ATLANTA, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- The league's biggest, brightest - and in some cases, newest - stars will cede center stage at the 52nd annual NBA All-Star Game Sunday to Michael Jordan.
Perhaps the greatest player in NBA history, Jordan announced earlier this season that this would be his final campaign. The superstar swingman of the Washington Wizards has walked away from the NBA twice before, only to return.
But Jordan turns 40 later this month, and this time, you get the feeling that he means it. With that in mind, just about everyone involved with the midseason gala has decided to make this weekend a special one for him.
Some called for Toronto Raptors forward Vince Carter to step aside and offer his starting spot to Jordan. Carter received more than 1 million votes in fan balloting despite being sidelined by a knee injury most of the season. He explained his decision to stay a starter.
"If I'm a fan voting for you, and you're starting, and all of a sudden you're not starting, how do you think I would feel? I would feel disappointed," Carter said.
"I understand the other side," he added, holding his hands as if they were a scale. "But one person - who is the greatest; don't get me wrong - or a million-plus that's gonna be disappointed when I go to the arena? ... It's the fans that make this game."
Fifteen years ago in Chicago, Jordan turned All-Star Weekend into a coming-out party, winning the Slam Dunk Contest on Saturday and scoring 40 points to claim MVP honors in the All-Star Game on Sunday.
That was the first of three All-Star MVP awards for Jordan, who also won in 1996 and 1998. Only Bob Pettit, with four, has won more.
Jordan also needs only 10 points to overtake Pettit (246 points) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (251) as the leading scorer in All-Star history. About to play his 13th All-Star Game, Jordan is one of just five players who has averaged better than 20 points in the midseason showcase.
As has been the case for several years, Jordan skipped Friday's media session. He will meet the media on Saturday after practice.
While this is Jordan's last All-Star Game, it is the first for Chinese rookie sensation Yao Ming, who leads a distinct international flavor in Sunday's contest.
The 7-5 center of the Houston Rockets was the center of attention at the Hyatt. Media members began gathering at his table an hour before his arrival. When he entered the ballroom, a throng of about 50 cameramen and reporters walked with him to his table.
Yao is one of a record six international players selected as All-Stars. He also is one of six first-time All-Stars.
With fan balloting available on the NBA's multi-lingual web site, Yao claimed the Western Conference's starting center spot from Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers. He is the first rookie to start an All-Star Game since Grant Hill in 1995.
Other internationals selected include Cleveland center Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Lithuania), San Antonio forward Tim Duncan (U.S. Virgin Islands), Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Dallas guard Steve Nash (Canada) and Sacramento forward Peja Stojakovic (Yugoslavia).
The East holds a 32-19 edge in the all-time series and had won five of six until last year, when the West posted a 135-120 victory. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, a starter on this year's West squad, won MVP honors as he scored 31 points.