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SIR CHARLES LIKES PLAYING SECOND, EVEN THIRD FIDDLE

SHARE SIR CHARLES LIKES PLAYING SECOND, EVEN THIRD FIDDLE

CHARLES BARKLEY, WORLD-FAMOUS philosopher, basketball player and aspiring politician, has seen almost everything. He's clowned with mascots, fought in bars and chased referees out of buildings. He's seen nights when he was the only player on his team interested in winning.

But in the strange and wonderful career of Charles the Great, there has rarely been such a night as Monday's 75-72 win over the Jazz at the Delta Center. A night when, for the most part, he played like the governor of Alabama, not a certain Hall of Famer. A night when he was up against one of the best teams in the NBA and came up with nothing better than a 2-for-8 night from the field.And still his team won.

"That," said Barkley, "was a great basketball game."

For Barkley, these are unusual times indeed. After a career of being the best player wherever he goes, he's suddenly on a team in which he's the second- or even third-best player. It's like attending the Academy Awards - a lot of star-power in the same place - and Barkley is loving it.

"I can't remember the last time when I was't in double figures and my team won the game," said Barkley contentedly.

So when someone asked about teammate Hakeem Olajuwon's over-the-head pass to Barkley for the go-ahead basket late in the game, and Olajuwon's block of Greg Foster's shot to force a jump ball with 3.3 seconds to go, Barkley scoffed.

"He's (Olajuwon) supposed to be like that. . . . he's the man. I'm the man next to the man," he said happily.

If Barkley is suffering any ill effects from being on a team with two other Dream Teamers and future Hall of Famers - Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler - you wouldn't know it by his disposition. These days he's as agreeable as a golden retriever. Even though he was fined and suspended for fighting in an exhibition game already this year, clearly Sir Charles is relishing his role. Gone are the Philadelphia nights when he scored 35 points and his team lost by the same margin. Gone are the games in Phoenix when he punished his bad back while Kevin Johnson sat on the sidelines with yet another pulled hamstring.

With Olajuwon and Drexler around, Barkley has the luxury of being, well, a role player. In his first game this year he collected a career-high 33 rebounds, then came back with 20 against the Jazz.

"I thought he played such a team game, and such a game with heart . . . he is a special guy," said Houston coach Rudy Tomjanovich.

Despite being traded from Phoenix to Houston over the summer, Barkley has yet to relinquish his role as the NBA's resident clown prince. He took time out of his busy schedule of fooling around to play a few minutes of inspired basketball late in the game. During warmups he stopped by the courtside to shake hands with Utah senator Orrin Hatch. "He's a nice man," said Barkley. "I was just glad to meet him."

One politician to another.

During the game Barkley pulled faces, faked a punch at a referee, gave a friendly forearm shiver to Karl Malone and endured the obligatory foolishness with the mascot during a timeout. Afterward, he continued by greeting reporters around his locker, saying, "That's OK. Don't worry about the toes."

With the exception of his rebounding, Barkley was far from normal on the offensive end. Halfway into the contest he had only one point. In part the low numbers were the result of two teams determined to stop one another. While Barkley finished with just nine points, his Jazz counterpart, Malone, had a below-par 16-point night. Jeff Hornacek made only three of 11 shots and John Stockton just four assists. Drexler was 3-10 from the field. Both teams shot about 39 percent.

"That was playoff basketball. We both wanted to win and send each other a message, and it's all about mental mindset. They want to beat us and we want to beat them. No team played great but both teams played great defense," he said.

Predictably, when the game got close, Barkley got serious. In the fourth quarter he held Malone to two points, collected eight rebounds, and scored the go-ahead basket. With the Jazz ahead by one, Barkley flashed under the basket with 16 seconds remaining, taking Olajuwon's pass for a dunk. After trailing the Jazz by as many as 12 points, the favorites to win the Midwest Division were looking like favorites indeed.

"This," said Barkley, "was fun."

So as Barkley rolls along with his new team, in a new division, he's finding something he never knew before: there are worse things than scoring just nine points, and far worse things than not being the best player on your team.