When Magic and Michael Jordan came to play in Spain

There were a few years, before and after the Barcelona Olympic Games, in which NBA superstars visited Spain with some assiduity


In the late 1980s there were three circumstances that led to everything that came after. Three key dates. On the one hand, on October 17, 1986, the day Juan Antonio Samaranch announced that the 1992 Olympic Games would be held in Barcelona. Second, on April 8, 1989, FIBA approved that NBA players could represent their countries at the Olympic Games, something that was previously prohibited. And thirdly, already locally, on February 7, 1988. That day the first NBA game was broadcast (although some part of the All-Star or a final had already been broadcast, months after it was played), a delayed Milwaukee-Boston, within the program 'Cerca de las Estrellas' on Spanish Television.

This last fact was the germ of what the NBA is today for Spanish fans. Although the program directed by Ramón Trecet was broadcast almost at dawn, it caught fans of basketball and sports in general. With the still latent memory of the 1984 Los Angeles Games, where Spain played the final against some American 'extraterrestrials', and the jump to the NBA of Fernando Martín, the first 'famous' Spanish basketball player of the time, the product succeeded. The NBA fever was not only widespread in Spain but throughout Europe. And once it became known that the megastars of the American professional championship would play together at the Barcelona Olympics, everything exploded. And it was not yet known that the 'Dream Team' would be formed, the best basketball team of all time.

In the United States, they quickly captured this incipient interest from the European fans and the NBA began a strategy of expansion in Europe that would culminate in the 1992 Games, although it lasted a few more years. The NBA began to expand its rights throughout Europe, to market VHS videos and all kinds of team products; sports brands, such as Nike and Converse, began to market NBA players' shoe models in Europe ... But something was missing to finish conquering the public of the old continent: seeing that the stars were made of flesh and blood. And so, the NBA, with the support of FIBA and the sponsorship of the American multinational restaurant company, devised the McDonald's Open, which consisted of an NBA team taking on the strongest teams in Europe and later in the World. After a first pilot tournament in the United States, in 1987, in which the Milwaukee Bucks, the USSR national team and the Milan Tracer participated, the second edition was played in Spain (and all the others, until 1999, were played in Europe). The Palacio de los Deportes in Madrid hosted the Boston Celtics, the Yugoslav national team, Scavolini de Pesaro and Real Madrid. It was the first time an NBA superstar, Larry Bird, had been seen in Spain. Three years later, Pat Ewing's Knicks played this tournament in Barcelona. But the fans wanted more. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, the two icons of the time, were about to arrive in Spain.

Today, with Europe 'colonized' decades ago, the NBA often sends its stars to expand their brand to the Far East. China, Japan, Singapore ... But there was a time when the greatest players in the history of basketball traveled to Europe to promote and satisfy the incipient European interest in the North American professional basketball championship. It was the beginning of the 1990s and the fact that the 1992 Olympic Games were to be held in Barcelona made Spain a strategic enclave for the NBA. Apart from the 1988 McDonald's Open, the first myth to reach Spain was Michael Jordan. It was August 30, 1990. Jordan had not yet won any rings (he was a few months away) but a stellar aura already surrounded him who, for many, was later the best player in history. His trip to Spain was full of anecdotes. The central act was the presentation match of the ACB of that season. Jordan would play a game with the best in the Spanish League, an exciting and unique incentive for the still new Spanish NBA fan. The match was held in Barcelona but, a day before, on the 23rd of the Chicago Bulls he had an appointment in Madrid: he was going to attend the Estudiantes-Atlético de Madrid-Villalba derby, it had even been announced that he would warm up with the collegiate shirt. Everything was canceled because Air Jordan extended its stay in Germany to visit an American base and encourage the American military who at that time were fighting in the Gulf War.

Jordan flew directly to Barcelona and the first thing he did was go play golf at the Prat de Llobregat course. The Bulls guard asked Seve Ballesteros to play with him but the Cantabrian golfer was not in Spain at that time. His second request was that King Juan Carlos I receive him in audience. Nor was it granted. Thus, he directly stayed in a suite at the Hotel Princesa Sofía that cost 125,000 pesetas of the time to rest in the face of what was coming the next day. The first thing he did that morning was visit the headquarters of the ACB. There, he played the innocent hand in the draw for the Prince's Cup and then took a walk through what would become the Olympic Village, wearing the Barcelona'92 shirt. The anecdote was that, at the press conference, he explained that "it was not in his plans" to play the Olympic Games. Two years later he would be one of the icons of that Olympic event. In the afternoon, in the Barcelona Sports pavilion, he served as a jury in the national final of the 'Air Jordan' dunk contest, along with two illustrious matadors from the ACB: Ricky Winslow and Mike Smith, who later made an dunk in which Jordan, champion of the NBA contest in 1988, did not want to participate.

Jordan played for a time with each of the two teams that were made up of the stars of the ACB: Corny Thompson, Creus, Villacampa, Winslow, Llorente, Norris, Walter Berry or the current president of the ACB, Antonio Martín, among others. The guest star decided to extend the times to 15 minutes since they had been programmed to 12. He felt at ease. The pavilion was bursting. 10,000 people packed the venue. There were fans everywhere. The stairs and hallways were crowded with people. There was even a field invasion in some sets of the game. Jordan scored 37 points although, according to the chronicles of the time, there was some disappointment since "he only made two dunks". A delight that dazzled an entire country that saw the exhibition match on TVE2. Years later, it was said that Jordan played that game knowing that the NBA would fine him. It was about promoting the brand, not risking his physique in a match. Nike gladly paid the penalty. The hype that hit the fledgling Spanish market for the Oregon sports brand was what was important. The ACB players were also impressed after taking on Air Jordan. "At first we stood there watching what he was doing. Impressive, it was difficult not to be a spectator," Antonio Martín said at the time. "What was most impressive was his physique: he was faster, he played with more intensity, he jumped much more," said Jordi Villacampa years later, who surprised the American with a marking more typical of an official match than an exhibition. " We hoped not to make a fool of ourselves and it went well, ”explained José Luis Llorente.

