On a giant screen above the court, Charles Barkley was dunking and jawing, tossing the ball at his opponents in a highlight film from his glory days in Philadelphia.
The real Barkley, the one who is 36 years old, was only moments away from the injury that would end his remarkable basketball career.
In a finale so outrageous it could only happen to him, Barkley ruptured a tendon in his knee Wednesday night during the first quarter of his farewell game in Philly. A celebration in the city where his career began turned into Barkley's last game in the NBA.
"There were a lot of people here who saw me play my first game and saw me play my last game," said Barkley, who went down with 4:09 left in the first quarter of the Sixers' 83-73 victory over Barkley's Houston Rockets.
"I am a little sad. I cried a little bit. But I've got too many memories to let tonight end on a bad note."
Barkley, who already announced that he would retire after this season, was going up to block a shot by Tyrone Hill when his leg buckled and he hit the floor hard. His left kneecap bulging badly, Barkley simply grabbed the knee, put his mouthpiece in his sock and called for the trainer.
The tendon that attaches his thigh to his kneecap ruptured. The injury, rare in basketball, requires surgery and at least six months of rehabilitation. Barkley was helped off the court to one of his six standing ovations. An MRI and X-ray today confirmed the diagnosis, team spokesman Tim Frank said.
Sixers team doctor Jack McPhilemy said the injury would be career-threatening even for a young player. Barkley will be 37 in February.
"I knew it was over as soon as I saw it," Barkley said. "I knew it was over when it first happened. I saw the way the kneecap was bulging through my leg and I said, `Well, it's been fun."'
The Sixers honored Barkley before the game and flew his mother, Charcey Glenn, and grandmother, Johnnie Mickens, from his hometown of Leeds, Ala., for the celebration.
"God doesn't make mistakes," Mickens said. "He ended it right where it started. He said he was going to retire, and I took it with a grain of salt. Now I really do believe he's going out, before it's too late."
Sixers guard Aaron McKie said, "I'm sure he wished he could have left standing tall."
Barkley's final sequence was like many in his brilliant career. He made a steal and a behind-the-back pass to start a break with the Rockets leading 13-10.
After two misses, Barkley gathered one of the 4,259 offensive rebounds in his career, got the ball back and backed in on 7-foot rooke Todd MacCulloch. The last shot of his career was blocked.
At the other end, he went up to defend against Hill. When he came down, he knew his career was over.
"The way my knee was, I knew there was definitely something dead-serious wrong with my knee and that I would never play again," Barkley said.
Sixers coach Larry Brown and assistant Maurice Cheeks Barkley's former teammate were among those who hugged Barkley after the game.
"I'm sick the way it ended because he meant so much to the game," Brown said. "But I think it's special that it ended here."
One person was conspicuous by his absence. Sixers star Allen Iverson, who has feuded with Barkley in the past and is on the injured list with a broken thumb, stayed home with the flu.
Barkley was drafted fifth overall by the Sixers out of Auburn in 1984 and led them to the playoffs six times in eight years. He was a physical specimen, a basketball menace. No one Barkley's size has ever been so dominant inside; despite what the roster says, Barkley is only 6-foot-4 7/8.
He won his first and only rebounding title in 1987, led two U.S. Olympic teams to gold medals, was the NBA's MVP in 1993 with Phoenix and was selected one of the league's 50 greatest players.
"I love his enjoyment of the game," Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich said. "He's been very good for the game, brought a lot of color and excitement."
Barkley said he will not have surgery until after Friday, when Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics plan to honor him.
"You never want it to end like that," Barkley said. "I might be stubborn and think about coming back. But if I look at reality, I think God always sends us little subliminal messages that we don't want to listen to."
This is the city where Barkley transformed himself from a chubby kid into one of the best players in NBA history. It is where one of the most charismatic and like his autobiography says, "Outrageous" personalities in sports took shape.
Of course, Barkley couldn't go out without one more headline-grabbing quote. He walked into the room on crutches, sat down next to his 73-year-old grandmother and said, "Well guys, I guess this means sex is out of the question tonight."
As he rode down the hallway in a golf cart after the postgame news conference, Barkley offered one last zinger.
"Just what America needs," he said. "One more unemployed black man."
He was Sir Charles to the very end.
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