Basketball: Barcelona awaits the Magic show

IF REPUTATIONS are any guide, the first gold medal of the Barcelona Olympics has already been decided. The United States basketball team - Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and others - should win at a canter.

After all, they are among the highest paid sportsmen in the world and play day-in day-out in a notoriously tough professional league at the highest standard in the world. And the way they whizzed through the qualifying tournament in Portland, Oregon this week, beating Canada, Cuba, Panama and Argentina by an average of a clear 56 points, shows they are fully capable of living up to their billing as the biggest certainties - not to mention biggest stars - at Barcelona.

Their last game in the qualifying tournament, against Argentina, was an omen of what the rest can expect at the Games. Jordan, the greatest current player in the sport, scored 24 points as the Americans bewildered their outclassed opponents with speed of thought and hand. They whipped up a 38-11 lead in no time, and were never less than 30 points in front throughout the second half, winning 128-87.

The Argentines bowed to the inevitable early on, and spent the half-time interval badgering the Americans for autographs.

As well as Jordan, the United States have Johnson, who made worldwide headlines when he admitted he was HIV-positive last year. Johnson immediately retired from the game he had dominated by leading the LA Lakers to five NBA titles, but is in the Olympic squad. 'You dream of a chance to represent your country in the Olympics because it's the greatest show in the world,' he said.

Certainly the team is in the mood to make it so, according to Chuck Barkley, who hit 23 points against Argentina. 'This is fun for us,' he said. 'We play golf in the morning, shoot a few baskets in the evening and then play cards at the hotel. It's like a vacation.'

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