NEW ORLEANS -- This is a story of disaster and relief, of unexpected benefits and serendipity come full-circle.
Though none of that mattered very much last summer to Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner. There was little time for him to dwell on the stubbornness of karma and paying it forward.
His problem had reached a stage of urgency. NBA All-Star 2017 was seven months away, and Silver didn’t know where it was going to be played.
There was more to his assignment than finding an open gym for a few hours on a Sunday night. Over the years, All-Star weekend has grown up to dwarf any traveling circus. "It’s an opportunity for people to participate in community service events,’’ says Silver, ticking off the ancillary functions that bring together the "family’’ of NBA employees, sponsors, media and fans. "We have our Technology Summit, which is a business gathering; we have a forum on Saturday morning where we’re often talking about critically important societal issues. The doctors are meeting, the trainers are meeting, the players are getting a chance to catch up with each other. The Players Association holds one of their most important meetings. It’s an opportunity for our team owners and executives to catch up with each other.’’
The requirements include an NBA-ready arena, 6,000 hotel rooms, a transportation fleet and open space in a convention center or other large meeting facilities.
The NBA’s premier event had been awarded originally to Charlotte in June 2015, providing the city with plenty of time to make arrangements. In March 2016, however, those plans were upset when the North Carolina legislature enacted a controversial "bathroom’’ law eliminating anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Silver -- in line with other sports and corporate leaders and civil rights activists -- had lobbied in vain for a change to the law.
By last July he had run out of time. Silver needed to find a new host for All-Star weekend.
"New Orleans and Las Vegas were the only two cities in the United States on short notice that could take an event as big as the All-Star Game,’’ says Silver. After discussions with New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu, Pelicans owner Tom Benson, team president Dennis Lauscha and other community leaders, Silver affirmed the choice he knew to be right all along: All-Star weekend would be returning to New Orleans for the third time since 2008, based on its myriad ties to the NBA.
But now, as Silver looks forward to the longest weekend of the NBA year, he can see that the willingness of New Orleans to stand-in at the last minute is itself inspiring and grand. Not quite a dozen years ago, New Orleans was drowning under the siege of Hurricane Katrina. The revival of this city is a story that Silver has come to appreciate very well.
'Can the city come back from this?'
The televised scenes grew progressively worse in the days after the levees gave way to the force and weight of Katrina. Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded. At least 1,245 people would die. Property damage would exceed $100 billion.
"I remember sitting with David,’’ says Silver, who at the time of Katrina -- August 2005 -- was on the verge of being elevated to deputy commissioner by David Stern, the longtime commissioner of the NBA. "We were watching those same images that everyone not just in America but around the world was seeing of the devastation, the people who were stranded in New Orleans. There was even the sense then of, can this city come back from this? I think there were some people saying, could this be the end of New Orleans as we know it?’’
Ground zero to the most expensive natural disaster in American history turned out to be the Superdome, which served as a cruel sanctuary to an estimated 35,000 survivors of Katrina. For one tortuous week its inhabitants were entrapped with no electricity, no air conditioning, no flushing toilets. Doug Thornton, who manages the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and its neighboring Smoothie King Center -- the two main sites for this NBA All Star weekend -- had no premonition for what was to come.
"We were on the precipice, I tell you,’’ says Thornton, who worked with the National Guard to help keep the stadium operational. "When I left here on that Thursday afternoon helicopter, I looked over my left shoulder and saw water for miles and miles glistening, and the Superdome in complete squalor, I thought I’d never be back.
"One of the reasons we were able to overcome this is thanks to the help of so many people and organizations from around the country and the world. When you come close to losing it all, you appreciate it so much more.’’
The role played by pro sports in the comeback of New Orleans was largely symbolic. It was the opening of the Superdome in 1975 that had helped define the city as a tourism capital. "It put New Orleans on the sports destination map,’’ says Thornton. "It hosted Super Bowls, Ali-Spinks, Duran-Leonard, Final Fours. Then with Katrina, all of that was about to come to an abrupt end with the demise of the Superdome and the city’s infrastructure.’’
The NFL and Benson, who has owned the Saints since 1985, understood the stakes. Some $225 million was invested in refurbishing and renovating the stadium in time for the Saints to open the 2006 NFL season at home. "We realized that the Saints were more integral to the community than the then-Hornets were at the time,’’ says Silver.
