A business trip/honeymoon to Paris last week presented a few sticky moments for one Earvin (Magic) Johnson, captain of both industry and the Los Angeles Lakers. To wit:
If you are playing in something called the McDonald's Open Presented by Coca-Cola, and you are a spokesman for the competing products of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pepsi-Cola, should you play well enough to win the Most Valuable Player award? Moreover, if the Quarter Pounders and pommel frites in McDonald's containers that are being shoved in your face at every turn look infinitely more appetizing than that box lunch of croissants and fromage, can you be seen ingesting them in public? And what do you do when a couple of dozen screaming photographers want to pose you with the Parisian Ronald McDonald, and the Colonel isn't around to demand equal time?
Typically, Magic handled the difficult situations as smoothly as possible and even found time for some romantic late-night walks with Cookie Kelly, to whom he was married on Sept. 14. He indeed won the MVP award, but he was careful to eat his burgers away from prying eyes and camera lenses, and he avoided Monsieur Ronald as assiduously as he would have avoided the Eiffel Tower in an electrical storm. Nevertheless, the trip came close to being a disaster for the Lakers when they squandered a 19-point lead in last Saturday night's final at the Palais Omnisports de Bercy before holding off Spanish League champion Montigalà Joventut Badalona 116-114. In the end, almost everyone went home happy from the fifth annual McDonald's Open, especially Magic, who paved the way for more product endorsements on foreign soil, and the NBA, which planted a commercial flag deep in the belly of France, a country that heretofore had not been nearly as gaga over the NBA as had two of its neighbors, Spain and Italy.
Far less materialistic thoughts were on the minds of the members of the Yugoslavian entry, Slobodan Dalmacija Split, probably the best-known basketball team in Europe. Split lost to Badalona 117 86 in last Friday nights opener, and to the French representative, Limoges CSP, 105-91 in Saturday's consolation game.
October 28, 1991
Those results counted for little given the events that preceded Split's arrival in Paris. Already reeling from the loss over the summer of its star, swingman Toni Kukoc, to Italian League riches, Split was further weakened two weeks before the McDonald's tournament when live players (including national team members Zoran Savic and Zoran Stretenovic) and coach Ranko Zeravica left the team as a result of the Yugoslavian civil war between Croatia and the Serbian-led federal government. Savic, Stretenovic and Zeravica are Serbs who fell unsafe living in the Croatian city of Split. As lighting in the seven-month war intensified, the remaining members of the Split team slipped out of the country on Oct. 3, protected by peacekeeping forces from the European Community. They look a boat to Venice and arrived in Paris by air two days before the tournament opened, tired, depressed and pondering an uncertain future. The war had played havoc with their practice sessions, not to men-lion their concentration. Though Split, a port town on the Adriatic Sea, is about 100 miles from the lighting, nightly blackouts were enforced there due to the fear of bombings. "We really wanted to reach the inaccessible dream, to take something from the NBA legend, the Lakers," said Josip Bilic, Split's general manager. "Now it is very difficult even to think about that."
Of course, L.A.'s problems couldn't compare with those of the Yugoslavs, but the Lakers did have some, For one, they had been back in uniform only for some two weeks. NBA teams invited to the McDonald's Open invariably say all the right things—"It's a great honor to represent our country," etc.—but the tournament is an intrusion on preseason preparation, as well as a no-win situation. Win big, as the Lakers did on Friday night against Limoges (132-101), and it's business as usual. Win small, as they did on Saturday night, and it's international news.
Then, too, the NBA players at this tournament are constantly being pushed and pulled in different directions. They are both the honored guests and the entertainment, kings and jugglers at the same banquet, and they don't have enough time to be either. Should they attend this function or that and press some flesh, or should they go back to the hotel and rest? Should they sample the local fare, or depend on tried-and-true last food? In most cases the answers were rest and go with the tried-and-true. However, Laker reserve frontcourtman Jack Haley did find lime to visit the gravesite of rock legend Jim Morrison at Père-Lachaise Cemetery, where he left a fifth of Jack Daniel's as an offering.
Magic's encounters with McDonald's provided the most humorous subpolt of the week. After the Lakers' first practice session, on Oct. 14, the L.A. players decided to eschew the box lunches that had been provided for them and bus immediately to...McDonald's. Later that evening, as Magic and Cookie walked along the Champs-Elysèes, he was recognized—and mobbed—in front of...McDonald's. Alter practice the next day, food was brought in from...McDonalds. The press was still around, so Magic took his portion and retired to the locker room to eat. Last Thursday, as the Los Angeles learn bus pulled out to take the players to lunch, there was some discussion about going to Burger King, but ultimately the Lakers decided on...McDonald's. By that time, L.A. trainer Gary Vitti was beside himself with cholesterol concern. "I spend my life trying to prevent them from going to McDonald's," said Vitti. But a one-man diet police force can only do so much.
