ORLANDO, Fla. -- Together they came into the NBA from the Midwest 13 years ago, directly from one spotlight, the NCAA championship game, into another.
Within two years, each played on an NBA championship team. Through the 1980s, they alternated titles and Most Valuable Player awards.
Their battles and eventual competitive friendship became the prism through which most people saw the NBA. They were hailed as the saviors of a foundering league.
But as the curtain is raised on today's 42nd NBA All-Star Game at the Orlando Arena, the specters of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird hover over the event. Bird's career isn't over, and maybe Johnson's isn't, either. Yet the question is here: What becomes of the league they will leave behind?
Although nearly all the participants in today's game express confidence that the league will continue to thrive in the absence of two of the sport's greatest players, the fact is that no one really knows what form the post Magic-Bird NBA will take.
"Magic and Larry have been so great for this league," said San Antonio Spurs center David Robinson, who will start for the Western Conference team. "They are going to leave awfully big shoes to fill."
Bird was elected to the Eastern Conference starting lineup from the Boston Celtics, but dropped out because of injury. Johnson was voted in as a West starter despite his retirement from the Los Angeles Lakers in November after testing HIV-positive. Both face uncertain basketball futures.
They were NBA rookies together in 1979, the fall after Johnson led Michigan State to victory over Bird's Indiana State team in the NCAA championship. Bird, 35, has missed significant playing time in each of the past three seasons with an assortment of injuries to his back and his heels.
Celtics president Red Auerbach told reporters here Friday that he wouldn't be surprised if Bird and forward Kevin McHale, mainstays of three Boston title teams, retired after next season.
The future is even less clear for Johnson, 32. He said yesterday that he probably will not return to the Lakers this season, but he left open the possibility of playing next season -- either with the Lakers or in Europe, where the season is shorter.
Johnson also said he's confident the NBA will make a smooth transition after he and Bird leave.
"You've got a lot of guys like Michael [Jordan], David Robinson, Isiah [Thomas], a lot of guys," Johnson said. "Any one of them who decides to take the time will be more than qualified."
Jordan, who has inherited the mantle as the league's best player, agreed.
"You can look at some of the young guys and see that they're ready," Jordan said. "Once they get a taste of recognition, they'll carry it."
NBA commissioner David Stern said: "There are an extraordinary number of new names in the game. No one's going to replace Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. But we're going to have a successful league and continue to grow even when they're not playing."
Still, Johnson's presence has become the overwhelming story of these proceedings, leading some players to grumble privately that Stern's decision to allow the 6-foot-9 guard to play has overshadowed other deserving players.
Philadelphia 76ers forward Charles Barkley had mildly criticized Johnson and the NBA earlier in the week. But yesterday he
changed his stance, saying, "I think it [the game] will be special regardless because there are a lot of great players. He just adds to it."
James Worthy, Johnson's teammate for nine years, said: "The guy got voted in, the doctors said it's OK and I support it."
Washington guard Michael Adams, who is making his first All-Star Game appearance, said: "Magic Johnson always commands attention. If he was playing, he would command attention. This could be his farewell tour. Once the game is played, the focus will be on all the guys running up and down the floor."
Like Adams, Boston's Reggie Lewis is playing in his first All-Star Game. The five-year Celtics veteran out of Baltimore's Dunbar High said: "It's still very special. I don't think by Magic playing it's any less special for me or any of the other guys."