Along Las Ramblas, the mile-long, principal tourist avenue of Barcelona, one can find flower shops, bird vendors, taverns, bakeries and vegetarian restaurants. You can find mimes, face painters, musicians, contortionists, panhandlers and pin traders. You can find a couple dozen varieties of olives, roasted pigs, peaches, figs, plums and prunes, and a few saltwater creatures on ice that stare right back at you when you stare at them.
And on many nights during these Games of the XXV Olympiad, you can also find Charles Barkley. "It is heem! I know it's heem!" shouted a young Spanish girl as Charles strolled the boulevard one evening...well, one morning, a few hours after midnight. "It ees the Charles guy."
Yes, it was the Charles guy, and he gave her an autograph when she rushed to his side. The crowd swelled and was carried along in Barkley's wide wake. He didn't stop for long, signing and talking and gesturing on the run, yet he seemed to take in everything. He was startled when one older fellow with slits for eyes darted in front of him and pointed, laughing like a hyena. Barkley tried to stare him down for a moment and then shook his head.
"Damn," said Barkley, "you're crazier than I am."
Yes, it was a typical Olympian night for the Wild Bull of Las Ramblas, the only member of the Dream Team to have elbowed an Angolan, drawn a technical for talking to the crowd, received gentle yet unmistakable rebukes from his teammates, been called on the carpet by the USOC and gotten alternately cheered and jeered in the pregame introductions. Barkley has earned a difficult and quite curious double distinction in Barcelona: He has become, at once, America's greatest Olympic ambassador and its greatest potential nightmare, a man who can turn a grimace into a smile—or vice versa—in an instant.
Barkley's legend has grown quickly, as legends tend to do at the Olympics, and a bit of perspective is needed. Unpredictable though he may be, Barkley is not running amok through the streets of Barcelona, smashing wine bottles and carrying off women, any more than he is doing anything out of the ordinary—what's ordinary for him, anyway—between the lines. Nevertheless, he has clearly emerged as the symbol of the U.S. men's basketball team: invincible on the court, larger than life off it and, wherever they are, rather like a bad case of heartburn to certain unsuspecting U.S. Olympic officials and athletes.
That resentment toward the Dream Team—its celebrity, its $900-a-night hotel rooms, its all-encompassing, star-studded presence—would arise was inevitable. Swimmer Mike Barrowman, America's 200-meter gold medalist in the breast-stroke, expressed this sentiment most eloquently and equitably. "This is the Olympics, not the NBA championship," said Barrowman last week when asked if he was bothered by all the attention the Dream Team is getting. "I love these guys. I want them to go out and kill everybody. But this is our chance to come through for our country. We only get that chance once every four years. They get it every day."
Slowly but surely, though, the Dream Teamers have opened the curtain that seemed to separate them from the other athletes early in the Games. Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and Scottie Pippen visited the Olympic Village, mingled with athletes from several countries and signed autographs. Larry Bird rode the metro (in fact, he rode it for quite a while because he went to the wrong stadium by mistake) to watch the U.S. baseball team and later met the players in the dugout. "He came down for autographs," said U.S. coach Ron Fraser, laughing. "So we gave them to him."
Malone has become good buddies with U.S. lightweight boxer Oscar de la Hoya and huddled with de la Hoya's family during his opening match (a victory over Adilson Rosa Silva of Brazil). Malone and several of his teammates also found time to watch the women's basketball team play. John Stockton even went unrecognized as he conducted an interview for NBA Entertainment along Las Ramblas one evening. "What do you think of John Stockton?" Stockton asked an American woman.
"Oh, he's a very good guard," she said.