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After losing all of his basketball talent to an alien named Pound in Space Jam, Charles Barkley turned to God for answers about the whereabouts of his powers. Kneeling in the church, the desperate star made promises to the Big Man that ranged from the unbelievable to the unreasonable; No more swearing! No more techniques. No more dates with Madonna.

Just as Barkley lost his skills in Space Jam, he worried that he might lose his skills in real life playing basketball in Houston.

The expectations were made clear in a poster depicting the Rockets’ new Big Three recruits, Barkley, Hakeem Olayjuwon and Clyde Drexler, standing around two Larry O’Brien trophies from ’94 and ’95, title or bust.

However, Barkley’s window in Houston was limited at best. The Rockets had mortgaged their future for a chance to have three future Hall of Famers between the ages of 34 and 35 and one more title run, hopefully challenging Chicago’s title run.

Houston Rockets forward Charles Barkley fouls Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone during Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals series in May 1997.

Gary M. McKellar, Deseret News

“Charles could still do a lot of good things on the court, but we knew he was definitely on the down side of his career,” Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. “Our hope with having three superstars was that Charles wouldn’t have to carry the whole load.”

Aside from Olajuwon, Drexler and swingman Mario Eli, most of the team was gutted. The new team was older and heavier with big man Kevin Willis and 3-point shooter Brent Price. Barkley quickly adjusted to his new teammates, chiding Price and forward Matt Bullard that they weren’t the “tough white guys” that once ruled the league and asking Olajuwon to turn down the volume on one of his bright red suits.

But getting old was hell, and he was open about whether they could get the job done.

“We’re all on the bad side right now,” he said. “Do we have enough left? This is the question.”

The Rockets beat Minnesota in the first round of the playoffs and Seattle in the second. In the conference finals, the Utah Jazz awaited John Stockton and league MVP Karl Malone. Five of the 50 greatest players ever will share the floor for a possible shot at Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls.

Still, there was only one thing on Barkley’s mind that afternoon: Salt Lake City nightlife.


Houston Stars Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon have questions for the referee during a 1997 NBA playoff game.

Gary M. McKellar, Deseret News

The shot went through the nylon and Barkley threw his arms up in the air. Eddie Johnson had already saved Houston from an 0-3 deficit in Game 3 with 31 points. Now, after hitting the game-winning 3 in Game 4, Barkley grabbed Johnson and hoisted him above his head to chants. “EDD-IE!” EDD-IE! EDD-IE!”

The Rockets evened the series and were now two games away from the NBA Finals.

“I’m not sure what surreal means, but I heard it on TV once and it sounded pretty clever. So I have to say the word is surreal,” Barkley exclaimed.

Barkley’s first playoff matchup with Malone offered a different look to the individual rivalry that began before the first Olympic Dream Team, one filled with as much respect as animosity. In an Olympic year when Malone was supposed to be the biggest star, it was Barkley who took on the role of American ambassador for the game. When Barkley supported Magic Johnson and his HIV diagnosis, Malone made noise about the prospect of competing against him. Shortly after Barkley yelled, “I’m not a role model,” Malone’s essay in Sports Illustrated criticized him for not accepting the responsibilities that come with being a superstar.

Being a top 4 was important to Malone, recalls Antoine Carr, the Jazz’s big backup.

“When you walked up the block, Carl always wanted to tell you how big he was,” Carr said. “I wouldn’t say he was as talented as Charles before that, but Carl turned into a beast on the floor and became this brute force.”

Barkley, for his part, showed a reasonable approach.

“Let’s be realistic,” he said. “This is our last chance, and probably Utah’s. We are not young teams. we lose something every year. We are running out of time.”


Jazz guard John Stockton goes down after being fouled by Houston forward Charles Barkley.

Gary M. McKellar, Deseret News

Usually, to fill the board with pre-game strategies, coach Tomjanovic explained in a few words. Believe in yourself.

The problem was that Utah’s players believed in themselves more in Game 5 in a 96–91 victory in Salt Lake City. Malone tore through Barkley in Game 5, going 10-of-29 and doubling his rebound total to 14-7.

The Jazz took a 3-2 lead and were looking to close out the Rockets in Houston.

Drexler made Game 6 his own by abusing Jeff Hornacek and Bryon Russell for 33 points. Houston went up by 10 with less than three minutes remaining. But Jazz slowly clawed his way back.

Olajuwon’s 3-pointer by Russell and Greg Ostertag led to two free throws for Stockton at the other end. By five, anxiety gripped Rockets fans, and not even Turbo, the high-flying mascot, could calm the crowd.