A Michael Jordan was still waiting for him at the after-party organized by the ACB but the North Carolina man did not attend even though the organization insisted that he should attend the event. He stayed in his luxurious hotel room talking about basketball for several hours with Walter Szczerbiak, a former Madrid player who at that time was the link between the ACB and the NBA, and his agents. There were no more public appearances by the American star in Spain until the Barcelona Games, two years later, although gossip says that he spent that night in a private room at the 'Up and Down' nightclub in Barcelona. Just one year later, the ACB wanted to repeat and brought three other NBA stars to Spain: Charles Barkley; Scottie Pippen, Jordan's lieutenant on the Chicago Bulls; and David Robinson. A few months before the Olympic event, the three declared that they would be at the Games (and they were). Robinson finally did not play the exhibition duel, when his team, the San Antonio Spurs, prohibited him, although he did do some dunk in the warm-up. The chronicles of the time relate the rivalry and the piques that existed, during some sets of the game, between Arvydas Sabonis, then in the Forum and later star of the Portland Trail Blazers, and 'Gordo' Barkley.

On September 26, 1990, Earvin 'Magic' Johnson and his planetary star aura landed in Spain. He visited Madrid and Barcelona, a few weeks after Jordan's visit and just a few days after the passing through Spain of Olajuwon, another NBA star of the time. But at the time, Magic was Magic. His main act in Spain was to convert the first basket in the Palau Sant Jordi, by the hand of Campofrío. Díaz-Miguel, the Spanish coach, disagreed and commented that such an honor belonged to Epi. By then, Magic was the top star of the NBA, already with several rings, something that Jordan had not yet achieved. The Lakers base had already declared to the four winds that he would be in Barcelona'92, to achieve one of the few titles that he had left as a player. At that time, he still did not know that the Games would be his last games before his first retirement, being a carrier of AIDS. In Madrid, he held a massive press conference in which he announced that in the following years he would return to Spain to carry out a clinic with children.

He kept his word, and his contract with Campofrío, and in July 1991 he returned to Spain to be with the children in Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia. The party was joined by the most iconic Spanish player of the time, Juan Antonio San Epifanio 'Epi', who accompanied him at clinics and made him a fan of Barcelona ... although years later he would wear the Madrid shirt. In Valencia, he also held a mini-party and attended the Pamesa presentation at La Fonteta. Earlier, in Madrid, a bluff was marked at the press conference: "The Jordan era has not come and will not come until my retirement." That same season (1990-91), the Bulls had defeated the Lakers (4-1) in the NBA Finals, which ultimately meant a change in the cycle.

The following year, he returned for the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games captaining the Dream Team. Much has been written about those two weeks. Two years later, in 1994, he returned to the Palau Olímpic de Badalona. "A feeling of chill has gone through my body and hundreds of memories have passed through my memory," he declared. The then former Lakers player left his mark on the Plaza de los Campeones in Barcelona, just in front of what had been the Olympic Village of the Games, in 1992. The next day, he returned to Badalona. In the morning, he gave a clinic with more than 200 children and in the afternoon he played a friendly with a team he formed for exhibitions, the Magic All Stars, among which were also the legendary Mark Aguirre and Kurt Rambis, against Joventut, current European champion. At that time, both teams were sponsored by the 7up brand of drinks and the Magic team beat La Penya (86-112). Magic showed that he was still in shape (20 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists). That was the last time a Magic still 'active' visited Spain.

Afterwards, Magic worked for a few Lakers coach games and in 1996, at the age of 36, he returned to the NBA to play his last months, at a high level, with the Los Angeles team. After that last dance, he permanently retired and it was not until six years later, when he returned to Spain for the last time. Specifically, it was Kings Day 2002. And he did it with the Magic-All Stars again, a team reinforced by Cedric Ceballos, Magic's former teammate in the Lakers; Larry Spriggs, former NBA champion in 1985 and former Madrid player, on the bench; and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's son, adding a touch of melancholy to the group Magic had put together for these shows. The reason was the celebration of one of the Centennial events of Real Madrid. Florentino Pérez wanted to join the legendary 'Dream Team' for the Centennial, ten years after Barcelona'92 but had to settle for the Magic Johnson exhibition team, which arrived in the capital at 42 years of age. This was the only reason since the NBA in 2002 was already fully integrated into European culture and it was no longer necessary to make 'homeland'.

However, Magic's presence in Madrid, for the fourth time in Spain, was an event throughout the country. The pages of the newspapers were filled with his return to our country. After holding a clinic with 200 children, he attended the Bernabéu box to watch a football match between Madrid and Depor, the day before the match that awaited him at the Raimundo Saporta pavilion. In the game, he delighted the fans despite being 42 years old. He played the 40 minutes of the game, five of them with the Real Madrid shirt, something that exalted the white fans and a milestone that remained in the history of Real Madrid. Madrid won that game but the most important thing is that Magic wore the white 32 in one game. The 'showtime' dressed in white. This was the last public visit of the most famous point guard in NBA history to Spain, a place that in the 1990s was the epicenter of 'European colonization' by the North American professional basketball championship.

Photos from as.com
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