Johnson was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last night, reunited with his former rival in a ceremony that evoked tears for the late Drazen Petrovic and laughs for the antics of the Harlem Globetrotters before the star of showtime stole the show.
"You allowed me for 12 or 13 years to be a little boy, to play the game I love, to try to be the best player I could be, to try to win games, and to also turn the fans on," Johnson told commissioner David Stern between standing ovations. "Hopefully, they had as good a time as I had."
Before last night's program, Johnson, an 11-year HIV survivor whose pro career was cut short after his diagnosis with the AIDS virus, said that "I'm happiest about actually being here myself to accept this honor. I'm thankful that I'm living.
"I'm doing very well. ... It's still laying asleep in my body. So the medicine is doing its job. I'm doing my job. And God is doing his."
The Hall christens a new $36 million home this weekend, starting with the enshrinement of the Class of 2002: Johnson, Petrovic, the Globetrotters, Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown, North Carolina State women's coach Kay Yow, and Arizona coach Lute Olson.
Jim O'Connell, college basketball writer for the Associated Press, and CBS announcer Jim Nantz will be honored with the Hall's Curt Gowdy Award, presented to members of the print and electronic media for contributions to the sport.
Harvey Pollack, a longtime Philadelphia public-relations man who first counted rebounds, steals and blocked shots, was also cited.
Inductees had to pick a current Hall of Famer to present him, and Johnson chose Bird - a nod to recognize the impact each had on the other's career.
They have become friends since playing days, when they competed for the 1979 NCAA title and three 1980s NBA titles.
Several inductees singled out the Globetrotters for teaching them the love of the game. With past stars Curly Neal and Meadowlark Lemon on stage, six current Globetrotters performed their famous dribbing and passing tricks.