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King Magic’s New Reign in Spain Is Plain : Whirlwind Promotional Tour by Johnson Is an Instant Success

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The ball caromed off the rim and Magic Johnson’s shoulders slumped. With a look of mock exasperation, he rolled his eyes, dropped to the floor and began to do pushups.

The crowd of 12,000 men, women and children counted along.

“Uno, dos, tres, cuatro. . . .”

Johnson stopped at six. But the fans wanted more.

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“Cuatro, mas!” bellowed the public address announcer.

At 10, Johnson stood and beamed, his face streaked with sweat. He made a little bow and cupped his hand to his ear. The crowd went wild.

Part pitchman, part Harlem Globetrotter and 100% ham, Johnson worked his third Spanish city in 48 hours Tuesday, and left little doubt that both he and basketball are bigger here than ever. The old men along the Ramblas might have their soccer and cafes, but Johnson and “Baloncesto” are clearly the choice of a new generation.

Johnson drew 7,000 for a clinic Monday morning in Valencia, then attracted 10,000 that afternoon in Madrid. News conferences in all three cities were standing-room-only affairs.

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Johnson, making his second visit to Barcelona in the last 10 months, said all the right things. He praised the 1992 Olympic construction. He thanked his sponsors. He complimented the Spanish people.

A savvy businessman and a licensee of both the NBA and USA Basketball, Johnson is also a goodwill ambassador. And he knows it.

“The ambassadorship was passed down to me by Dr. J, Julius Erving,” he said. “One day, I’ll pass it to Michael Jordan, and so on and so on. That’s the way it goes.”

The crowd in Barcelona began lining up outside the gates of the Palau Sant Jordi arena--site of the 1992 Olympic basketball final--by midafternoon and was at fever pitch by the time the clinic got under way at 7 p.m. They were teen-agers mostly, dressed in blue jeans or beach wear, although a surprising number wore Laker gear. Most waved posters of Johnson, given away in a local newspaper, and everybody wore basketball shoes.

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“I never thought I would see him in person,” said Ana Ruiz, who played hooky from her job as a secretary to be on hand. “I read about Magic all the time, but he’s much bigger than I expected. I hope I can touch him.”

A small boy wearing a James Worthy T-shirt said his allegiance actually lay elsewhere.

“I like Magic and Michael Jordan best,” he said. “But I like Magic more because he’s here.”

Johnson’s reception mirrors the basketball boom in Spain in the 1980s. Where once a loose affiliation of semipro clubs made do, the elite ACB League now includes 24 teams from Barcelona to Bilbao, Madrid to Murcia, and the minor Primera League features 16 more. FC Barcelona regularly plays to sellout crowds of 17,000 at the Palau Sant Jordi, and Spain’s national team has been one of the world’s best for almost a decade.

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The talent level is also increasing. Although American exiles Walter Berry and Harold Pressley dominate the ACB, local heroes such as Barcelona forward Juan Antonio san Epifano--Epi for short--are mobbed on the streets.

Johnson wisely let it slip that he wouldn’t mind playing a year or two in Europe when his current NBA contract expires.

“I’m serious,” he said. “It’s definitely a possibility, especially since I’ve got a team interested in me. I always thought I’d come over here for maybe a year.”

But for now, Johnson is far more valuable to Campofrio--the Spanish meat packing giant that signed him to a three-year, $3-million endorsement deal in 1990--as a Laker. Thus, tickets to the free clinic could be obtained only by buying Campofrio products, and Johnson sported a red, white and purple uniform with Campofrio on it. Since March, he has appeared on local TV commercials for Campofrio, slapping palms with Cobi, the cartoon mascot of the 1992 Olympics.

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But the crowd Tuesday seemed not to notice. They know who Johnson really plays for, and they know the NBA is where it’s at. And if Johnson’s Spanish was nonexistent--not even so much as a “buenas noches” or a “gracias"-- so what? They still got a great show.

Aided by Epi, Johnson drilled some children in fundamentals, then worked on shooting technique. He dribbled between his legs and behind his back and around the children, stopping only to lead the crowd in cheers.

Two players in wheelchairs got high-fives for their efforts, and a small boy named Albert was coaxed from the crowd--once he stopped at midcourt to tie his shoe--and hoisted up to the rim for a shot.

The crowd roared.

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“Everybody knows Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan,” said Jorge Campins, president of the Atrium promotions company that staged the clinics. “But we wanted Magic for this. Jordan is not so open, especially to kids. We thought Magic was best. He cares, and he’s interested in the Olympics.”

Indeed, Johnson’s stated desire to return to Barcelona next summer is the real hook. Tickets for the Olympic basketball competition are in great demand, and Spanish fans follow the U.S. selection process--Jordan? Ewing? In or out?--with avid interest.

“Oh yes, I’ll be playing in the Olympics, as long as I don’t get cut,” Johnson said.


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