All-Star Game yet another stage of NBA’s ongoing role in New Orleans recovery

“It is wonderful to see,” said NBA veteran player and coach Avery Johnson, a New Orleans native who also served as one of the hosts for the All-Star game. “This city is made for hosting events like this. And the NBA, it could have given up on New Orleans a long time ago, but that was never part of their outlook. They have always had a helping hand for the city, and now the city is repaying them.”

In the wake of the storm, the Hornets were displaced for two years, in Oklahoma City, and there was talk that owner George Shinn would move the team elsewhere. Commissioner David Stern, though, was adamant about the NBA returning to New Orleans, and as part of the deal to get the team back to the city, the league awarded the ’08 All-Star game.

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“When the event was awarded to New Orleans, the team was still displaced, it was located in Oklahoma City,” said Jay Cicero, head of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, which bids for major events for the city. “At the time, there were still a lot of question marks about New Orleans and whether the city was ready to host something like this.

“We wanted to seize that opportunity to show we could still do it and do it better than others. The NBA wanted to come here because they wanted to help the city of New Orleans. We saw it as an opportunity to show we could do it, we knew we could. And we did.”

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Buoyed by that success, Cicero’s group submitted a bid for the 2014 All-Star game to the league in the winter of 2010, and at first blush, the city was confident the deal would go through. But there was a twist—a month after the bid, after negotiations between Shinn and a local shipping magnate broke down, the NBA stepped in and bought the Hornets.

“We said, ‘Well now what?’” Cicero said. “And they told us we would be in limbo until there is a buyer. We did not know what was going to happen. They said if the buyer was local, there was a good chance we would get the game. But if the team were to end up moving, there would be no promises.”

Once again, the fate of a New Orleans All-Star game was part of a negotiation—when Saints owner Tom Benson stepped in to purchase the team in 2011, having the All-Star game in the city in 2014 was part of the deal.

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And it has turned out to be a good deal for all parties. While New Orleans is still suffering the aftershocks of Katrina in many respects—the city’s population is down about a quarter from its pre-Katrina level, for example, and the poverty rate (19 percent) remains stubbornly high—the city is mostly back on its feet. After the success of the ’08 All-Star game, it hosted the 2012 NCAA Final Four, as well as last year’s Super Bowl, and Cicero said his group has binding bids for the 2018 Super Bowl and one of the Final Fours between 2017-20, which will be determined in November.

While there is an unquestionable economic impact sporting events like these have—a study by Cicero’s group estimated that $85-90 million would be brought into the city by the All-Star game—the exposure that games like this bring to New Orleans is even more valuable.

“The financial benefit is a wonderful thing for the city, but outside of that, there is the exposure from the media,” Cicero said. “There are 215 countries showing the All-Star game, and that is incredibly important to us. Believe it or not, there are still some people around the world who think we are still underwater and living on the edge of falling into the ocean. We’re not. We’re back.”

Thanks, in part, to a hand from the NBA.