All-Star Game makes its return to New Orleans on Sunday

A visibly different NBA descends upon New Orleans this weekend for the 63nd edition of the NBA All-Star Game, which will tip off Sunday evening at the Smoothie King Center, than the one that helped energize the city and illuminate the New Orleans Arena for the 57th game in 2008.

The NBA is nothing if not a league on the move, and All-Star weekend 2014 has done nothing if not highlight just how much transition can occur within a six-year NBA window, especially when the initial opening coincided with New Orleans’ recovery effort after Hurricane Katrina, with much of the city still in the infancy of rebuilding, and much of the nation clinging to the belief that New Orleans then was in ruins.

Topping the list of NBA change is days-on-the-job Commissioner Adam Silver, the league’s first new commissioner in 30 years, carrying the torch that was passed by David Stern on Feb. 1. Stern was instrumental in the Hornets’ return to New Orleans after the franchise temporarily relocated to Oklahoma City following Katrina, and in helping stabilize the team’s future.

The key figure in that solidification was current owner Tom Benson, who, after former owner George Shinn sold the franchise to the NBA in December 2010, bought it in 2012, ensured its long-term viability in New Orleans and stamped his brand on it by renaming the team, changing from the Hornets to the Pelicans. This month, the facility that was known as New Orleans Arena in ’08 was christened the Smoothie King Center under its new naming rights agreement.

And the changes only seem to begin off the court. Many have happened on the court, too. Because though All-Star weekend 2014 has several familiar faces from 2008, most are in different places and are at different career arcs.

Leading vote-getter Kevin Garnett (2,399,148) was a Boston Celtic in ‘08, and now is a Brooklyn Net who reportedly had to be talked out of retirement while agreeing to a trade from Boston to Brooklyn. When he was unable to play due to injury six years ago, he was replaced by Chris Bosh, then a Toronto Raptor, now a Miami Heat.

The MVP of the ’08 game? Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (27 points, eight rebounds, nine assists, two steals and two blocks), who since has taken his talents to Miami and has led the Heat to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, and to the NBA title the last two years.

James led the Eastern Conference to a 134-128 victory. If he hadn’t, the game MVP very well could have been Hornets guard Chris Paul, who ignited the Western Conference stars and delighted the crowd in his home arena with 16 points, 14 assists and four steals. Paul returns this season as a Los Angeles Clipper, shipped there in a deal that was approved by David Stern, who nixed a deal that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers in a three-way deal because he believed the return in that trade was insufficient.

Paul’s departure paved the way for the franchise to pick up Anthony Davis as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA draft, and Davis, in his second season in New Orleans, adds an All-Star appearance this year to his burgeoning resume by becoming the first Pelicans All-Star.

Allen Iverson made the 2008 team in the Western Conference for the second time as a Denver Nugget – he practiced with his teammates, by the way – and was joined on the team by his Nuggets running mate, Carmelo Anthony. This year, Anthony returns to New Orleans as a member of the New York Knicks.

A signature event for the weekend was the dunk contest on Saturday night. Of the lasting memories from the event (including Gerald Green’s “cupcake” dunk, when Green was a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves), none compete with Dwight Howard’s “Superman” slam.

On that jaw dropper, the then-Orlando Magic center placed a piece of tape on the court to signify his launching point in the lane, donned a Man of Steel cape and sprinted about three-quarters of the court from the other end before taking a lob pass from teammate Jameer Nelson, catching it and throwing it down through the hoop because he was roughly 12 inches short of reaching the rim.

Non-dunk though it was, the innovative attempt drew a perfect “50” score from the judges; Howard since has landed in Houston and returns as an All-Star for the Rockets.

In the Rookie Challenge that Saturday, a game featuring a select group of NBA sophomores taking on some handpicked rookies, a future star was introduced to the nation. Kevin Durant then was a rookie for the Seattle SuperSonics, the franchise that was bought and relocated to Oklahoma City. Now he represents the Thunder as a Western Conference All-Star and three-time NBA scoring champion.

Off the main grid and away from the bright lights, the D-League All-Star Game might not have offered a glimpse of a former star, but did give New Orleans a look at the future. The coach of the Red Team that year was Idaho Stampede coach Bryan Gates; today, Gates is an assistant on the staff of Pelicans coach Monty Williams.

The league, from the very top and several points throughout, very much has a different look from the one that warmly was invited to New Orleans six years ago. So, too, is New Orleans.

The makeover appears to agree with both.