PHOENIX Ñ The Phoenix Suns retired Charles Barkley's No. 34 at America West Arena on Saturday night, but even that couldn't render Sir Charles speechless.

His voice was choked with emotion, but he probably could have talked forever as he addressed the fans who embraced him during his four years with the Suns, and even more since then.

'The best years of my basketball life,' he told the sellout crowd during the halftime ceremony of the Phoenix-Milwaukee game. He said if he has a choice, he will go into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a Sun, even though he spent the first eight years of his career in Philadelphia.

Magic Johnson, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were among the basketball dignitaries on hand. Johnson told the audience that during the months of preparation for the 1992 Olympic Games, Barkley was the best player on the original Dream Team that included Magic, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone and Clyde Drexler.

Barkley has made his share of mistakes over the years, but he holds a special place in this reporter's heart. It boggled my mind that the second time I interviewed him, he remembered my name. He was always demonstrative, opinionated, entertaining and never, ever boring.

An Arizona Republic article noted how nice Barkley was to the 'little people' while with the Suns, including security guards, janitorial workers and ball boys. Once, when he ran into several bench and ball boys while doing some Christmas shopping, he had them help him carry bags, then bought each one a $650 CD player. When he was traded to Houston, he called all five of the Suns' bench assistants to thank them for their help and tell them how much he enjoyed working with them.

A couple of years ago, I brought my sons to the Neil Lomax Quarterback Shootout and introduced them to Barkley. He was extremely gracious, and when we started to walk a few holes alongside him, he jumped out of his electric cart and walked them with us. The first question he asked the boys was, 'How are your grades?'

His playing days are history, but it's good he's still connected with the game as its most provocative TV analyst.

• Watching from the tunnel during the Barkley ceremony was Terry Porter, in my mind one of the true candidates for coach of the year. His Milwaukee Bucks are struggling with point guard T.J. Ford injured and perhaps out for the season, but Porter has a team most predicted for about 30 victories Ñ I said 32 Ñ at .500 and all but assured of a playoff spot in the East.

'He's done a great job for his first year as coach, especially with the way he handles the guys,' swingman Desmond Mason says of the former Trail Blazer point guard, who ended his 17-year playing career two years ago, then was an assistant to Rick Adelman in Sacramento last season. 'He lets us go out and play a freewheeling offense that is definitely Sacramento style. He understands the wear and tear on our bodies, how to give us rest.'

Veteran Toni Kukoc laughs when he hears Mason's assessment.

'Sometimes it looks like he (Porter) wishes he were on the court instead of us, because he would know how to react better,' Kukoc says. 'We haven't played well lately, and he is searching for the right things. He's learning as he goes, and he's doing a pretty good job.'

Porter says his coach of the year vote would go to Utah's Jerry Sloan, whose team has the same kind of talent as Milwaukee's but is playing better than .500 and continues to battle for the eighth playoff berth in the West.

'Even with Matt Harpring out for the year, it has been amazing how well (the Jazz) have played,' Porter says. 'I need to figure out how Jerry does it. His team plays so hard all the time.'

Speaking of retirement ceremonies: It's high time Steve Patterson and John Nash, who have done so many things right during their first year running the Blazers, schedule a night to honor the greatest point guard and clutch shooter in franchise history. No. 30 must go in the rafters and never be worn again.

• Tonya Harding pulled out of a boxing match in Oakland, Calif., over the weekend because of 'death threats,' says Paul Brown, her Portland trainer.

'I had to get her out of there. It was almost like there was going to be a race riot,' Brown says.

Brown says that scheduled opponent Tracy Carlton threatened Harding and hurled racial slurs at her at the weigh-in, and that Harding received subsequent death threats.

Brown says the promoters 'offered us $15,000 to stay and fight. We walked away from $24,000. You can't spend it if you're dead.'

Carlton was a late replacement for Blanca Hilder, at Brown's insistence. 'They tried to pull a fast one on us with Hilder,' he says. 'They said it was her pro debut. She'd never fought before, but we found out she was a West Coast kickboxing champion with a 15-2 record.'

Harding (3-2) hopes to fight in June in Canada.

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