It was two hours before game time, and only a few early-bird fans sat in the stands at the New Arena in Oakland, but Charles Barkley was already on the court, playing to that small audience while taking on teammate Joe Stephens in a semiserious game of one-on-one. Even at 35, with his skills gradually deserting him, Barkley is a better show before a game than most players are during it. Stephens, a 25-year-old end-of-the-bench forward who looks 15, seemed more than happy, perhaps even a little honored, to be part of that show. He dutifully played straight man as Barkley forced him to take wild, fadeaway shots, rejected his jumpers and provided a sound track of trash talk designed to abuse and amuse.
"Get that mess outta here, young fella. This ain't the CBA."
"Don't you know who you're facing? Didn't they have cable where you grew up?"
"Coach, Charles can't play tonight. He hurt his hand blocking all Joe's shots."
"You mean to tell me that's the best shot you can get against a 35-year-old man?"
Age has its privileges, and one of them is getting to toy with wide-eyed young teammates. But of late the rest of the NBA hasn't been nearly as deferential to the ancient Rockets, who seem to have gone from experienced to elderly in less than a year. After finishing 57-25 and falling two wins short of the Finals last season, Houston, 40-39 after Sunday's 103-95 loss to the Seattle SuperSonics, is likely to go into this postseason at the bottom of the playoff ladder, looking like nothing more than a first-round appetizer for the Western Conference's top-seeded team, be it the Sonics, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Utah Jazz. The Rockets, who have six players 34 or older, prefer to think of themselves as a playoff sleeper, and coach Rudy Tomjanovich is quick to point out that in 1995 Houston came from nearly as far back in the pack—the sixth seed—to win its second straight championship. Barkley, who wasn't with those Rockets, is quick to point out that the past guarantees nothing. "A great philosopher once said that there are only three things in life," he says. "There's what other people think you are. There's what you think you are. And there's what you really are. And what we really are is the Number 8 seed."
It has been a year of injuries and locker room turmoil for Houston. Through Sunday the Rockets had had only one player, reserve forward Othella Harrington, available for every game, and they were rocked in January by an aborted trade with the Toronto Raptors for point guard Damon Stoudamire that would have sent, among others, Houston's forward- center Kevin Willis, forward-guard Mario Elie and guard Matt Maloney to the Raptors. The three Rockets had their bags packed when the deal fell through at the last minute. "The guys were hurt by that, and I'm not saying that there aren't still a few scars there," says Tomjanovich. "But I don't think it's a big issue anymore."
The biggest issue at the moment is the injury Barkley suffered last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, which may be the final, devastating blow to the Rockets' postseason hopes. He aggravated what had been diagnosed as a sports hernia (a tear in the stomach wall, lower than a typical hernia), a condition he had been playing with all season and planned to have corrected surgically this summer. At week's end Houston's medical staff hadn't determined whether the injury would require an immediate operation, which would keep Barkley out of the playoffs, but the way the Rockets' fortunes have gone this season, Houston would be wise to plan for a postseason without Sir Charles.
Barkley's ailment is another reminder that to watch Houston these days is to see greatness at twilight. In Barkley, guard Clyde Drexler, 35, and center Hakeem Olajuwon, also 35, the Rockets have three players destined for the Hall of Fame. But infirmity has caught up with each this season. Through Sunday, Drexler had missed 12 games with rotator cuff tendinitis, bursitis in his left shoulder and a strained right groin; Barkley had been sidelined for 10 with a strained left groin, a left shoulder strain and a hematoma in his right foot; and Olajuwon had sat for 33 games after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Drexler is finishing his farewell tour as he prepares to take over as coach at the University of Houston next season. Barkley, a free agent after the season, will probably continue playing, but there's no guarantee he will do so in a Rockets uniform. Elie, 34, and guard-forward Eddie Johnson, 38, who will also become free agents, aren't likely to be in Houston next season, either.
So while some teams will enter the playoffs with their sights set on a championship, and others will be looking for postseason experience that will serve them well in the future, Houston will have a different goal—to make a dignified exit. "If we're going out, we want to go out the right way," says Elie. "We want people to say, 'Man, those Houston Rockets were tough right to the very end, weren't they?' "