It was around 12:30 in the afternoon when Jeff Balke gave me a ring wanting me to get off work to come down to Houston to see Charles Barkley's final game.
Didn't take much begging... how in the world we managed to swing it I don't know, but by 2:30pm both Kagy and I had off work and were on 290 making the trek to see the Chuckster.
Believe it or not, I hadn't been to the Summit since 1991. Watched or listened to every game religiously... in Utah, Boston, Austin .... been to 7 Rocket road games. I hadn't been to the Summit since my family moved from Houston to Boston in 1991.
The place was so cool to see (ditto Enron Field) -- so many things have changed.
Though there were highs (meeting a group of BBS posters organized by "heypartner", seeing Charles final game) and lows (ahem, no sleep before the next day at work), no one questioned if the trip should have been made.
Barkley made it all worth it.
After missing some 60+ games with a career left for dead due to a nasty injury in Philly, Barkley returned to the game to leave it on his terms.
He showed so many facets of what he's done to entertain us throughout the years. The Rockets organization brought in Rocky the Nuggets mascot from Denver, who Chuck has playfully tortured over the years with kicks and right crosses. After the first quarter "Rocky" came out with boxing gloves ready to take on Chuck ... Barkley walked up to him extending his hand to call a truce.
You knew what was coming, and you would think knowing it was coming would take away from the humor... but when Barkley reached back then slapped "Rocky" upside the head, sending him reeling to the floor, and then just nonchalantly walked back to the bench ... you couldn't help it: It was downright hilarious.
As for serious business, there was about 8 minutes to go in the second quarter when Barkley stood up from the bench. The crowd went berzerk. He stretched and laid out on the press table. He laughed and smiled with those around him. Play stopped, Barkley entered the game to a monstrous ovation with 7:26 to go.
Yeah, he looked chubby, and yeah he looked really rusty, but when Chuck grabbed that offensive board with 1:24 left, put it back in and got fouled, the crowd simply erupted. Kagy and I, along with the rest of the crowd, jumped up and stayed up.
With 1:19 to go, timeout was called and the Chuckster's glorious career was over. He went to hug Cuttino Mobley and the decibel levels rose once again.
Did I mention the Rockets lost the game? Didn't really matter. In fact, to be blunt, it was a good thing (cough, cough... see Lotto Race 2000).
After the game, there was a ceremony honoring Charles. Everyone was there. Even Brent Price, Retro Rock now with Vancouver, came out from the locker room to watch the festivities. As he came out with a big smile on his face, he was instantly surrounded by those who knew him ... kind of like Luke Skywalker showing up at that Ewok party at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Only Luke has talent... and knees.
Rudy T said Charles had the "heart of a champion", called him one of the greatest players to have ever played the game and praised him both on and off the court. Hakeem Olajuwon said, "It's been my honor to have played against Charles and to have played with him on the same team. In the beginning, we thought it was going to be hard to play on the same team with Charles, but it took only five minutes to know different."
Chuck praised in return, calling Hakeem an "honorable person" and that he loved playing with him, and called Rudy T one of the greatest coaches in sports. Barkley also said he just wished he hadn't come to Houston on the downside of his career, capping that with, "I wish I could have played my whole career in Houston" ... the crowd, everyone pretty much already standing, roared (again). You could feel the electricity in the Compaq Center from those words...
A part of "Clutch City" died with Charles leaving. He was an important character to that identity, both as the protagonist and antagonist. Clutch City lives on, but a critical chapter was closed as Charles walked away.
The season is over and we'll be making our "End of the Season" address at clutchcity.net, as we do every year, soon enough. It's been an incredibly fun season, one which saw a lot of changes to the page that have made the best NBA team fan site and community in the business even better. And Clutch and the Crew aren't stopping...
More details on that as well as more stories, photos from this night will be posted... just right now I've got to get ready for work and haven't got a wink of sleep.
Seriously, I just don't care. Thanks for the wonderful memories Charles...