Mobbed by autograph-seeking athletes, aswirl in controversies over their participation and accommodations, the superstars of the U.S. basketball team joined the Olympic family.
Saturday in an overflowing 1,500-seat theater, the world’s media met the world’s greatest basketball players in the flesh, and in the case of Charles Barkley, in stereo.
Question: Should NBA players be participating in the Olympics?
Barkley: “Why is it such a big deal when we use pros and those other teams been using pros all those years? Why don’t they just take their ass-whipping like people and go home?”
Actually, almost everyone will be happy to. For weeks, the faces of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson have been plastered all over the basketball-crazy Spanish press, so much that other U.S. Olympians had begun grousing publicly about the millionaires getting all the attention. There also were raised eyebrows at their shunning of the Olympic village to stay in a luxury hotel downtown.
Most of the athletes, American and otherwise, however, had a more pressing concern:
The NBA players arrived at the Olympic village on Friday night in a convoy, their bus preceded by two police cars with a helicopter escort overhead. They disembarked to register and were all but overwhelmed.
A security man in charge of crowd control, waiting with a camera and his young son, thrust the boy into a player’s arms, asked him to pose and snapped a picture.
While players waited for ID photos, they were surrounded by a growing crowd of athletes and staffers, asking for autographs. The players finally retreated to their bus but allowed U.S. gymnasts to come aboard and get more autographs.
“Unless you travel with this team, you don’t understand,” Coach Chuck Daly said. “It’s very much like traveling with 12 rock stars.
“In all our experience, starting with La Jolla, Portland, Monaco, I thought the stampede in the village was the most frightening thing that happened.”
The Americans are ensconced with their wives and children in suites at the luxurious Ambassador Hotel--and would have been, with or without aggravations. Had the simple accommodations of the village been a condition of participation, few would have signed up. In this they are following the precedent set four years ago when another set of millionaires--professional tennis players--joined the Olympics.
“For the sake of the Olympic spirit, wouldn’t you rather stay in the village with the otherathletes?” a man from the BBC asked.
“The Olympic spirit to me is to go out and beat the other teams in the world, not to live with them,” John Stockton said.
“We have a saying in Utah: the Indians didn’t dine with Custer.”
The Americans were bussed to the main press center Saturday for their introductory news conference. Some reporters applauded when they walked in. Many asked unusual questions, such as the man who asked Jordan what is feels like to be called a god.
A man from Swedish TV asked David Robinson if he ever thinks about accepting the silver medal at Seoul in 1988 (he said he doesn’t). Estonian radio wondered if Robinson has any new tricks for Lithuania’s Arvidas Sabonis (no).
Said Larry Bird, asked how his back was: “I was feeling pretty good until I came in here and listened to all this BS.”
Because of the crush, all 12 players were seated on the stage. Officials insisted that questions be addressed to each man in turn, from left to right. When no one asked Christian Laettner anything for 15 seconds, Laettner’s newly adopted big brother, Barkley, raised his hand.
But a news conference, by any name or form, belongs to Barkley.
When his turn finally came, Barkley was happy to share his views on:
Today’s opponent, Angola: “I don’t know anything about Angola--but Angola’s in trouble.”
The controversial U.S. loss to the Soviet Union in 1972: “I had just flunked my entrance exam into kindergarten so. . . . I did know it was a travesty. None of you guys (his teammates) will admit it, but ’72 and ’88, we’ll remember that stuff when we’re playing. None of those guys will admit it, but they don’t like Americans and that’s fair because we’re the glamour country. But we’re gonna get it done. We’re going to have a little revenge in our life. David (Robinson, who covered his head when he heard his name mentioned), he can’t say it because he’s a Christian, but I think there’s a little revenge in it.”
On staying in a hotel: “I don’t think it’s fair people say we should stay in the village. We’ve got God on our team, and we’ve got to stay where God wants us to stay. Isn’t that right, Michael?”
On the competition: “Croatia’s going to be there. Lithuania, Germany, Brazil, Spain, they’re going to give us a good game--for a half.”
Today the United States opens against Angola, which is expected to be even a bigger non-factor than any team in the Tournament of the Americas, which the United States won by 52 points per game.
Angola has a 6-foot-7, 6-6, 6-6 front line, which will have to look up at the U.S. guards, 6-9 Magic Johnson, 6-7 Scottie Pippen and the 6-6 Jordan.
Angola is certainly in trouble but on the bright side, won’t have to fight the crowds for autographs.
John Stockton hasn’t practiced because of the hairline fracture in his right leg, but hopes to play in later games. . . . Larry Bird is expected to play today, although he was far from himself in an exhibition against France last week. Said Bird, asked when he will make up his mind about retiring: “I’ve been retired four years now and nobody knows it yet.” . . . Chuck Daly on muzzling Charles Barkley: “I don’t expect to, and frankly I don’t think it would do any good. Charles is a colorful character. I admire his play and I’m happy I’m only coaching him five weeks.” . . . Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing, ’84 Olympians, did not march in the opening ceremony. Bird also didn’t march. . . . Jordan, asked by a reporter if he is of this earth: “Well, I live in Chicago.”