The once ubiquitous "Jordan 23" Bulls jersey is rarely seen on Spanish youngsters these days -- they're more likely to favor the distinctive blue-and-garnet "10" shirt worn by FC Barcelona idol Lionel Messi. Futbol still reigns in this part of the world.
The Nike-conceived, wall-sized mural of Michael Jordan in spectacular flight that once loomed over a busy downtown plaza is long gone, replaced by a glitzy ad for the latest in Euro-hip menswear.
But if Jordan is no longer a visible presence in this corner of the basketball world, he's still a tangible one.
Seventeen years ago, NBA basketball came to the Olympics, to the spectacular Barcelona Games, with the ballyhooed presence of the Jordan-led "Dream Team" This fulfilled the International Basketball Federation president's goal of making FIBA's world tournaments truly world-class by involving the world's best players.
International basketball was instantly and radically transformed.
"If the game has exploded globally, Barcelona was the atomic bomb," said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, a Dream Team assistant and head coach of the gold-medal-winning 2008 U.S. team.
Jordan, meanwhile, evolved from an NBA mega-star to an athlete of world renown, one with unprecedented marketing muscle.
"He was known for the thing that fascinates all of us -- flight," said Walt Szczerbiak, a longtime Spanish League standout, talent consultant and father of NBA veteran Wally Szczerbiak.
"A few years earlier, Michael had come to Spain on a marketing tour for Nike, and the publicity was unbelievable. Barcelona and the buzz it generated was like an extension of that. His legend just kept growing."
As did his influence, via the Dream Team.
Among the handful of foreign-born players on NBA rosters pre-Barcelona, only Drazen Petrovic of the Nets and Sarunas Marciulonis of the Warriors were rotation-worthy contributors.
Fast-forward to the 2008-09 season. Nearly 20 percent of NBA players were foreign-born, including All-Stars Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol.
"The '92 Olympics was a coming-out party for our sport," NBA Commissioner David Stern said, citing, among other things, television-distribution figures. "Pre-Barcelona [the NBA was broadcast in] 80-odd countries. Now it's 213," Stern said. "That growth started with the number of people who got to watch Michael Jordan and the Dream Team."
Krzyzewski has seen it first-hand. The three-time NCAA title-winning coach joined Lenny Wilkens and P.J. Carlesimo as assistants to the late Chuck Daly on the Dream Team staff. Long a leader within USA Basketball, Krzyzewski coached the 2008 U.S. squad -- known as the Redeem Team following its disappointing play in Athens -- to a gold medal in Beijing and has agreed to stay on for the London campaign in 2012.
"Barcelona was the impetus for how far the rest of the world has come," Krzyzewski said. "I've been told about Manu Ginobili as a kid watching in Argentina, a young Pau Gasol watching in Spain. ... 'Wow, the Dream Team. That's how basketball is supposed to be played.'
"Now we have to send our best players and have them organized and playing as a team if we're going to be competitive."
The Dream Team, as expected, waltzed to Barcelona gold with eight straight wins.
Since then, six countries besides the U.S. have won Olympic basketball medals, most notably Argentina's gold at Athens in 2004, which prompted a stronger commitment from the USA Basketball-NBA partnership.
"China is an interesting example of the game's development," Stern said. "They were barely a presence in Barcelona [winless in seven games]. Now they have one of the largest and strongest programs in the world. A friend of mine over there told me the government embraced basketball because it promotes fitness, discipline and harmony."
With professional and club leagues operating throughout the world, nine countries have won medals in the FIBA World Championships since 1994, including four different gold medalists. And the U.S. hardly dominates at age-group developmental levels.
"There's no question the Dream Team and Michael Jordan were the catalyst for basketball truly going global -- they were the gold standard," said Evanston-born Dan Peterson, a former U.S. college coach, longtime European coach and now a basketball TV commentator in Italy.
"You can't discount the awe factor. In Barcelona, a lot of those teams were beaten before they started. I thought it might take a couple of Olympics for the awe to wear off and the other teams to become more competitive."
The move to include NBA players in the Olympics began in the '80s, when Borislav "Bora" Stankovic, longtime FIBA president and one of the most respected figures in international sport, began pushing for it. Though the concept of amateurism had gradually vanished from the most prominent Olympic sports, Stankovic's goal was to grow the game he had played and coached with great passion in his native Yugoslavia for most of his life.
"I'm a hobby tennis player, and I've always felt that if I'm going to get better I have to play against better competition," Stankovic, now 84, said from his vacation home in the Greek islands.
"That's also true of basketball. If we were going to make it a stronger, better game around the world, you had to have the best players, and the best players were from the NBA.