On Thursday afternoon the Lakers made their only scheduled sponsor-promoted stop, a visit to Maison Ronald McDonald, which is near a cancer center in suburban Paris. Before the Lakers arrived, several NBA types sauntered up to the local Ronald McDonald and warned him not to linger around Magic. "I understand," said Ronald. The players toured the facility and talked to the kids and their families for about 30 minutes, after which they posed for a photo. Ronald was smack in the middle of the group, and Magic, his customary wide smile now here to be seen, positioned himself on the extreme end.
"MA-jeek! MA-jeek!" the photographers hollered at him. "Pliz! Move to center!" Magic held his spot.
As the Lakers started to leave, Magic was called off the bus to make a ceremonial first layup on a new outdoor basketball court. He dribbled up the driveway, made the shot to the cheers of hundreds of kids, dribbled back toward the bus and, seeing no one else open, tossed the ball to—who else?—Ronald McDonald.
Indeed, the commercial bent of the tournament was at times overwhelming, but that's life in the NBA of the 1990s. And Magic, who spent as much time talking about his business ventures as he did about basketball, is a big part of it. To one postpractice interview session he brought a few samples from the clothing line he markets under the trade name Magic Johnson T's. Now for a few snippets of his business philosophy: "Kids are always going to buy T-shirts as long as the shirts are different"; "Everything black and white is hot right now"; "T-shirts from the old Negro Leagues are going good"; and, "The White Sox went from nowhere to Number One in T-shirt sales, while the Bears have taken a nosedive." And here's Magic on the Olympics in which he will play next summer: "They're going to put a whole new light on things in the business world for NBA stars. Michael [Jordan] and myself are really going to be able to cash in on it."
The NBA chose Paris as this year's McDonald's venue because the city, and, by extension, all of France, is a relatively untapped commercial territory for the league. It's a French axiom that Paris rarely has great sports teams because the city presents too many diversions. Indeed, the arena was not sold out for the first night of action, and, though all 14,900 tickets were sold for Saturday's final, there weren't bodies in all of the seats. In the local newspapers the tournament was of secondary importance to the Rugby World Cup, which was being played six miles away at Parc des Princes. But such matters were of little concern to NBA commissioner David Stern, who came away elated after weighing such off-the-court factors as: the success of the NBA trade show held in Paris on Friday afternoon (600 retailers from all over Europe were present); the tournament's paving the way to move taped NBA game broadcasts from France's pay TV channel, Canal Plus, to larger over-the-air networks; and the interest shown by basketball federations from all over the globe in hosting the 1993 McDonald's Open. (There will be no open in '92 because of the Olympics.) Those countries included Australia, Canada, Israel, the Soviet Union and Sweden. "All we know now is that the tournament probably won't be held in Spain, Italy or France," said Stern. Translation: The NBA doesn't need to prove itself in those countries.
It's not surprising that the quiet suffering of the Yugoslavs was all but lost in the marketplace atmosphere. One Laker felt it strongly, though-center Vlade Divac, a Serbian expatriate. Divac played on the Yugoslav national team that won the European championship four months ago in Rome, where he roomed with guard Velimir Perasovic, who came to Paris last week as Split's captain. Perasovic, a Croat, said last week that he felt no hostility toward the Serbian people and that "Divac is a friend." Yet between practice sessions at Bercy, Perasovic walked right past Divac without acknowledging him. Divac was bothered by the brush-off and said that Perasovic had refused to sing the Yugoslav anthem in Rome. "I tell him, 'Why do you come to play for national team if you won't even sing?' "Divac shook his head and said, "I have spent more time with them than with my own brother. Now they won't talk to me because I am Serbian."
Though Split did not play well in either game, it supplied the most dramatic moments of the tournament when, after the final buzzer in each game, the players went immediately to the bench and pulled out a banner that read STOP THE WAR IN CROTIA. They walked to the middle of the court and displayed it to both sides of the arena, as the crowd cheered.
"In a difficult situation like this the outcome of the games is not crucial," said Split coach Ninad Amanovic. "We knew we wouldn't be glorious. We just wanted to be here."
The Lakers? Well, they were glorious in Friday night's win; something much less than that-tired? overconfident?- against the Spanish team on Saturday. Had coach Mike Dunleavy known that Los Angeles's 19-point lead would shrink to just two points down the stretch, he would have played Magic more than 26 minutes. As it was, Johnson's driving layup with 1:49 left was the key basket, and, for the tournament, he dealt out 38 assists-passes dècisives to the French statisticians-in just 49 minutes of action. After L.A. routed his team on Friday night, Limoges guard Frederic Forte was flushed with excitement instead of being depressed over the loss.
"When I was young, for me the Lakers were a beautiful team and Majeek was a beautiful player," he said. "All of us were scared before the game. We thought, 'Maybe this will be ridiculous. Maybe I will have trouble even dribbling past mid-court or getting off just one single shot.' So the game wasn't nearly as bad as we thought it might be."
Forte smiled wider. "After the game, Majeek tell me to come and stand by him and shake his hand. I cannot say what that meant to me."
Far too infrequently was the McDonald's Open about moments like that.