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The Barkley Connection

This subject has come up a couple of times in replies to comments, so it seems worthy of its own post.  

It's a little rambling, so bear with me.

The Sports Guy has a very good piece today about Iverson.  As most of you are aware, he's a Celtics fanatic, but an LA resident and Clippers season-ticket holder.  The Celtics are his wife... the Clippers are his mistress.  He's understandably excited about a future hall-of-famer winding up on one of the teams he follows.

He compares the situation to the Charles Barkley trade in 1992.  Obviously, he's not the first person to bring that up, but it is certainly worth mentioning.

  1. There's an eerie precedent here: Charles Barkley's situation deteriorated in the same city for the same reasons (he was too much of a handful, he was tired of losing, they had saddled him with too many below-average supporting cast members, their GM sucked just as much). Just like Barkley in '92, he's one of those overlooked veteran stars who finishes every All-Star Game, commands respect from his peers and watched his value artificially decline because he spent too many seasons on too many bad teams. Just like Barkley, Iverson has something significant left in the tank and desperately needs a change of scenery. And just like Barkley, he's about to become the dollar in the proverbial "three quarters for a dollar" trade ... which never works when you're the team getting the three quarters.
  2. Trades always rejuvenate great players, especially if they left their old team under bad terms. Just in the past few years, we saw this happen with Shaq in Miami, Nash in Phoenix and Kidd in Jersey. Give an elite player something to prove and he usually ends up proving it. Barkley remains the most famous example because he celebrated the trade by becoming the dominant non-MJ player on the first Dream Team, then ripping through the league in Phoenix, winning an MVP and nearly winning a title. Could this happen with Iverson? Absolutely. He's that good.

As it happens, I was a Phoenix Suns fan in 1992.  Actually, I was a recovering Phoenix Suns fan... transitioning to the Larry Brown Clippers.  But, you have to go back even further to understand all of the impact on ClipperSteve and on the current situation with Iverson.

I grew up in LA from the time I was 6.  I was at the Forum in 1970 when Jerry West made the ¾ court shot that sent the game into OT.  Of course, I was very young then, and I loved those West-Goodrich-Chamberlain teams (never saw Elgin, unfortunately) the way a child does.  But they weren't my teams.

Then when the Lakers traded for Kareem, and drafted Worthy and Magic... the Showtime teams... those were MY teams.  I loved the Lakers.  I lived in LA.  They went to the Finals every year, and won the title half the time.  What was not to love?

I moved to Phoenix in November 1985, for the start of the 85-86 season.  The Suns won 32, 36 and 28 games in the first three years I was in Phoenix.  Not only were they bad, they were also scandal-plagued.  Remember William Bedford?  6th overall pick, coke-fiend William Bedford?  Of course the 3rd pick in that draft was Chris Washburn and the 7th was Roy Tarpley, so it may say a little something about cocaine use in the 80s, but I digress.  

Then something remarkable happened.  On February 25, 1988, the Suns traded Larry Nance for Kevin Johnson, Ty Corbin, Mark West and the draft pick that would become Dan Majerle.  The 87-88 season was already lost, but in those last couple of months, something amazing started to happen.  

This is probably the most mutually beneficial trade in sports history.  It is rare that a trade helps both teams.  It is almost impossible that a trade helps both teams A LOT.  But that's what happened.  The Cavs already had Mark Price at the point and Brad Daugherty at the center.  They didn't need KJ and West.  Nance seemed to be the missing piece for them.  After winning 42 games in 87-88, they went on to win 57 games the next season, and then after battling through some Daugherty injuries, had 57 and 54 win seasons in the early 90s.  They never broke through, but that had a lot to do with timing.  See, there was this guy named Jordan playing for Chicago at the time.  

Meanwhile back in the Valley of the Sun, Phoenix went from 28 wins to 55 wins, an astonishing 27 game single season improvement, surpassed only by the Spurs 35 win improvement when they added David Robinson (back from injury) and Tim Duncan (first overall pick) in the same season.  The Cleveland trade yielded not one, not two, not three but FOUR starters (KJ, Corbin, West and Majerle all started a majority of the games that season).  Free agent Tom Chambers was added the same season, and the Suns were suddenly a great team.

