ORLANDO, Fla. -- Almost five years ago, when the NBA first awarded Orlando an expansion franchise to be called the Magic, Earvin Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers smiled that unforgettable, effervescent smile at the very thought.
"That's nice, that they would name a team after me," he said, only half-joking. "Who knows, maybe I could own the team someday. Maybe I could finish my playing career in Orlando. Now, wouldn't that be something?"
Never in his wildest dreams -- or nightmares -- did he expect it to happen like this. But it has.
Earvin Johnson, known around the world as Magic, likely will close his NBA career in Orlando during All-Star Weekend, using Sunday's game to say thanks for all the wonderful memories.
Arguably the greatest basketball player ever -- certainly the most charismatic -- Johnson retired prematurely Nov. 7 upon announcing he had contracted the AIDS virus, a stunning announcement that crossed well beyond the world of sports.
"This will be like my farewell party," Johnson said yesterday after practicing solo at Orlando Arena. "I'm excited, but it goes well beyond that. I don't even know what words to use to describe how I'll feel. This will be my way of saying hello again, and thanks."
He still plans to play in his annual charity event in Los Angeles this fall. He still hopes to be part of the U.S. Olympic team this summer if his health holds up, but the AIDS virus might not be so understanding.
Although he is in good physical condition today, he retired at age 32 on the advice of his doctors. They believed the rigors of a long NBA season would hasten the onset of the disease.
"Who knows what the future holds for him as far as his basketball career," said Golden State forward Chris Mullin, a Western Conference All-Star teammate. "That's why this weekend will be so special, just the chance to be around him again. When you think of Magic Johnson, you think of smiles. You think of happiness. That's what he's all about. He's such a special person."
Much like he did throughout his 12-year NBA career, when he helped change the look of the sport, Johnson will be breaking new ground Sunday.
Never before has anyone played in an All-Star Game without playing in the regular season. But never before has there been anyone like Magic Johnson.
"He deserves to play, and he deserves to start," said West guard Tim Hardaway, who would have been a starter otherwise. "After everything he has done for the game, for the league, he deserves a real nice farewell. This is a chance for the NBA to tell him thanks. For everyone to tell him thanks."
Johnson's appeal goes well beyond the five NBA titles he helped bring to the Lakers, beyond all the Most Valuable Player awards -- from the season, the Finals and past All-Star games.
Through the '80s, he made Lakers basketball a special show. He brought the Hollywood stars into the NBA. He made it cool to be seen at the games.
His rivalry with Boston's Larry Bird is legendary. The two played the game through the '80s at an unprecedented level.
They came into the league together in 1979, fresh from one of the most riveting NCAA Final Four championship games in history. At the time, the NBA was a league filled with serious problems and waning interest. It was desperate for a marketable superstar.
It got two, and together they led it to its greatest heights. Bird will not play this weekend because of a back injury. His basketball future, too, is in doubt.
"A lot of people playing today forget what Magic and Bird did for this league," said Cleveland center Brad Daugherty, who will play for the East team. "They resurrected professional basketball. It was dying. Today's players owe them a lot."
Never before had anyone so big -- 6 feet 9, 220 pounds -- played at point guard, dribbling and passing as deftly as anyone who ever played. With Magic's size, he manhandled smaller guards, toying with them.
Yet despite his greatness as a player, he never had the acrobatic leaping ability of Michael Jordan or Dominique Wilkins. Nor was his jump shot anything close to classic. What he had was incredible vision and smarts, size and agility, an unselfishness that made everyone around him better. He made assists a thing of beauty.
And he had the bubbling personality to make it all work. With a ball in his hand and a team at his side, he played a man's game with the joy of a child, and he projected that happiness to anyone who cared to accept it. It was like Magic.
"He's one of a select few in sports history who is bigger than his sport, like Babe Ruth, Pele, Muhammad Ali," said Golden State's Don Nelson, who will coach the West team. "For me to have the opportunity to coach him is a dream come true. I hope some of his charisma rubs off this weekend."
ZTC Johnson has been running four miles daily, playing full court five-on-five basketball for a month. He said conditioning won't be a problem.
"I won't be nervous. I'll be in my element," he said. "The crowd and the hoopla will be great. And I won't ever forget how to play basketball. I'll be playing for a long time. Believe me, I'll be ready."
Nelson, who spoke with Johnson a week ago, said he plans to use him like any other player.
"He told me he'll be ready to play as much as I need him to play, anywhere from one to 48 minutes, whatever we need," Nelson said.
Much like he did for basketball in the '80s, Johnson has done much the same for AIDS awareness in the '90s. Until his retirement announcement, AIDS seemed removed from many people's everyday life.
Johnson has been visible since his announcement, attending Lakers games at The Forum in Los Angeles. He has gone to Washington to meet President Bush, joined the National Commission on AIDS and spoken endlessly on talk shows about AIDS awareness.
This weekend, he will make one final stand. It's a weekend of parties, glitter and fun, away from the regular-season stress. It would seem like a perfect ending to Johnson's career.
"Anything dealing with basketball is tailor-made for him," Mullin said. "But this weekend is ideal. He's what the All-Star Game is about."
Johnson already holds All-Star Game records for most assists in a game (22), most three-point field goals made (seven) and attempted (18).
He also holds the all-time NBA All-Star Game career record for assists with 118. It's appropriate, because no NBA All-Star ever has given the game more, helped others to score, raised the stature of those around him.
"He deserves the spotlight," Hardaway said. "It may be unprecedented this season, but if the fans vote him into the starting lineup again next year, I'd let him play again."