ORLANDO, Fla. - After 30 years in the NBA as a player and coach, Don Nelson is finally in the All-Star game. He can't think of a better time to make his debut.
Not only are two of Nelson's players in today's game, but the Golden State Warrior coach also will get a long-awaited opportunity to work with Magic Johnson, a starter for the Western Conference.
"It's a dream come true for me, personally," said Nelson, a member of five NBA championship teams and one of the most successful coaches in league history. "It's always been a dream of mine to coach the guy. It'll be a special weekend because of Magic."
Johnson, who retired from the Los Angeles Lakers in November after testing positive for the virus that causes AIDS, received more votes in fan balloting than any Western Conference guard except Clyde Drexler.
Some people have been critical of his decision to play, but not Nelson, whose Tim Hardaway has been the best point guard in the West but won't start because Johnson was voted in by the fans.
"For anyone to say Magic should not play in the All-Star game is disturbing," said Nelson, who promises that Johnson, who has said he also intends to play in the Barcelona Olympics, will not be limited to a cameo appearance.
"His playing time will be determined by how he's feeling and playing. I think he'll be in good shape," Nelson added. "He told me he'll play as much as I need him. From one to 48 minutes."
To ensure Hardaway and or some other deserving player received his due for an outstanding first half of the season, NBA commissioner David Stern created an extra roster spot on the Western Conference team.
Like Nelson, Hardaway and Warriors teammate Chris Mullin support the decision to allow Johnson to play.
"Why not? It's Magic Johnson," Hardaway said. "He deserves a great farewell. . . . I think they should let him play next year, too."
"Who knows what the future holds," said Mullin, a four-time All-Star looking forward to his first start. "Any opportunity to be around him is special. Playing with him again will be a great feeling.
Hardaway is ranked among the NBA leaders in scoring (23.1 points per game), assists (9.5) and steals (2.06) and is one of the reasons Golden State has the second-best record in the Western Conference.
Still, he isn't upset that Johnson will start ahead of him and likely be the center of attention for three days of festivities that begin today.
"He didn't get what he deserved when he retired. Maybe he'll get it this weekend," said Hardaway.