Barkley tones down his act, but he still talks a good game 1995 NBA ALL-STAR GAME THE ORIGINAL BAD BOY

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PHOENIX -- He's sitting there firing off the one-liners at a

furious pace, taking command of the audience as only Charles Barkley can. But for a moment the mood gets serious as Barkley is asked about the hefty fine and suspension that Houston Rockets guard Vernon Maxwell received last week for punching a fan.

"Even if some fans deserve it -- and some do -- you still can't go up and hit them," Barkley said. "Some of the things that fans say is horrible, but you can't go up there and hit them. I feel bad for Vernon."

The comment was interesting because there was a time when friends would feel bad -- and express concern -- about the actions of Barkley.

Like the time Barkley spit at a fan in New Jersey, only to hit an 8-year-old girl instead. Members of last year's Dream Team II showed little class in winning the gold medal at the World Basketball Championships in Toronto, but who can forget Barkley elbowing an opponent during the original Dream Team's romp in the 1992 Olympics?

Barkley has had his share of off-the-court skirmishes, as well, once saying it was worth every cent of the $10,000 he had to pay a heckler that he punched in the face outside of a bar.

So why is Barkley, who today will play in perhaps his final All-Star Game, suddenly a voice of reason?

"Now I'm more mature," Barkley said. "I'm not a youngster anymore. I'm going to be 32 years old [on Feb. 20]."

That makes him an elder statesman in the NBA, and the last of the group of superstars that included Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, whose play and style dominated the resurgence of the league in the 1980s.

The only thing that separates Barkley from the rest of that distinguished group is an NBA championship. And Barkley, who for the past two seasons has hinted at retirement, said that's the only goal keeping him in the league.

"The reason why I was talking about retiring those years was I thought we'd win a championship," said Barkley, whose Suns lost to the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals. "That's all I'm playing for anymore."

Standing a shade over 6 feet 4 (he's listed at 6-6), Barkley will play in his eighth All-Star Game today -- wearing No. 8 on his jersey in recognition of the accomplishment.

Although he has spent much of the past few days jokingly complaining about how the obligations for the game have put a crimp on his golf schedule ("I was really hitting the ball today, then I had to cut it short to come to this," Barkley said at Friday's media session), you also sense that the 11-year veteran enjoys ++ being in the spotlight during the gathering of the game's best players.

"It is a great honor to be here," Barkley said. "This is my eighth one, and I think anyone should feel fortunate to play in just one. But I don't get tired of people telling me I'm doing my job well."

And he doesn't get tired of shooting off one-liners:

* After a recent close victory over the Dallas Mavericks: "That shows they're a young team and they don't know how to finish. They don't have a Chuckster to give it to with the game on the line."

* On possibly running for governor of Alabama after he retires: "I'm not sure. I'm afraid of the skeletons in my closet. I've got a whole cemetery of them."

* On playing in next year's All-Star Game: "I'd probably have to get selected by the fans, because I won't get selected on performance."

* To commissioner David Stern: "You make $7 million a year. You ever hear of a salary cap?"

Barkley's outrageousness makes him by far the most entertaining interview in the league, and he always keeps the Phoenix locker room loose.

"Charles has a lot of fun, and he's a born personality," teammate Dan Majerle said. "Some of the stuff he says is off the wall, some of the stuff he says is right on the mark. That's just Charles."

And even when he's off the wall with his comments, Barkley is usually on the money with his play. And that's why the Suns sent Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry to the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for Barkley in 1992.

Phoenix had gone four straight seasons winning 50 or more games, but never had advanced farther than the conference finals. That changed immediately with Barkley, whose superstar quality helped the Suns to 62 wins and a berth in the 1993 finals. Barkley was the league's Most Valuable Player that season.

"His attitude is great," Majerle said. "He respects you, he's very loyal. The only time you have a problem with him is if you disrespect him.

"I always knew he was a great player, but the thing that stuck out when he came here was he was a better all-around player than I thought he was. He scored, rebounded. He's one of these guys that does everything, and he's a real leader."

Barkley couldn't do it last season when he missed 17 games with a torn tendon in his right knee. When he returned, Barkley was still limited by his back problem, and the Suns were eliminated by Houston in the second round of the playoffs.

An abdominal strain forced him to miss the first 11 games of this season, raising doubts again about the Suns' chances. But Barkley has seemingly recovered and the Suns have the best record in the NBA. Despite the recent injury to Danny Manning, Barkley promised that the media will be gathering here en masse once again when the NBA Finals begin.

"If my back holds up, you don't have to worry about the rest of the conference, you only have to worry about who we play in the finals," Barkley said. "The pressure's on me because I have to play well for us to win, anyway. But it all comes down to how my body holds up.

"Our team is very resilient and we have great confidence. I make sure we have great confidence. I feel like when I'm on the court, we're going to win -- I don't care who's out there."

WHERE: America West Arena, Phoenix

WHEN: Today, 6 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

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