BARCELONA '92 OLYMPICS : Reveling in Spotlight of World : A New Definition of Famous

I don't know what your definition of famous is.

Muhammad Ali once came back from a trip to Moscow. I met him at the airport and asked: "Did they know you over there?"

"Young man," Ali said, in that loud whisper of his, "there ain't no there where they don't know me."

I don't know how famous you thought Magic Johnson was.

Basketball is basically an American baby, after all. Born and raised there.

But the game is big in Spain, and so is Johnson.

I suppose I never knew how big until I watched him make a grand entrance with 650 Americans Saturday night in before 65,000.

Nobody--and I mean nobody, king, queen or joker--yelled out: "Yankee go home."

The appearance of the American flag actually was booed and whistled at in the previous day's dress rehearsal for the Barcelona Olympics' opening ceremony.

To find out why, I spent some time Saturday with University of Chicago anthropologist John MacAloon, the athlete-minded professor who is considered something of an authority on Olympic ceremonies and their cultural and sociopolitical ramifications.

He suggested two possibilities:

One, that the hostility represented an ideological backlash to a perceived Western haughty indifference or geopolitical imperialism; or two, it was a bunch of nutty kids goofing around.

I was eager to go to the actual ceremony Saturday night to see what happened.

Here is what happened:

First, these 25th Olympic Games were proclaimed officially open by his royal highness Juan Carlos I, king of Spain.

Next, the parade of nations introduced several thousand Olympians, including his royal highness Earvin Jr., king of Inglewood.

He came into the stadium with the rest of the Estados Unidos de America delegation, hot on the alphabetical heels of Estonia, a couple of cross-training strides in front of Ethiopia.

As I watched, I wondered two things:

One, would the American flag, carried proudly by her royal highness Francie Larrieu Smith, former empress of Westwood, for any reason be booed?

And two, why is Estonia ahead of us alphabetically? Even if you call our country Estados Unidos de America (in Spanish) or Estats Units d'America (in Catalan), I don't see us dropping behind Estonia in anybody's alphabet. And if they list us as the United States, we ought to be back there hoofing between Turkey and Uruguay.

Either somebody is making out the lineup in French--wherein we are Etats - Unis d'Amerique --or this is the handiwork of that Quayle character again.

Anyway, into the arena the Americans came. The men wore bright blue coats, khaki pants, brown-and-white saddle shoes and white Panama hats, giving them the dapper look of a bunch of scouts recruiting teams for the Sugar Bowl.

They were not quite as subtle as the British, who strolled in looking ready for a coronation and perhaps a spot of tea, nor would they prove to be quite as colorful as the Mongolians, who strode in wearing their traditional We Just Got Back From Killing Some Barbarians and All We Got Were These Lousy Loincloths garb.

The big guys--Magic, David Robinson, Scottie Pippen, Christian Laettner--they were right up front. The Estonians had them in their rear-view mirrors.

Michael Jordan was a no-show, giving King Juan Carlos equal time to match his White House no-show last year.

Larry Bird was resting his aching back. Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin were resting whatever they had that needed resting. Jordan was out, I don't know, playing with Seve Ballesteros or something.

Well, they weren't missed. Magic Johnson of Estados Unidos was there, and that was all anybody needed to know. Placido Domingo could have ridden in on horseback like Lady Godiva and nobody would have noticed. It was Magic time by the Mediterranean.

The Guam guys pointed at him. Magic smiled. The Danish dames giggled and grinned. Magic nodded. The Djibouti dudes took bows in his direction. Magic bowed back. The Yemen women craned their necks. Magic tipped his hat.

Haitians, Croatians, Venezuelans, Australians, Samoans, Angolans, Romanians, Canadians . . . didn't matter. They all knew him. They ran over to take a snapshot with him. They mounted one another's shoulders and called out to him. Chinese and Brazilians broke ranks and rushed him.

This wasn't a basketball player. This was a Beatle.

It was interesting, it was amusing, and now that I think back on it, I can only remember one of 172 Olympic nations that didn't treat Magic Johnson like a king.


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