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New Orleans planning NBA's 2008 All-Star Game

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.