For the first time in 20 years, the NBA’s All-Star Weekend is in Orlando. While the best players in the NBA — as well as countless celebrities — will be in the Magic Kingdom, Dwight Howard, the biggest star in the city not named Mickey Mouse, could be playing his final game representing the Magic in Orlando.

The last time the game came to the central Florida in 1992, controversy surrounded the return of one of the game’s all-time great players, Magic Johnson. Magic, who just four months earlier had announced that he was HIV positive and retired from the NBA, was voted onto that year’s Western Conference All-Star team by the fans.

His selection was met with trepidation, as there was still fear among some players about Johnson’s condition. Despite the fact that Johnson was deemed safe to play in the game, certain players, including teammates remained scared.

“Everyone was on edge for that game, given Magic’s situation after contracting the HIV,” said Brian Schmitz, a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel who covered the 1992 All-Star Game.

“Some players, like Karl Malone, didn’t want him to play, fearing they’d come down with the disease, which was folly. But there wasn’t a lot of information out there about HIV then and everyone was apprehensive. Magic told me everybody settled down once Dennis Rodman started bumping him on defense.”

Amid the fear surrounding Johnson’s HIV, the Hall of Fame point guard turned in an MVP performance. Magic finished with 25 points, nine assists, and five rebounds in the 153-113 West victory, including an iconic 3-pointer over longtime rival and former friend Isiah Thomas to cap the victory.

“I remember how warm the people in Orlando were to him and the situation,” said Brad Daugherty, who played in the 1992 game and is currently a NASCAR analyst for ESPN. “It’s almost like we didn’t have a game. It was more of a time to embrace Magic and what he was preparing to deal with. The folks in Orlando handled that with class and dignity.”

However, 20 years later, there’s a different controversy swirling around Orlando that Magic fans and certain players feel is not being handled with class. Like Carmelo Anthony last season, All-Star center Dwight Howard is in his final year of his contract with the Magic, and he has made it clear that he wants to be traded.

With Howard’s status with the team unclear, the Magic struggled for most of the first half of the season. Point guard Jameer Nelson voiced his displeasure with Howard on Jan. 20 after a 92-80 win over the Los Angeles Lakers. Howard had previously talked openly about playing with guards Deron Williams (of the New Jersey Nets) and Chris Paul (of the Los Angeles Clippers), angering Nelson.

“I’m here to play basketball and I can’t worry about what anybody says,” Nelson said. “I’m here because I’m a winner and they want me here. I know if they didn’t want me, I wouldn’t be here.”

The team has recovered recently — winning 10 of their last 13 games — and moved into third place in the Eastern Conference behind Miami and Chicago. The question has changed to whether the Magic will keep Howard and make a trade in advance of the March 15 trade deadline to make one more run at a championship.
“They are circling March 1 as the date where they want a definitive answer from Dwight,” Schmitz said. “That’s a significant date because all free agents who signed this off-season are eligible to be traded. Dwight’s teammates could go in a trade to fetch some more talent or they could go with him in a big package. The Magic might keep him all season and let him go to free agency. It’s a risk, but it might be better than taking a bad trade for a player or players you don’t want.”

Howard, who is averaging 20.4 points and a career-best 15.4 rebounds per game, was voted a starter for the Eastern Conference All-Stars (his sixth All-Star selection), along with Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and NBA MVP Derrick Rose. With the Orlando’s first game after the All-Star break being on the road against the Wizards, Sunday could potentially be Howard’s final “home” game in Orlando.

Howard is not the only big name that has been mentioned in trade talks that will be on the floor for Sunday night’s All-Star Game. Boston point guard Rajon Rondo, and Lakers center Andrew Bynum are also being bandied about as trade bait to other teams. Bynum’s name has been connected with Howard, as a potential Lakers-Magic deal could send Howard to Los Angeles.

“I still say they should get some compensation for him if he will re-sign with the team he’s dealt to —- and that’s the key,” said Schmitz, who has covered the Magic since the team entered the league in 1988. “If the Magic could get Bynum for him, I’d take it, but Dwight would have to commit to staying with the Lakers. He holds the hammer.”

During last year’s All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, Anthony was the talk of the NBA, having demanded to be traded from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks. Howard knows that he will be the focal point of questions throughout the weekend and the way he has handled it has rubbed other current and former players the wrong way.

“Keep your mouth shut and play basketball,” NBA legend Oscar Robertson said
Wednesday night on an Orlando radio show. “If he wants to be traded, he’s going to be traded. Go and talk to the owners and say, ‘I want to be traded’ and keep it a secret.”

Robertson, a Hall of Fame point guard and the only player to average a triple-double for an entire season, filed a lawsuit against the league in 1970 that eventually led to the NBA introducing free agency in 1976. He added that Howard is in a no-win situation either way.

“Every time they get beat, they’re going to blame Dwight Howard and it’s totally unfair because it’s not all his fault,” he said. “I don’t think management has done a great job in keeping certain players on the team. They had a nucleus of players that got them to the Finals (in 2009) and then, all of the sudden, it’s gone downhill.”

Fans have created a website — StayDwight.com — that is campaigning for Howard to remain in Orlando “where he belongs.” The site features “Stay Dwight” t-shirts, billboards, and a video from Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer thanking Howard for his community work and making a plea for him to stay. The site even urges visitors to donate to Howard’s D12 Foundation.

“The whole point is to show that Orlando is behind him,” said Ryan Totka, a celebrity booking agent and the site’s creator. “Bringing a new arena, bringing players around him, I think that’s where Cleveland failed (with LeBron James). There’s only so much one person can carry.”

The Magic continue to work to convince Howard to stay in Orlando, with a five-year, $110 million extension on the table. The franchise has been down this road before, losing Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers when he hit free agency in 1996. The Magic did not advance past the first round of the playoffs again until 2008.

Totka told the Sentinel that the city suffered through 10 years of bad basketball after Shaquille O’Neal left Orlando. The city suffered when the Magic, the city’s only professional sports team, fell on hard times.

Events such as All-Star weekend, the team’s new arena, and the consistent sellouts have been made possible due to Howard’s success and his departure could spell the same trouble for Orlando the way LeBron’s departure affected the Cavaliers.

“Ultimately, it’s not just the sports thing and fan thing,” Totka said. “It’s more of an economy thing. It just shows how one person can affect an entire economy.”

Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith