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BARKLEY SAYS BACK IS HEALTHIER THAN EVER

Charles Barkley said strengthening his injured back has been a grind but he's feeling better than ever.

Barkley, whose rehabilitation regimen continues in an attempt to avoid the physical problems that almost led to his retirement after last season, dropped by Phoenix Suns headquarters Tuesday but said he won't pick up a basketball until training camp opens Oct. 7."I'm in the best shape that I've been (heading to training camp) since I've been in the NBA," Barkley said. "I'm at playing weight right now. I'm excited about it. It's been a long grueling summer."

Barkley also said he was happy with all the Suns' personnel changes but one - the trade of center Mark West to Detroit for draft picks.

Noting that the Suns allowed the Pistons to pick up center Oliver Miller as well, Barkley joked they should have matched Detroit's offer and traded Miller to the Pistons for West.

"You can tell Charles we thought of that," Suns president Jerry Colangelo said, smiling. "We even offered to throw him into the deal, but the Pistons weren't interested."

The Suns have signed forwards Danny Manning and Wayman Tisdale while cutting loose Miller and forward Jerrod Mustaf. Forward Cedric Ceballos reportedly will be traded soon - probably to the Lakers - for a first-round draft choice.

"I think we still need a center," Barkley said. "We're going to have a really good team, but we need another big body.

"When you're at such a size disadvantage, it probably won't show up until the playoffs. But when we get into a seven-game series with David Robinson (San Antonio) or Hakeem Olajuwon (Houston) or Patrick Ewing (New York) or Shaquille O'Neal (Orlando), a dominant center, we're going to get killed."

The Suns recently took a look at Lakers' center Danny Schayes (6-11, 275) and expect to check out 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson soon. Sampson, who retired three years ago due to knee problems, is completing a rehabilitation program with an eye to returning to play.