Stockton went on a fast break to finish on a 12-2 run. Suddenly at 98, the game was over with 1:03 left.

On the next possession, Olajuwon, in the middle of his worst game, was again blocked by Ostertag. On a rebound, the ball would eventually find Barkley, who threw a lefty prayer to the 7-foot-2 Ostertag with little success. But he wouldn’t be denied a second time, grabbing an offensive rebound and drawing a foul before hitting the floor exhausted. Houston didn’t always hug Barkley, but they did when one fan yelled, right before he hit a second free throw to pull them back up by two.

The lead wouldn’t last as Stockton got in for a hanging floater that tied it at 100 again. In the crowd, Utah coach Jerry Sloan drew a play to set up a hot Stockton. Drexler would go with Stockton and Barkley would stick with Malone.

“This was the best choice of my life.” – Karl Malone

Walking onto the court, Barkley could only smile at Curry, his friend who had entered the game for Ostertag.

As Russell was about to inbound the ball up the middle, Malone laid a devastating pick on Drexler that took him to the sideline. Stockton was wide open at the top of the key and Barkley was now the closest man to him. At a time before the switch was a popular tactic among basketball defenders, the seamless transition with Barkley and Drexler was delayed, leaving the slow forward in no man’s land.

“Uh-oh,” NBC’s Bill Walton remarked when he saw the defensive breakdown.

Stockton calmly took one dribble before putting the ball over his right shoulder for the winning chance. Rushing in with both hands in the air, Barkley turned to watch the ball.

“He knew it was going in,” sportswriter Eddie Sefko said.

The flamboyant Stockton jumped up and down, showing more emotion in seconds than the 35-year-old has in his entire career. His 13 points in the final three-plus minutes earned him and Malone their first Finals appearances in a moment that would continue through decades of replays. Depending on who you’re rooting for, the final play will be known as “The Shot” or “The Picker.”

“I was able to get a pretty good meat on him,” Malone said of Drexler. “This was the best choice of my life.”

“I was embraced, not chosen,” Drexler said.

On the way out, some fans tore up their “We Believe” signs.

“I don’t want to say we should have won,” Malone said, “but we should have.”

In the corridor below the arena, Barkley, sweat dripping from his forehead, stood by the door, his wrist clamped over his mouth. He was too used to playoff disappointment from a team he thought was good enough to win it all.

“It happened so fast,” he said afterward.

Whether anyone in Houston wanted to admit it, Stockton’s shot “changed the direction of the Rockets for Charles,” broadcaster Calvin Murphy said. “If Stockton doesn’t hit that jump shot, the Rockets win that game and it’s a whole different dynamic,” Murphy said. “But when Stockton did, I said, “Here (nonsense), here it comes!”

The organization had built its future on aging stars, and the gamble had not paid off. During the following season, an injury-plagued Barkley and his Rockets were swept in the first round by the young Lakers duo of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Scottie Pippen, who moved from Chicago to Houston, called the season “a big challenge” and “very disappointing for me.” Barkley’s latest paycheck seemed to be leaning toward retirement again after a streak in which he scored 24 points and 14 rebounds a game.

If he were to return, Barkley said the team is a keeper and one more wing away from being competitive at the championship level. Houston signed free agent Shandon Anderson out of Utah and made a coup for No. 2 overall pick Steve Francis, an electric point guard from Maryland who turned down a deal in Vancouver in what was then the biggest trade in NBA history. .

The Lakers, Jazz and Sonics all expressed interest in Barkley that offseason. Stockton even called him and told him to come to Utah. “He would make up for a lot of mistakes elsewhere on the court,” Stockton said. (Take a moment and imagine Barkley’s fun stuff and his hobbies of drinking and gambling, playing 41 games a year in Salt Lake City.)

He had come to terms with the idea that his championship window had closed, that one accolade that people wouldn’t let him forget. Even at the start of the season, Barkley didn’t shy away from talking about what his life would be like after basketball and how it felt.

“I know when October comes around, training camp and everything, I’m going to go through a deep depression,” he said. “So I’m going to wake up every morning, take my daughter to school, play golf, work out because I have so much potential. I have really good fat potential. I don’t want to be one of those old fat guys.”

Adapted from “Barkley” © 2022 by Timothy Bella, used by permission of Hanover Square Press. Bella is a staff writer and editor for The Washington Post, focusing on national news.


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