Charles Barkley

CHARLES BARKLEY says Donovan McNabb has never received the credit or respect from Eagles fans he deserves. Doubts he ever will.

Barkley understands what a love/hate relationship with Philadelphia fans can be like. He spent his first eight NBA seasons with the 76ers. He played hard, played aggressively, said what he thought, didn't always think before he said it. Heard from everybody, at both ends of the spectrum, so to speak.

But he was out and about then, and still is. Sixteen years after leaving the Sixers, completing his career with the Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets, he still maintains a home in the area.

"The fans always treated me fantastic," said Barkley, 45, who was famous for bitter battles with the media, but rarely allowed them to linger. "They got to know me. I told them when I was right, I told them when I was wrong. I was a normal guy, trying to win.

"When you're a star, the people want to like you, pull for you. I don't think they've gotten a chance to know [McNabb]. He's a great guy, a great player. He's great in the community.

"The Eagles have been a legitimate Super Bowl contender pretty much his entire career. They've been to four NFC Championship Games and one Super Bowl. He should be beloved. It's disappointing and frustrating that he hasn't gotten the respect he deserves.

"Why? I don't know the answer. I guess it could be because he doesn't live in Philly [in the offseason]. He kind of stays to himself. But he's their best quarterback ever. He never gets in trouble, he's a winner, yet he's never really been embraced. Maybe it's because he's not out in the public forum, doing normal stuff, just out on the town, letting people get to know [him]."

There already has been speculation that, supposedly because of McNabb's large contract and team plans for the future, this could be McNabb's last season here.

Barkley, never one to hold back, says: "He's got to win the Super Bowl or they've got to go to the next quarterback. That's just the truth. Nothing personal; it's just business. That's just the way it is."

Barkley, convinced the Sixers weren't focused on winning, forced his way out of town after the 1991-92 season, landing with the Suns in a massively one-sided deal. The Sixers acquired Jeff Hornacek, Tim Perry and Andrew Lang. The Suns went to the Finals in '92-93. The Sixers won 26 games, changing coaches - from Doug Moe to Fred Carter - in midstream.

"Sometimes, teams say they want to win, when what they want is to be competitive," Barkley said. "The Sixers won the championship in '82-83, but when I got there, in '84-85, it was like they had had their run and they were content to get to the playoffs."

He hasn't forgotten June 1986, when the Sixers traded the No. 1 overall pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Roy Hinson and cash, then traded Moses Malone to the Washington Bullets for Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson.

"Once they traded the No. 1 pick," he said ruefully, "it was war."

Love/hate. Barkley knows. For a star player in this city, it can be a way of life. *