I’m a sucker for those moments when athletes lose themselves a little bit. When Jose Bautista gets mad at baseball and then throws a bat into baseball’s face; when Rajon Rondo realizes it’s him against the world and still asks LeBron James to come get some; when Baron Davis decides that the only appropriate thing to do is show off his belly. These moments always stick in my mind, and I imagine that if I’d had the opportunity to watch the Suns beat the 41-4 Bulls by 10 points on Feb. 6, 1996, I’d have a few images of Charles Barkley stuck in there, too.
As far as 90s basketball games go, this one was a pretty fun to watch. There was still an absurd number of contested mid-range jumpers (both teams combined to shoot just 16 three-pointers), scrums of players tipping rebounds to each other underneath the basket, and entire possessions that featured three offensive players with at least one foot in the paint. Michael Jordan going 9-of-22 from the floor and 10-of-17 from the line didn’t put much shine on the occasion, either.
So it’s a good thing Barkley and the Suns came to play. The Chuckster led the way with 35 points and 15 rebounds—in 46 minutes! Gregg Popovich just fainted—and Kevin Johnson added 20 points and 10 assists before leaving the game with a hamstring injury late in the third quarter. The Suns only shot four three-pointers all game (basketball really is a completely different sport today), but still managed to hang 106 on the Bulls by running the floor and asking Barkley to grind out buckets in the paint.
I’m a stupid young person, so I don’t have any memories of watching Barkley play. I always knew that he was a 6-foot-6 (Okay, probably more like 6-foot-4) power forward who somehow managed to rip down 12 rebounds per game throughout his career, but I never really knew how he managed to do that. Now I understand how Barkley did it: he was just an absurd physical specimen, a musclebound pear of a man who was quicker and stronger than everyone who got in his way.
Barkley was 32 years old when he played in this game, right in the middle of his 12th NBA season and playing over 35 minutes per game, just as he’d done in every season since his rookie year. All of which is to say he didn’t have any real business still being the most explosive player on the floor, but that’s exactly what he was.
He abused the hell out of Dennis Rodman in the post, rose through thickets of limbs to snatch rebounds out of the sky, bull-rushed his way through double teams, and dropped in nifty little buckets like this one:
The Bulls tried to slow Barkley by double teaming him early on, and were shamelessly throwing three defenders at him by the time the game reached the third quarter. Watching Barkley score 35 was fun on its own merits, but what sticks from this game is how ravenously he came after the Bulls. MJ and crew had lost their previous game to the Nuggets, and Barkley played like a man who smelled blood in the water.
He gave his teammates intense pep talks during breaks in the action, talked so much shit to Dennis Rodman, and taunted the Bulls bench after a hitting a turnaround jumper late in the third quarter. A few minutes after hitting that shot, he did this:
After the game, Barkley basically admitted that he came into the game with the intention of roughing Rodman and the rest of the Bulls up (from the Chicago Tribune):
“I think they don’t like physical games,” Barkley said. “I felt like if I was really physical with Dennis, he would get frustrated and I thought he did get frustrated. And Michael had an off shooting night, so that helped.”
Barkley was absolutely right. Dennis Rodman had nothing for him in this game, and the rest of the Bulls seemed listless and disinterested throughout big chunks of the game.
The game stayed tight all the way through the fourth quarter, and Barkley was largely frozen out of the last few minutes due to double- and triple-teams, and the fifth foul he picked up with 5:40 left to play. Lucky for him, Elliot Perry, who replaced the injured Kevin Johnson, was there to save the day.
With 1:30 left to play, Jordan went 1-of-2 from the line to make it 96-96. On the next Suns possession, Perry crossed the bejesus out of Steve Kerr and baited him into a shooting foul. Perry hit both freebies, and it was 98-96. Toni Kukoc missed a three at the other end, and Perry responded by hitting a pull-up jumper right in Kerr’s face, from a foot inside the three-point line. After that shot, Barkley ran over the Perry, slung him over his shoulder, and carried him back to the bench.
After a timeout, the Bulls set up to inbound the ball from the sideline. Barkley jumped the pass, stole the ball, and streaked to the other end for an exclamation-point dunk. And that’s when he lost himself:
Barkley’s first stint in Phoenix was the 1992-93 campaign, and that regular season ended with him taking home the MVP award while leading his team to league-best 62-20 record. He made it all the way to the Finals to face the Bulls, where he averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds during the series. That didn’t mean shit, though, because MJ averaged 41-8-6, and the Bulls won it in six games. The Suns would lose in the Western Conference Semifinals the next two seasons, whiffing on the chance to win a championship during the Jordan interregnum.
Which brings us to this game. Jordan was back and the Bulls were better than they’d ever been before, and the Suns, with a 21-24 record, had seen iron bars installed over their championship window. Here was an aging Barkley on a mediocre team, being forced to watch his buddy Michael Jordan, the same guy who singlehandedly dismantled the Suns three years previous, embark on the second leg of his dynasty.
Keep all this in mind while watching Barkley in the GIFs above. When he broke into the open court and tomahawked that final dunk through the hoop, he must have understood that the win wouldn’t mean much in the long run, that Jordan and the Bulls were unassailable, and that nothing that happened in this game was going to change that.
And yet that knowledge didn’t stop him from scooping Elliot Perry up like a life-sized trophy, or from trying to stomp holes in the court after that last dunk. Charles Barkley is one of the greatest players in NBA history, and Michael Jordan turned him into a guy who counted moral victories instead of rings.
In the end, a moral victory is all this was, but damn if Barkley wasn’t going to show us how good it felt.