A bit of Chokester in The Chuckster?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Those who ignore the past are doomed to be excused from the NBA playoffs early. Michael Jordan doesn't seem to get it, but Charles Barkley does.

For once, Barkley seems to be letting the facts guide him, rather than shooting off his mouth in defiance of common sense and the concept of bodily term limits.

You can call him Chuckster, or you can call him Chokester. But you can't call him anything but inspired for realizing the glory days have passed him by, like the dying echo of a Springsteen ballad.

And who would have figured Barkley, not Jordan, would be first to escape the endless loop of frustration that comes with the onset of geezerhood?

Jordan, somehow, was unconvinced by baseball that even he has limits. It was hard for him to duck reality as the Bulls failed to get beyond the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Yet Michael spoke of coming back, as if he could magically regain his 1991 championship-vintage powers of levitation.

Barkley, who already had a pretty good sense of his own encroaching age, failed to get the Suns beyond the second round of the Western Conference playoffs. Unlike his favorite golfing partner, however, he brought up the possibility, even the likelihood, of retirement.

Parting will be bittersweet sorrow, but the Suns shouldn't try to change his mind. Barkley may not be a student of history, but he is pretty knowledgeable about his own anatomy, and it's telling him: Quit! No mas!

This is the second straight May when the Chuckster, aching and disillusioned by a playoff loss to Houston, has alluded to hanging up his Nikes.

This time, there's no question it's in his best interest to do it. It's a win-win form of closure. He gets to go out while his game is still semiclose to its peak. His pride and his fans' memories remain intact.

It's also in the best interest of the Suns for Barkley to retire. It's time for them to accept their history lesson: The Chuckster ain't going to suspend a championship banner from the latticework of the America West Arena.

Painful as it sounds, it's time for the Suns to get on with it and face a universe devoid of the Big Bang.

Maybe it's harsh to suggest the Chuckster had some Chokester in him. But it certainly can't be said he delivered at crunch time against the Houston Rockets.

He had some sensational games and some that were embarrassing. He played like a 23-year-old in the first half of most games but like a 43-year-old in the second half.

Maybe the inconsistency should be blamed mostly on age and physical infirmities. But the question must be raised: Was there some deeper flaw in his makeup, something beyond a torn cartilage and aching back?

If his career is truly over, then he departs without ever aiming a champagne bottle at a teammate or putting on championship jewelry.

Some players make others better. Magic Johnson comes to mind. So do Jordan and Larry Bird. But Barkley never quite fit into this group. He made every team livelier and more entertaining. But he didn't necessarily elevate the play of, say, Kevin Johnson or Wayman Tisdale.

There's also the prickly question of how Barkley's conduct affected team morale and chemistry. The Chuckster pushed himself to the hilt in combat, but his attitude toward practice was something else. And he never encountered a rule or a curfew he couldn't stretch to suit his needs.

The Suns may have a harder go of it in the first year A.C. (after Charles), but maybe expectations will be more in line with what they can actually deliver.

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