"We couldn't call our tournaments world-class if we didn't involve the best players."
Before Barcelona, U.S. teams consisting mainly of college players had won nine of 12 gold medals since basketball was added to the Olympic menu in 1936. The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games in protest of the Soviet Union's military involvement in Afghanistan and lost medal-round games to Soviet teams in 1972 and 1988.
The '72 debacle, occurring amid all-too-real atrocities in Munich, was written off as an aberration, the result of inconceivably inept, if not corrupt, officiating.
No such excuses were available in 1988. A seasoned, versatile Soviet squad featuring Lithuanians Marciulonis and future NBA pro Arvydas Sabonis simply manhandled coach John Thompson's collegians, prompting speculation that USA Basketball was turning to the NBA out of pique over being beaten at its own game.
Not so, according to Russ Granik, point man for the NBA's '92 Olympic effort as deputy commissioner.
"We just found ourselves invited to the dance -- FIBA approached us," Granik said. "Amateurism was pretty much a thing of the past in most Olympic sports, and we had heard from Dave Gavitt and C.M. Newton and the USA Basketball people that a resolution to open basketball to NBA players was likely to pass. We figured, 'If this gets approved, we have to do it,' and we were committed to doing it right."
Rod Thorn, who had drafted Jordan as Bulls general manager in 1984 and was then working in the league office, took the lead in assembling the team.
Jordan, perennial scoring champ and three-time MVP, was the NBA's dominant player and top attraction, but he wouldn't tip his hand regarding his Olympic intentions. The Bulls were coming off a second straight into-the-summer title run, which cut into his golf time, and he already owned a gold medal as the leading scorer on Bob Knight's 1984 team that won in Los Angeles.
"Michael was pretty coy with the media, but he assured us he was coming," Granik said.
Nike, which had become an Olympic colossus since its humble start manufacturing track shoes, wanted its most prominent representative there, obviously.
FIBA's Stankovic had no worries.
"I'm very good friends with Dean Smith," he said of Jordan's college coach, whom MJ respects like few others in his life. "Dean told me he'd talk to Michael about coming, that it was very important. And when Dean Smith asks ..."
Chris Mullin and Patrick Ewing were among Jordan's Olympic teammates in '84. Charles Barkley and John Stockton had been cut from that squad and welcomed another chance. David Robinson was looking to avenge 1988. Aging icons Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were eager to add an Olympic experience to their distinguished resumes, as were NBA All-Stars Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler and Scottie Pippen.
College player of the year Christian Laettner of Duke completed the 12-man roster, likely the best ever assembled, its depth alone making it superior to 1960 ( Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas) and 2008 ( Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade).
How good was the Dream Team? It featured 10 of the 50 players -- all but Mullin and Laettner -- on an all-time NBA list chosen in conjunction with the league's 50-year anniversary in 1996.
"You tell yourself you're not going to be intimidated, that it's just basketball, but from the time they took the floor, everybody understood that they were serious and too good to be challenged," said Marciulonis, who helped Lithuania to a bronze medal, highlighted by an emotional win over their Russian rivals in the third-place game.
"Michael, Patrick, Larry ... They were not just great players, they had such a feel for each other. We all thought, 'This is what basketball should look like.' "
Granik had a "holy cow" sense of it even before Barcelona.
"We had to qualify because we hadn't won the gold medal in '88, so we bought the rights to the Tournament of the Americas and moved it to Portland," he recalled. "I'm watching these guys warm up before our first game, all this talent on the same team, and I thought, 'Boy, this is really incredible.' "
He also got a sense of what the team's Olympic reception would be like.
"We heard some grumbling that it's not fair to the rest of the world," Granik said. "Not fair? Those guys wanted us there. Some of our early games were delayed because the other teams wanted to pose for pictures and get our guys' autographs before the tip. We had to build in time to allow for those exchanges."
Brian McIntyre, then the NBA's media relations director, now vice president of its communications group, recalls one bump on the road to Barcelona.
"They wanted some outside competition while we were training in La Jolla, so they brought in a 'select team' -- Bobby Hurley and a bunch of college guys. The first time we scrimmaged, they beat us. We couldn't make a shot, they played great ... they beat us. Chuck [Daly] was really pissed. 'Get that [expletive] score off the scoreboard and not a word of this to anybody.'
"Well, of course word got out, and now there's speculation whether this Dream Team idea can work -- too many egos? Now everybody's pissed.
"The next day we scrimmaged them again and it's 12-0 before the first timeout, 22-1 before the second ... we just destroyed them."
