended up taking the series 4-2 completing their first of two three peats. John Paxson’s game winning three pointer with 14 seconds left in Game 6 remains the series’ most iconic shot and, as hindsight affords us, the Ivan Drago death blow to Barkley’s championship fantasy.
As Sharp would go on to mention, Charles’ tale of disappointment remains an example for all present day superstars currently fighting and clawing their way through the conference finals. This twinkle of time, however brief, is a microcosm of their professional lives and one not guaranteed to present itself year after year. We’ve been spoiled by the careers of players like Bird, Magic, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe and Duncan. Their greatness is symbolized by the plethora of achievements at the highest level. In a sense, it would be fair to refer to them as fairy tales because it defies all realms of coherence. Winning one championship is hard enough; four or five or six is damn near impossible to wrap ones brain around.
Add one and one together and a large deposit of great players presently filling highlight reels will never experience standing atop Mount Olympus overlooking the jealousy of 29 other teams. That’s a humbling experience if there ever is one in the NBA.
Just ask Chuck.