BARCELONA — Croatian to Charles Barkley: "Did our team scare you tonight?"
Charles Barkley to Croatian: "Nah. Y'all weren't that ugly."
"CRO-USA" is the way this history-making game of basketball was abbreviated atop the mimeographed box score, for anyone who made sure to keep one as a memento. "8/8/92." "Hombres." "Baloncesto." "Juegos de la XXV Olimpiada." USA 117, CRO 85.
Directly below that were the lineups for the opponents--opponents who needed no souvenirs to remind them who they were, why they were there or what they had done. Had Earvin Johnson played more than any other American? No one noticed. Had Larry Bird been scoreless? No one cared. Trivial. Inconsequential. Any discussion of who was pointless was, well, pointless.
Was it Magic's last game?
It might not be.
Bird's last game?
No way of knowing.
But it definitely was the last game of a dozen \o7 caballeros \f7 who rode in from the West for the greatest shoot-'em-up in the long history of the Summer Olympics, shot holes through the rings, then blew on their index fingers to keep them from smoking.
"Twelve Clint Eastwoods," Michael Jordan called them.
This town almost wasn't big enough for the 12 of them. Wherever they went, whatever they did, they walked tall and were regarded with awe. And when the magnificent dozen were ready to saddle up and leave, Jordan cloaked himself in an Eastwood-esque poncho created specially for the occasion by fashion designer Betsy Ross.
I suppose that I have seen better basketball. I can assure you that I have witnessed games more suspenseful. I have been around louder crowds (mostly in America), have been inside more beautiful buildings (mostly in Europe) and have even been guilty of dozing or snoozing through a USA game or two, which might be another reason why people call it a dream team.
But I cannot deny that the game of Olympic \o7 baloncesto \f7 they played here Saturday night is one that I am not likely to forget, any more than will Magic Johnson, who called it the most meaningful athletic experience of his life--which, let me tell you, coming from him is a mouthful.
What to remember?
How about the play and playfulness of Barkley, who sometimes makes a fool of himself voluntarily and sometimes does it involuntarily but always makes the absolute most of any game in which he plays? You should have caught the look on the spectator's face when Barkley pretended, Meadowlark Lemon-like, that he was about to pass him the ball. You should have seen the grin that split the Croatian player's face when Charles complimented his teammates on not being all that ugly.
Or how about the relentless intensity of Chuck Daly, a man who never gets described as anybody's Dream Coach; a man who somehow managed to suppress all the classic symptoms of enjoyment; a man who was on his feet bending a referee's ear when there were 32 points separating the teams; a man who had the pride of a job well done without having the joy of anything to show for it.
"I think it's a shame," said team spokeslegend Johnson, "that Chuck Daly and the coaches don't get to get a medal."
Not even as a souvenir.
Maybe there \o7 was\f7 some need, after all, to take home some keepsake from the experience. Barkley swapped warm-up shirts with an opponent, the instant the contest was over. David Robinson got his mitts on one of those rainbow-colored pullovers the third-place Lithuanians wore. Bird, hardly the emotional type, said he would forever have a story with which he could enthrall his children and eventual grandchildren.
Perhaps the image I will cling to, however, was that of John Stockton, the team runt, larger than life in the town where he lives but little more than a bench warmer here, dribbling away the final 15 seconds of the championship game, then flat-out refusing to hand over the basketball to either of the two officials who tried to pry it from his hands. Un-uh, Stockton said. No way. And this grown-up millionaire athlete made off with the ball like a child with a Willie Mays foul to the bleachers.
He was a happy man--almost as happy as Franjo Tudjam.
There were many people made happy by this game of basketball, including a couple or 3 billion who supposedly saw it on TV, but perhaps none so happy as Franjo Tudjam. He was at the game. He practically hopped out of his shoes when Dino Radja dunked over Bird. He was delirious when Toni Kukoc faked Scottie Pippen out of his shoes. He was ecstatic when Drazen Petrovic popped jump shots over Jordan's bald pate.
Franjo Tudjam is the president of Croatia, and what he loved most about this game of basketball is that it took his mind off--and his players' minds off--the carnage and horror of events back home, events Tudjam made reference to as the "internal situation." For one night, or one fortnight, civil war was somewhere else. For this team, \o7 this\f7 was a dream.
"I told them if they got to the final, I would have an excuse to go to Barcelona," Tudjam said. "And here I am."
Here were we all.
Wouldn't have missed it for the world.