Unfortunately, it was still the 80s, and therefore it was still the Lakers' own personal decade.  The Suns swept the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs, and then beat Nellie's small ball Warriors (the originals) 4-1 in the second round.  They met the Lakers in the WCF, and were unceremoniously swept away.

I grew to hate the Lakers, with their banners and their superstar players and their superstar fans.  Surely it must have been fixed that they had 2 number one picks to nab both Worthy and Magic!  Surely the league forced Milwaukee to trade Jabbar to a big market!  Dyan Cannon couldn't act her way out of a paper bag!  And what is up with Pat Riley's hair?!  (Some things never change.)

The following year, the Suns destroyed the Lakers in 5 games in the Western Semis.  The absolute joy of watching an underdog team, a team that had two years earlier won 28 games, overcome a perennial favorite like the Lakers was like nothing I'd ever felt.  I could never root for a `big' team, a `bandwagon' team, a `perennial' team again.  And I could certainly not root for the Lakers.

That was the Suns best team probably, but unfortunately, KJ suffered the first of what would become an unending series of hamstring injuries in the WCF against the Drexler Blazers, and the Suns lost in 6.

Tom Chambers was now over 30 and entering a steep decline (his average went from 27, to 20, to 16, to 12), and KJ's hamstrings were never completely right the rest of his career.  The 1990 playoffs were their best shot, and they didn't get it done.  The window of opportunity was closed.

Flash forward a couple of years.  I'm now living in Long Beach, and beginning to take an interest in this young Clippers squad.  Tickets to the Sports Arena are cheap and always available, and after halftime you can move way down close to the court.  

On June 17, 1992, the Suns traded Jeff Hornacek, Andrew Lang and Tim Perry to the Sixers for Charles Barkley.  Now, in his post-playing, TNT-studio-host, commercial making, book-writing, potential-political-candidate career, Sir Charles is universally beloved.  But at the time, as a player, he was arguably as controversial as AI.  This is the guy that elbowed hapless African players during the Olympics!  

The Suns were still my team, more or less.  KJ was still there.  Thunder Dan was still there.  Mark West was still there.  Hell, Chambers was still there, albeit only a shell of his former self.  And Hornacek had been there longer than KJ.  Trading Hornacek for Barkley was a no-brainer from a basketball standpoint (Perry and Lang were insignificant in the deal).  But trading Hornacek for Barkley would change forever the personality of the Suns team that I had loved.  I didn't want that to happen.  I wanted that other team back.

Of course, it was already too late for that other team.  Chambers was 33, and KJ was often injured, constantly slowed.  Barkley re-opened the window of opportunity for the Suns, and indeed, he took them to the NBA Finals in his second season in Phoenix, winning an MVP trophy along the way.  The Suns did not win the NBA Title with Barkley, but that had a lot to do with timing.  See, there was this guy named Paxson playing for Chicago at the time.  

I feel about Iverson and the Clippers EXACTLY the same way I felt about Barkley and the Suns.  The personality of the team will be completely altered.  Basically, the personality of the team will be overwhelmed by the personality of the superstar.  Besides, are you really rooting for an underdog if they have a unanimous hall-of-famer on the roster?  I would RATHER the Clippers improve organically and win a championship with more or less the group they have, the group I love.  That's what I want.  But I believe it was the Vienna Boys Choir who said, "You can't always get what you want."  

The difference being, the window was definitely closed for the Suns, but it is still open for the Clippers.  I don't think they have the `transcendent' star they need, and I'm less and less convinced that Shaun Livingston will become that guy.  But it's not quite the no-brainer it was with Barkley.  

But if they can make it happen without including Livingston or Brand, then they have to do it.  They MUST.  And whether it is what I want is irrelevant.  

Because it's really all about winning rings.  And Jordan and Paxson are retired.