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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

22 Years Later, Barkley, Dumars Are a Cut Above

April 09, 2006|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

INDIANAPOLIS — The twist is rich and inescapable, a wound to their young egos 22 years ago, but a circle now closed. If Charles Barkley and Joe Dumars were going to be announced formally as new members of the Basketball Hall of Fame, it might as well be here in Indianapolis, where in 1984 they shared a van ride to the airport after being cut at the U.S. Olympic team basketball trials by Bob Knight, the iconic coach who would have you believe he knew everything there is to know about basketball.

Yet he couldn't see greatness in their futures.

Dumars remembers the van ride, from Indiana University to Indianapolis, as if it happened yesterday. Knight had waved goodbye to six of them: Dumars, Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone, Terry Porter and A.C. Green. Sitting together were Dumars and Stockton, a pair of guards who between them went on to appear in five NBA Finals. But all they were that day was rejected.

"I remember," Dumars said, "John Stockton and I looking at the talent in the van and saying, 'Wow!' Stockton said: 'Are you serious? I'd like to take the six guys right here and play whoever they keep on that team.' "

Of course, we know now that four of those six players will wind up in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Stockton and Malone, more recently retired, will be there very soon. Barkley and Dumars were announced as members here Monday as part of a 2006 Hall of Fame class that also includes high-flying Dominique Wilkins, University of Connecticut women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma, former U.S. Olympic coach and Big East commissioner Dave Gavitt and former Italian national team coach Sandro Gamba.

Gavitt and Knight's Olympic assistant, George Raveling, listened in disbelief that day 22 years ago when Knight told them he planned to cut Barkley. A lot of players and coaches observing the trials in Bloomington, Ind., thought Barkley might be the second-best player there, behind only Michael Jordan.

Gavitt on Monday described a scene in which they watched from a tower above the floor at Assembly Hall on the Indiana University campus where the trials were held, as Barkley dunked over a much bigger player with such force it brought down the backboard. The impressed assistants told Knight that if Barkley had to be cut, he would have to be the one who delivered the news.

Gavitt cracks up when telling the story. Barkley remembers bringing down the backboard, though not the player he dunked on. And Barkley has said the bigger impact on his career was not being cut by Knight but discovering, to his own great surprise, that he belonged with the best players in the country, players such as Jordan and Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, who were much more celebrated during their NCAA days.

His selection to the Hall of Fame was a source of immense pride for the always irreverent Barkley. "I hope when my name is mentioned as a player, people will say, 'That man really loved doing his job,' " he said.

Barkley, very likely, is right there on a short list with Elgin Baylor and Patrick Ewing as the best players in NBA history to never win the league's championship. Barkley, at 6-foot-5 3/4 , did battle every night for 16 seasons with players five and six inches taller and was selected to 11 NBA all-star teams and two U.S. Olympic teams, including the one and only 1992 Dream Team.

Having written two books with him since his retirement, I long ago lost any sense of objectivity about Barkley, and find him irresistible as a subject and as a friend. But anyone who watched him over the years in Philadelphia, Phoenix and Houston knows there was nobody like him as a player. It's impossible to write the modern history of pro basketball and not deal with, at some length, the career of Charles Barkley.

"Every short, fat guy who plays, they'll say is like Barkley," he said. "That's not a bad legacy. There's always going to be short, fat guys."

Barkley has never visited the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., even though he's been aching to go for years. "I have superstitions," he said. "I would never touch the NBA championship trophy. They try to get you to do things with it [for league promotions], but I wouldn't. And I wouldn't go to the Hall of Fame until I got in."

Barkley was giddy about going in with Wilkins and Dumars, Eastern Conference playoff rivals for his first eight seasons in the NBA.

Long before he became the architect of the 2004 championship Pistons team as club president, Dumars played for the "Bad Boy" Pistons, who were despised by their peers in the late 1980s. Dumars, however, was not only respected but liked immensely. Asked now what he thought of the antics of teammates Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, John Salley and, of course, Dennis Rodman, Dumars said, "I was amused more than anything else."

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