There are arguments heard all too often by the small-but-dedicated band of hardcore NBA followers:
“The season’s too long. So many games are meaningless.”
“The players complain and snipe at each other too much. It’s so disrespectful to the game.”
Let’s introduce Exhibit A as a rejoinder to that line of thinking: Houston Rockets at Chicago Bulls on Jan. 18, 1998.
The mid-season game didn’t have the makings of anything special. Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler were out with injuries for the Rockets, leaving Charles Barkley and an ageless Kevin Willis to compete alongside a rogue’s gallery of players including Matt Maloney, Rodrick Rhodes, Emanual Davis and Othella Harrington.
The Bulls were in the final year of their dynasty. They were also battling bumps and bruises: Toni Kukoc would play limited minutes, marksman Steve Kerr was out and Scottie Pippen was still catching his wind after missing the first 35 games of the season.
The Sunday afternoon NBA on NBC tilt didn’t start promisingly, either. Michael Jordan sank his first six shots from the floor, dropping 16 points in the first quarter as the Bulls built a double-digit lead and seemed poised to cruise against the undermanned Rockets.
Barkley was the lone player keeping the Rockets afloat and the combustible Sir Chuckles was riled up when he went to the free-throw line right before halftime. At issue was a non-call on the Rockets’ previous possession, when Jordan – according to Barkley – got away with a foul while guarding Rhodes.
The NBC boom microphone picked up Barkley barking at the referees: “That is a foul. I know he’s Michael Jordan but come on.” The refs responded in kind with a technical foul on Barkley. Jordan also took exception to Barkley’s comments, getting in the face of his close friend. The tone for the rest of the game was set.
Jordan finished the half with 21 points. Barkley had 10 in the first two quarters but came out after halftime with fire in his ample belly.
The Round Mound of Rebound went right after pantheon defender Dennis Rodman, scoring 12 points and hauling down eight rebounds in the third quarter. All the while, Barkley was keeping up an animated discussion with the entire Bulls roster – even going bald pate to bald pate with Jordan on one occasion. After the third quarter, Jordan gave Barkley a forearm shiver as the two stars headed to their respective benches.
The pitched battle continued in the fourth quarter, with Jordan abusing Rhodes and Davis and Barkley matching MJ shot for shot. The trash talking was constant; if only we could have muted NBC’s Isiah Thomas and Bob Costas and been able to listen to the constant dialogue on the court.
Barkley wouldn’t let the Rockets go away and Houston got within three points before Jordan nailed a backbreaking three-pointer halfway through the final quarter. The Rockets just didn’t have the horses to get over the hill and the Bulls eked out a 106-100 victory.
MJ finished with 45 pointes and Barkley posted a 35-14. Most people watching the game knew that they were ace buddies off the court. But sometimes you compete harder against your best friend than your mortal enemy. This was probably their last great battle on an NBA court and the two stars pushed each other with their skills – and yes, their trash talk - to elevate a mid-January game into a classic.