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Based on what has happened to his league since the 1995 All-Star Game in Phoenix, one would think NBA commissioner David Stern has been sleeping on a bed of four-leaf clovers during the past calendar year.

Stern's good-luck cup runneth over, thanks to the respective comebacks of Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson.Last year on All-Star weekend, an uncomfortable Stern was grilled about the league's tarnished image. He fielded questions pertaining to Derrick Coleman's petulant attitude and Vernon Maxwell's suspension for going into the stands and punching a Portland fan.

Inquiring minds put the Commissioner on the hot seat with a hot topic: Was the so-called Generation X brat pack pulling down the league?

Stern pasted on his best smile and gave a series of public-relations responses. It was obvious he didn't relish that assignment. Deep down, it had to be agony in Arizona for the commissioner.

But with Jordan and Johnson back, this year's All-Star session with the media turned out to be a lot of fun for Stern. The perception is that the tarnished image is out and the golden image is back in. Michael and Magic equal sunshine and lollipops.

"The comebacks of Michael and Magic are two great human-interest stories," said Stern, who attended Sunday's All-Star Game in San Antonio.

Those stories certainly represent a reprieve for the NBA. Yes, the legends are back to help insure that the league's "I Love This Game" slogan doesn't slowly disintegrate into "I Loathe This Game."

But Johnson and Jordan can't go on forever. There will be permanent goodbyes at some point and the question will then be whether the next generation is mentally and physically ready to accept the torch and keep the NBA in a boom mode.

Utah forward Karl Malone has his doubts about whether the next generation can handle that assignment.

"I just don't think the young players today, on the whole, have the love of the game that we have had," Malone said. "I'm not speaking about specific individuals because some guys break the mold.

"It's just a feeling I have. You can't fake a love for the game. I see young guys sitting out with little injuries. ... That tells you something. This is a game you play through injuries, adversities. If you have that passion to give it your all every night, you'll do fine.

"But if it doesn't really mean a lot to you, I think it's possible that torch could be dropped and the league could suffer."

Malone isn't the only veteran who has questioned whether the younger NBA generation will be able to expand the popularity of the league.

"I was really happy to see Michael come back last year, because a leadership was needed," Johnson said. "Guys like myself, Michael and Larry Bird worked real hard on and off the court to help the league become a billion-dollar industry.

"That's why players started getting really big money. When some of the younger guys came along and benefited from what we established, they seemed to think they were earning that money all by themselves.

"They have to keep the industry going well so that the big money is there for the people who succeed them. That line of thinking seemed to get lost for awhile, but I think Michael's return helped show the way again to the young guys."

Whereas Johnson, Jordan and Bird set the feel-good tone in the 1980s, it will be up to players such as Anfernee Hardaway, Grant Hill, Shaquille O'Neal, Chris Webber and Jason Kidd to keep it going in the late 1990s.

Hardaway might have the best chance of captivating the masses in the manner of a Jordan or Johnson. The Orlando guard is immensely talented, quietly charismatic and dedicated to being an ambassador for his sport.

"I do feel the responsibility of helping my group carry on what the Michael-Magic-Larry Bird group established in this league," Hardaway said.

"All the good fortune we've had - the ability to make so much money at such a young age - is tied to the popularity that has been established in the NBA.

"We are obligated to give everything we have on the court and to spread goodwill and maintain a positive image off the court. If the young generation accepts those obligations, I'm sure the league will continue to thrive for a long time."

In the meantime, there's Jordan and Johnson to keep the league's image properly polished.