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New Orleans offers NBA a new beginning

WashPost: Everywhere one could look this weekend, the league was beginning a metamorphosis it had needed for a good, long while. New Orleans was a start, a genuine new beginning for a league and its once-maligned players.
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LeBron James scrapes paint from a window in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans on Friday. NBA players in town for the All-Star game took a day to work on community service projects to help with the recovery from Hurricane Katrina.Bill Haber / AP
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Chris Tucker's high-pitched humor closed the annual NBA Legends brunch Sunday morning, the comedic actor drawing a sharp contrast between last year's All-Star Weekend in Sin City and the toned-down tenor here the past few days.

"Vegas was crazy, man," Tucker said as thousands in a ballroom at the New Orleans Convention Center doubled over in laughter. "I was scared, man. I looked out my hotel room, I told my son, 'Close the curtains. Get on the floor.' "

Even David Stern cracked up, because he knew: Tucker spoke for himself as much as a league in real need of self-esteem for the past 12 months.

The Big Easy became the antidote to the bacchanalia on HGH and overall bad vibe felt in Las Vegas. The mean-mugging crowds, Adam "Pacman" Jones charged in a strip-club melee, all the criminal accoutrements -- some of which had nothing to do with the NBA -- were gone.

In its place emerged a civil, authentic gathering of the world's best athletes, their worshipping public and enough crawfish pie to feed everyone. Instead of the gaudiness and glitz in Nevada, the 57th All-Star Game was played amid the backdrop of genuine charitable efforts to continue the restoration of Katrina-battered Louisiana.

The selflessness of Hornets point guard Chris Paul, the weekend's unofficial host, and his all-star peers razing homes in the Lower Ninth Ward on Friday was not merely the NBA showing it cares. Let's be clear: There is self-interest in most charitable efforts, and this one served the NBA's image well.

But if the league used a still-hurting New Orleans to portray itself as a roll-up-the-sleeves-and-haul-lumber entity -- as opposed to the Vegas prima donna label the NBA was saddled with -- this part of the bayou used the NBA for good, too. Beyond the projected $90 million economic impact, the awestruck looks on many of America's richest athletes reminded others there are still people in this country who don't have potable water and could use a canned good so they can eat tonight.

"It's so heartwarming what the league has done," began Louisiana native Karl Malone, "but it's also kind of bittersweet.

"The day of service was one day. There is still so much more to do. With all the money Louisiana has made with major events the last few years -- over a billion dollars -- at what point can we keep some of that money here? That's my crusade now. This is America. We spend trillions of dollars elsewhere, but we can't fix something like this in our own borders?"

New Orleans also showcased more than a cause. The game got a jolt of needed personality infusion. Shaquille O'Neal was here to live up to his corporate obligations, but it was the first year since his 1992 rookie season that Shaq was neither named nor voted on to an all-star team.

As the almost-36-year-old Diesel putt-putted around on fossil fuel -- as the self-proclaimed Daddy was clearly closer to being revered as The Granddaddy -- never has the NBA needed a behemoth goofball to step in and become Stern's next comical ambassador in the pivot.

Enter Dwight Howard, who stripped off his jersey during the dunk contest on Saturday night to reveal a Superman suit. Jameer Nelson fastened his cape and away Howard went, flying through the air with the basketball in his hands. Howard had always had the physical tools and the desire to be considered among the game's elite. But a playful side to the Orlando Magic center came through to the public this weekend, enough to offset the aging O'Neal.

Howard winning the dunk contest in such theatrical fashion -- and Gerald Green blowing out a candle on a cupcake strategically placed on the back of the rim -- brought new life and verve to an All-Star Saturday that seemed to be running on fumes the past few years.

The days of Spud Webb winning the event at 5 feet 7, Dee Brown's blind dunk, or Brent Barry invalidating the tired "White Men Can't Jump" claim appeared to prove the contest's best days were behind it.

But New Orleans Arena gasped and roared like the old days on Saturday night, and Howard's Clark Kent impression basically became a metaphor for the soaring nature of the weekend.

Remember, Stern's league was facing a crisis of confidence just last summer, when it was learned that referee Tim Donaghy passed information to gamblers -- a moment that called every controversial call in the NBA into question.

The fear was that other officials were involved, that every conspiracy theorist who ever accused the league of being in on a fix would suddenly have their paranoia validated in what could have been one of sports' biggest betting scandals.

Instead, less than a year later, the lone gunman theory looks more and more like reality. You couldn't help but notice Bob Delaney, the longtime referee who once infiltrated the mob in his former life as a state trooper, hocking his tell-all book about his Donnie Brasco days of yore. He was saluted for his forthrightness and honesty just as Donaghy was castigated for his greed and dishonesty.

Everywhere one could look this weekend, Stern's league was beginning a metamorphosis it had needed for a good, long while. Yes, the playoffs are still up for debate. If one of the Western Conference semifinals or finals essentially ends up being the best series in the postseason, well, the idea of contraction might be up for debate one day -- instead of grandiose plans of European expansion.

But New Orleans was a start, a genuine new beginning for a league and its once-maligned players, who helped fix the Lower Ninth Ward with hammers and nails last Friday the way they very much fixed themselves.