New Orleans planning NBA's 2008 All-Star Game

Updated: February 18, 2007, 6:49 PM ET
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY -- From the blinding lights of the Las Vegas Strip, the NBA makes its next stop for the All-Star Game in another city with a long history of knowing how to party: New Orleans.

After going most of the past two seasons without pro basketball, the hurricane-damaged city finally gets its home team back next season and hosts the league's All-Stars, too.

For those questioning whether the city will be prepared for the NBA's signature event, this week might be instructive.

"If we're ready for Mardi Gras, then we're ready for the NBA All-Star Game," said Mary Beth Romig, communications director of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The game will come in the midst of a hectic two-month run for the city, with Mardi Gras squeezed among the Sugar Bowl, college football's national championship game and the NBA All-Star Game. And given the Saints' recent success, the possibility of an NFL playoff game in that span exists as well.

"New Orleans is famous for its major events, and part of that is because the city really turns on," said Bill Curl, a spokesman for New Orleans Arena operator SMG.

Officials aren't daunted by so many big tourist draws so close together. New Orleans already has taken on traditional events like Jazzfest and Mardi Gras, even if on a limited scale last year, as well as national conventions.

"We think we've already passed the test," Romig said.

According to a convention and visitors bureau report released this week, the city has 90 percent of the restaurants it had before Hurricane Katrina and 29,500 hotel rooms available, including ones at a new Harrah's and a reopened Ritz-Carlton. A new Hilton hotel is set to open soon, and the renovated downtown Hyatt could be back in business in time for All-Star weekend, moving closer to the city's full, 38,000-room capacity.

NBA commissioner David Stern said he has been paying attention to conventions held in the city, "and the reports have been very positive and upbeat." But he'd also like to see more done in areas of New Orleans where recovery hasn't been so brisk.

"We think it's time to move past having this wonderful tourist ability, a great convention center, and a covered arena, and then you take your guests on tours of areas that have been devastated and where it seems like very, very little has been done," Stern said. "We don't understand it."

Stern doesn't think it would "be that much fun to be there if progress hasn't been made, even though it won't affect our visitors."

While officials believe the infrastructure is already intact to host an All-Star caliber event, there's no hiding the fact there's rebuilding to be done -- particularly in certain, mostly residential neighborhoods that flooded worst from levee breaks during Katrina.

Planners believe the All-Stars' arrival could provide a lift in those areas, through charitable events that could be organized with the NBA, players or sponsors.

"Those events can be geared toward recovery efforts, so I think it can do nothing but help," Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation president Jay Cicero said. "Having a big event in New Orleans helps our economy, helps our citizens, helps our businesses, helps everyone."

Stern sees the Hornets' return as part of that, too. He said he has visited with potential investors and sponsors, season-ticket and suite holders.

"We'd love to be part of the rebirth and vibrancy of that community rather than something that is an exception to what's going on," Stern said.

Cicero was among about 15 officials from the arena, the sports foundation, the convention and visitors bureau and the police department that traveled to Las Vegas this week to study the event they'll be trying to replicate next year. The Hornets, who have been playing most of their home games in Oklahoma City since the hurricane, also sent a delegation.

Cicero said even "as big and as great as Las Vegas is," space availability in New Orleans will allow planners the chance to make the event bigger next year. The convention center has set aside about twice as much room as there was available for this year's NBA Jam Session fan event. Plus, the Louisiana Superdome could play an undetermined role for All-Star weekend 2008.

"As much as you can prepare, seeing it firsthand and meeting with the people that actually do the work gives you a better feel of what the NBA wants," Cicero said.

That research will be a major step toward planning for next year, allowing organizers to envision where the weekend events that surround the All-Star Game will fit best in New Orleans. NBA spokeswoman Maureen Coyle said the next step is to hold planning meetings, beginning in March.

For now, organizers haven't decided where parties and other activities will be held in New Orleans or how to stamp the city's unique flavor on the event. But visitors will surely be able to experience Crescent City cuisine, brass bands and riverboat parties even if they're not part of the official event.

"There are just things that are part of New Orleans that become part of the fun side of hosting an event like this that we don't have to invent," Curl said.


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press