Tuesday marks the start of the fifth NBA season since the Sonics left for Oklahoma City and optimism for the NBA's return to Seattle has never been higher.

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Even now — 16 years after scoring his last basket — Earvin “Magic” Johnson captivates an audience.

He did again two weeks ago.

Before speaking to donors and kids at the A Plus Youth Program gala in Seattle, the NBA Hall of Famer flashed his megawatt smile and campaigned for a return to the good, old days when his Lakers battled the Sonics.

“I have a fond place in my heart for Seattle, so I hope that an NBA team comes back to this great city, this great sports city,” Johnson said to a swank gathering in Sodo.

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He had everyone within earshot eating it up.

Chris Hansen, the Seattle native who plans to build a downtown arena for NBA and NHL teams, smiled sheepishly while Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s bombastic laughter echoed throughout the room.

This is what they came to hear, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport enthusiastically endorsing Seattle’s bid to return to the NBA.

“It would be outstanding,” Johnson said. “Steve has been working on this for a lot of years. He’s been sitting in the back working on this. He’s such a hoops fan. He loves this city.

“He wanted to make sure that the city of Seattle got a chance to have another team. I think it’s going to be great building a new arena. The city deserves that. The fans here deserve that. I think no question once all the pieces are put together, Mr. Hansen and Mr. Ballmer will come together and a team will end up here and it will be great, just like it was.”

Johnson, an NBA analyst and part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, has no official sway with NBA owners who would have the final say on a team returning to Seattle.

Still, an assist from Magic goes a long way.

“It certainly can’t hurt,” Hansen said. “Magic is Magic. He’s beloved, and his words carry a lot of weight. The more people we have on our side the better.”

Tuesday marks the start of the fifth NBA season since the Sonics left for Oklahoma City and optimism for the league’s return to Seattle has never been higher.

Despite a lawsuit from longshore workers and opposition from the Mariners, Hansen’s plan to build a $490 million downtown arena has received widespread support.

He’s gotten approval from Mayor Mike McGinn, and the city and county councils. He’s recruited local business leaders Ballmer and Peter and Erik Nordstrom to join his investment team.

Hansen has received endorsements from sports celebrities, including Johnson, and it seems as if the biggest Sonics opponent is now changing sides.

NBA commissioner David Stern, who backed Thunder owner Clay Bennett during an ugly divorce with Seattle, appears to be an advocate for a team returning, judging by pro-Sonics comments he made this summer during a goodwill trip overseas.

Hansen said his relationship with the league office has deepened the past year, since his plans to return a team to Seattle became public.

He is cautiously optimistic about the league’s support.

“People may have misconstrued David’s comments a little bit because they’re looking at them through a very hopeful lens,” Hansen said. “The great part of that comment is David is really supportive in getting basketball back to Seattle.

“People might be reading a little too much into it beyond that. But I think it’s very clear from David’s comments and a lot of the other owners when they’re asked about Seattle, they would like to see basketball back here.”

Last week Stern, 70, announced plans to retire in February 2014, which created several theories on how he’ll spend his final months in office.

Citing unnamed league sources, Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo! Sports painted a scenario in which Stern will work a backdoor deal to force the Maloof family to sell the Sacramento Kings to Hansen.

“Between now and his departure, Stern is determined to get a franchise back into Seattle,” Wojnarowski wrote. “Stern desperately wants to return the NBA to one of its great markets and wants it for his own measure of vindication before he leaves office.”

Other relocation candidates include Charlotte and Atlanta, because those franchises have also struggled with attendance and unstable ownership for several years.

Another option for Hansen: expansion.

A few years ago it was more likely the 30-team league would contract than expand.

But the NBA’s new collective-bargaining agreement signed last year makes it easier for small-market teams to be financially viable. At the NBA owners meeting last week, Stern projected only a handful of teams will lose money this season — down from nearly half the league the season before the new CBA.

“The league will take a wait-and-see approach,” Hansen said. “If all of the small-market problems are fixed, teams are profitable and everyone is happy, then three to five years, might they consider (expansion) and change their opinion? Yeah.

“But the expectation that it would happen in the next few years is misplaced. It’s one of those things like taxes. Any president is going to say, ‘I’m not going to raise taxes,’ until he does. They’re going to say no new franchises until they change their minds.”

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com.

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