CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The message was delivered early, and forcefully, when Charles Barkley leveled Karl Malone going through a pick in the first quarter of yesterday's National Basketball Association All-Star Game.
The collision between these two massive power forwards could be heard throughout the strangely subdued Charlotte Coliseum and was felt by the West team.
"Charles set the tone for the way the game was going to be played," Magic Johnson said later.
Meaning that defense -- an ingredient usually absent from these midseason affairs -- was there in surprising abundance. So was Barkley, whose 17 points and 22 rebounds lifted the East to a 116-114 victory. The Philadelphia 76ers' reluctant All-Star was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
The stars certainly came out, but many of them left their offense at home. Michael Jordan scored a game-high 26 points, but had 10 of the East's 29 turnovers. There were some monstrous dunks, but the most memorable was the one Dominique Wilkins blew. There was little magic from Magic.
"It looked for a while like they had shrunk the rim," said Washington Bullets forward Bernard King, who missed six of the eight shots he took.
"They didn't make it look pretty, but they came through at the end," said winning coach Chris Ford (Boston Celtics), whose team played without a true point guard.
Fittingly, this offensive struggle came down to what might or might not have been a huge blunder by Malone. After the West got the ball back with 15.5 seconds remaining, Johnson tried to go to David Robinson. But the San Antonio Spurs center couldn't get off a shot, and fed the ball back to Johnson.
Johnson, the MVP in the last two All-Star games, whipped a pass to Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson, who launched a wide-open three-point shot from the right side with 4.9 seconds to go. As the ball hung in the air about two feet from the basket, Malone tried to tip it in. Goaltending was called, and Jordan ran out the last 2.9 seconds of the game.
"From my viewpoint, it was looked like it was going in," said Magic Johnson, who along with Malone and Robinson scored 16 points each for the West. "It was like, yeah . . . yeah . . . What is he doing? Maybe he thought it was going to be short."
In truth, a slightly embarrassed Malone was left searching for an explanation, at one point promising that he had not laid any bets on the game. Though replays later showed the shot likely would have fallen short, Malone seemed perplexed. When the goaltending call was made, Kevin Johnson kiddingly gave the 256-pound Malone a swift kick.
"He blocks so many shots, maybe he thought he was Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz blocking Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix Suns," said Johnson.
The weird ending took some oomph out of what had been a
tightly played game, one that began with the lowest-scoring quarter (23-22, West) in 34 years and ended up with the narrowest margin of victory since the East's 120-118 victory nine years ago at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J. It was also the fewest points scored in an NBA All-Star Game in 16 years.
"It was a lot more physical in the game this year," said Magic Johnson, who was forced to play more small forward than point guard. "I think it was because this year's game was not as fast, so a lot of creativity could not happen. The East had a great plan. They went down low, and looked for inside shots. They also controlled the offensive rebounds."
Mostly it was Barkley, the former "Round Mound of Rebound" during his cheeseburger days at Auburn. With Barkley relentlessly pounding the boards, and with Jordan scoring 19 points by halftime, the East built a 67-58 lead. The East led by as many as 11 after scoring on its first possession of the second half.
It was also fitting, perhaps, that Barkley emerged as the game's star. Considering the number of NBA players injured this season -- including selected East starters Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas, both of whom missed yesterday's game -- there was a touch of irony for a near no-show to walk away with the MVP trophy.
Just last week, NBA officials urged 76ers general manager Gene Shue to gently prod Barkley into playing. Barkley had come back recently after missing seven games with a slight stress fracture of the right ankle. It was the second straight year that Barkley, who had a pulled groin muscle at the All-Star break last season, played at the behest of the league.
"I'm glad I came down here," said Barkley. "At first I thought my foot would be a problem, but it wasn't. Hopefully, this will give me and the team some momentum for the second half of the season."
It will also make some of the game's connoisseurs, especially those who say that Jordan and Johnson are without peer, to appreciate the blue-collar skills of Barkley. At 6 feet 5, he is an inch shorter than Jordan and four inches smaller than Magic. But he more than makes up for it with his 263 pounds.
"I hate Charles," Magic Johnson said with a laugh. "He throws everybody out of the way and then complains to the referees."
Barkley threw a lot of people out of the way yesterday, starting with Malone. But he wasn't complaining. Not even about his foot.