Daly was jokingly referred to as the "Prince of Pessimism," but he knew what he had as the team left for Barcelona, confiding one goal to assistant Wilkens: not to call a timeout during the tournament. And he didn't, over eight games in which the U.S. never scored fewer than 103 points or allowed more than 85, winning by an average margin of 43.8 points. A 117-85 thumping of Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and Croatia in the gold-medal game was its closest.
"That's how dominant we were -- the best in the world," Wilkens said.
"I can say this now -- the practices were a lot harder than the games. These guys were not only great players but great competitors, competitive about everything, and the way they went after each other in practice was incredible.
"One time we hadn't played for about three days and Chuck was worried that we might be stale, so I said to Magic, 'Let's kick it up a little in practice today.' About 10 minutes into it, Chuck said, 'We'd better dial it down some. We don't want anybody getting hurt.' "
For all its talent, the team was remarkably cohesive and unselfish.
"Absolutely. We told them what was expected of them and they all bought in," Wilkens said.
"Why wouldn't they?" Granik said. "This was a chance for Magic to play with Larry, Patrick Ewing with Michael. ... The only other time they'd get that chance was in an All-Star Game, and this was a little more serious than that."
Though he averaged a modest 14.9 points to Barkley's team-leading 18, Jordan was first among equals.
"At the time I thought Magic might be the most recognizable guy because of ' Showtime,' the five titles and the HIV thing he'd gone through," Granik said. "But once we got over there it was obvious Michael was the guy everybody wanted to see."
Peterson had never seen Jordan play in person.
"I never thought I'd replace Oscar Robertson or Jerry West on my all-time team, but I had to once I saw Michael up close," he said. "Not just the ability, but the competitiveness and the smarts. It's like he's seen the movie before.
"I call it athletic genius. All the great ones have it, and he had more of it than anybody."
Wilkens had seen plenty of Jordan -- he was coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers when Jordan made "The Shot" over Craig Ehlo in the 1989 playoffs.
"Michael was unbelievable," Wilkens said. "I always enjoyed watching him, even competing against him, but seeing him in that setting gave me a new appreciation. He was the greatest player in the world, of course, but he was gracious to everybody, an unselfish teammate. ... He really took on the role of basketball ambassador."
McIntyre caught one glimpse of Jordan's insatiable competitiveness.
"I'd been through two NBA Finals with Michael and I knew him pretty well, and we were talking in the hotel one night and he told me he was to going to blend in and be a teammate and not try to dominate. So I traded him from my fantasy team -- I got [Brazilian gunner] Oscar Schmidt and a couple of other guys who figured to score a lot of points.
"Next time I saw Michael I told him that -- I traded him from my fantasy team. He got this look -- 'You what?' That night he went out and dropped 26 on Angola or somebody in about 20 minutes. I said, 'I thought you weren't going to dominate.' He said, 'Don't believe everything I tell you.' "
Bob Ryan covered every stop of the Dream Team Tour for the Boston Globe.
"I wouldn't say Michael was dominant," he said, "but every so often he'd turn it on just to remind people he was Michael Jordan."
And those people ate it up.
"We could have used a bigger venue," Stankovic said. "[Palau de Badalona] held about 15,000, as I recall. We needed that many seats for the VIP section. Everyone wanted to see Michael."
Everyone from the U.S. side who witnessed the Dream Team's reception offered a similar analogy: It was like touring with rock stars.
"I never traveled with the Beatles, obviously, but I have to believe this is what that was like," Granik said.
Stern went him one better: "Like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones."
As did McIntyre: "Like the Beatles and Elvis."
Seventeen years later, there's little evidence of Jordan or his fellow Dream Teamers in Barcelona outside the Olympic Museum on Montjuic, the hilly parkland overlooking the city where most of the venues were located and remain in use today. In a trendy Nike store along La Rambla, the quirky, bustling commercial strip that links Barcelona's waterfront with its stylish shopping districts, one deep-corner display of Jordan-brand apparel is the only basketball offering.
And yet ...
The Barcelona Olympics began in spectacular fashion, with Spanish archer Antonio Rebollo igniting the caldron by shooting a flaming arrow over it from the stadium floor hundreds of yards away.
It featured the return of South Africa and Cuba and a unified German team. It ended with one of the great track meets in history. But it's remembered best for basketball.
"In the past the Olympics were known for track and field, swimming, gymnastics and even boxing," Stern said. "Since '92, basketball has probably been the toughest ticket."
"I was very gratified with how it worked out -- it was truly great for basketball," Stankovic said. "They were not just great players but true sportsmen who promoted great fellowship among all the teams. I got to know Michael and I like him very, very much.
"It was a thrill to watch him play."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun