No one, though, has done more to defuse the criticism than Magic Johnson and his good buddy Barkley. As expected, Magic has been the Sunshine Diplomat, waving to the crowd at boxing one night, at gymnastics the next, at track and field the next. Each day the Dream Team is not in action, Magic peruses the schedule of events and then says he wants to go to them all. Sometimes he even does. But Barkley not only has taken in events other than his own but also has gotten sweaty down on the streets, drinking (not to excess, it should be noted), joking and mingling with the crowd that lingers on Las Ramblas until the street cleaners come on duty. His nocturnal promenades, however diverting they might be for Barkley himself, have gone a long way to alter the image of the Dream Team as a collection of millionaire isolationists.
"I just can't sit in my room and do nothing," said Barkley one day last week, doing exactly that for the moment and looking plainly restive. "Sure, it's a pain in the butt to sign autographs all the time, but I'd rather walk around and be bothered than sit around. As far as I'm concerned, it's fun going around meeting people."
Not nearly as much fun for him as it is for them. One night as Barkley posted up at a bar in Plaza Real, an open courtyard just off Las Ramblas, an astonishing number and variety of fans vied for his attention. "Get back, please," Barkley had to say to an overzealous group of autograph seekers at one point. "You are definitely in my face."
One man rode a bicycle in and out of the assembled crowd, always within sight of Barkley, a jester auditioning for the jester-king. Barkley kept up a steady stream of conversation with both his friends and his rapt audience, from time to time dipping his head and slurping his cerveza rather than just picking up the glass. The man doesn't even drink beer conventionally.
"Well, gotta go," said Barkley. "Playing golf with Payne Stewart in the morning." Considering the hour, which was close to 4 a.m., he played with pain, as well as with Payne. (But he didn't play badly, shooting a 91 to Stewart's 66.) As Barkley left, the crowd scurried for prime spots and followed him all the way to the door of his hotel.
"I heard this Barkley supposed to be bad guy," said one Spanish teenager in broken English, holding up an autograph. "I think he is nice guy."
On the other hand, Barkley has done a few bad-guy things. He was whistled for a technical foul during the game against Croatia when he talked to the crowd, a definite no-no in international play. "If they gave T's for that in America," Barkley said, "I wouldn't make it past the first quarter."
And no matter what his protests to the contrary, his teammates were upset by his elbowing of a spindly Angolan named Herlander Coimbra (it resulted in a flagrant foul) during America's opening game victory. "That kind of stuff just isn't good for us imagewise," said Stockton. "In our situation, we have to be extra careful."
Barkley then compounded the error with an ill-advised comment in a press conference two days later. "People told me to hit a fat guy next time, not a skinny one," said Barkley. "That guy probably hadn't eaten in a few weeks." Did he really mean to make light of the catastrophic famine in Coimbra's African nation? No, but that's how it came out.
Barkley could have handled his hassle with the USOC over a column he was writing for USA Today a little better too. USOC rules prohibit an athlete from acting as a journalist unless he is writing for a hometown newspaper, so the committee forced him to cancel la columna de Barkley after two days. His reflections still appear but under staff writer David DuPree's byline. Said Barkley, "The USOC is a little jealous of our success. It's an ego thing. We don't think we're above the Olympic committee, but it shouldn't pick on every little thing we do. We should be given our due for being a great basketball team."