PHILADELPHIA -- Charles Barkley didn't want to say anything, but being Sir Charles, the great mound of redound, he couldn't help himself. He never could. He spits in the wind, too, you know. He wants everything so badly that he can't understand why others -- his teammates, for starters -- don't share the ferocious enthusiasm that separates him from ordinary folk.
Barkley is extraordinary in almost every sense of the word. And now, it seems, he wants to seek out others like himself, if they exist. He wants, at least, to play on a team where people care as much as he does. That couldn't be the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he plays now. Not if you saw them yesterday in half-throttle against the Chicago Bulls.
"I've made a decision," Barkley was saying of his future as he sat in the locker room late yesterday afternoon. His teammates all had left. Fittingly, he was alone, except for the dozen or so writers who waited as a reluctant Barkley finally opened his heart.
"You'll have to sit back and wait 'til after the season is over. Then I'll tell you."
The season could end as soon as tomorrow in Game 5 of a best-of-seven series. Barkley said he half-expected as much. He smiled when he said it, though, because he's good-time Charlie, whose credo is "if you're not happy, you might as well be dead." But the smile didn't hold.
Clearly, Barkley was frustrated and disappointed and probably angry. But, most of all, he seemed to be sad.
"Yeah, it's a sadness," Barkley said. "Any time you lose something you hold dear, you feel sad."
That something would be Philadelphia, where he has lived and played for seven years. And what years. You get the whole picture with Barkley, the great player, the outlandish persona, the real thing. He's the kind of athlete you die for to have in your town. But the thinking is that Barkley will ask -- no, demand -- that he be traded.
There were at least two moments in the game yesterday -- an all-day blowout after which the 76ers fell behind in the series, three games to one -- that seemed to define Barkley and his predicament.
One came at the end of the first half when Barkley, who had sat out all of 90 seconds of the period, rushed out onto the floor without his knee brace, the one that helps hold together his torn-up collection of bone and muscle and tendon. His team was losing by 15 points, and Barkley, who was the only working part on the 76ers, needed to do more.
"I like to live dangerously," he said. "What's the worst that can happen? I tear up my knee and they stitch it up in the off-season. The question is, where I'll be playing on it next.
"I don't worry about medical advice. The doctor grabbed me around the neck and said, 'Do you know you don't have your brace on?' Like someone had snuck up and taken it off."
The second moment was in the last few minutes of the game, Barkley driving the lane, giving up a shot to pass the ball to Hersey Hawkins, who missed a layup a junior high school player might have made. Barkley's huge body sagged.
Hawkins was 3-for-8 yesterday. Armon Gilliam was 3-for-12. Barkely was 11-for-15, scoring 25 points with 14 rebounds, playing hurt. It was Gilliam, by the way, who took one of Barkley's passes off his head.
"Isn't that the first thing they teach you?" Barkley said. "To look at a guy when he's dribbling toward you."
Barkley didn't want to knock Gilliam. He didn't want to knock Hawkins. But it was Barkley who was 10-for-12 midway through the third quarter when his teammates were shooting 12-for-43. He had to speak because he couldn't stand losing so badly a game that meant so much. He had to speak because he felt it, and Barkley can no more hide what he feels than he can run down the court without talking to himself or playing each moment of each game as if it were his last or, for that matter, spitting into the stands.
Look at Barkley. He's probably 6 feet 4. Michael Jordan plays 12 feet in the air while Barkley plays on the floor, where he seems to be lying prone about a dozen times a game. He is 6 feet 4, if you don't measure desire, and a power forward who rebounds as well as anyone in the league and who never, ever rests. And that's all he asks of anyone else.
"I'd love to win a championship," said Barkley, whose teams have never advanced past the East finals. "I think about it every day. But if I die tomorrow, my career is a success.
"What I'm looking for is consistency. I don't want to be surprised when I play. If I play 80 games, in 70 to 75, I'm going to be good or great. They know what they're going to get from me."
And his teammates?
"It's obvious. Do I have to say it?"