For its part, the NBA would donate more than $10 million to disaster relief in New Orleans. NBA stars would contribute by putting on a charity game in Houston, where thousands of New Orleanians had fled. While the Superdome had been devastated by a leaking roof, the NBA arena next door survived with less than $20 million in damage.
"The arena had three feet of water in some places,’’ says Thornton. "We had to cut out the sheet rock for three to four feet. The basketball court was ruined, as were a lot of the furniture and fixtures and equipment. One big thing was we didn’t have 30,000 people in there for a week. There were only a few medical special-needs people in the suites, and they were evacuated after two days.’’
While the Saints returned to the Superdome after one season away from New Orleans, the Hornets would be asked to spend an additional year at their temporary headquarters in Oklahoma City, in large part because the city wasn’t ready to support two sports franchises.
By the time the Hornets moved back to New Orleans, their young point guard, Chris Paul, was an established star who was leading them to 56 wins and a Game 7 at home against the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals. But that wasn’t the most important NBA event of the 2007-08 season.
NBA values New Orleans' place in league
"The award of NBA All-Star 2008 is our vote of confidence in the progress that is being made in the reopening and rebuilding of New Orleans’ tourism infrastructure,’’ read a statement issued by Stern. "New Orleans will become the basketball capital of the world in February 2008, and demonstrate to a global audience that New Orleans is very much open for business.’’
When Stern made that announcement in May 2006, it was the first time that Silver could remember All-Star weekend being awarded without a formal bid from the hosting city.
"It was absolutely a show of faith by the NBA to help the city and the state,’’ says Thornton. "The NBA committed months before the home opener of the Saints, and there were a lot of questions about New Orleans. So it was a huge boost to the psyche of the community, and it was intended by the NBA to be a stimulus for the community.’’
"For the NBA to make the commitment to come to New Orleans really gave us a platform to say we are back,’’ says Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation. "It gave us the opportunity to say we can do this, and to show we could to the rest of the world.’’
"There were questions as to what the real population actually was -- it was reportedly down in the low hundreds of thousands in terms of people actually living in the city -- and whether people would have the luxury of being able to go to NBA games. But that was something very important to David and all of our owners, that we not cut and run from New Orleans.’’
Stern had long insisted that the Hornets would return to New Orleans following their two-year sojourn in Oklahoma City. In 2010, when owner George Shinn put the Hornets up for sale, raising the likelihood that they would be moved to a larger market by a new buyer, the NBA purchased the team for $300 million until a local owner could be found. This investment came at a great personal cost to Stern, who in his role as de facto chairman of the Hornets refused to approve a 2011 trade that would have sent Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Virtually all such deals are approved by team owners, and in this case Stern, in his fiduciary role with the Hornets, insisted that the team’s front office search for an alternative move that would lower the Hornets’ payroll in order to make the team more attractive financially for the eventual buyer, Benson, in 2012. That decision resulted in a black eye for Stern, who was widely criticized for "vetoing’’ the trade – a direct result of his unprecedented commitment to keeping the Hornets in their stricken home.
"There were some doubters at the time as to whether the city could sustain an NBA team,’’ says Silver. "There were questions as to what the real population actually was -- it was reportedly down in the low hundreds of thousands in terms of people actually living in the city -- and whether people would have the luxury of being able to go to NBA games. But that was something very important to David and all of our owners, that we not cut and run from New Orleans.’’
"One of the biggest things that happened was bringing that franchise back here, which a lot of people thought shouldn’t be done -- and if it was done it would never succeed,’’ says mayor Landrieu, and with a laugh he recalls his give-and-take discussions with the NBA commissioner. "David Stern was at the time, and still is, a very strict taskmaster. He said to us, `We can help do this -- but you guys have got to sell tickets.’’’
Silver remains proud of the investment made by his league in NBA All-Star 2008.
"So many of the media members had not been back to New Orleans post-Katrina, and they didn’t know what to expect,’’ Silver says. "They felt such a positive vibe in the city, they could see that the recovery was underway, that things had run so smoothly and the hotels were operating just fine, as was public transportation. And then a lot of the business guests who come to our All-Star weekend are CEOs of major media and consumer products companies, and I think there was this multiplier effect, not just from the media but word of mouth from those people coming out of New Orleans saying, 'This city is going to be OK.' "
It was a national coming-out for the city. "The game itself was a commercial for New Orleans music and culture,’’ says Cicero. "We never thought that this event would do so much for New Orleans. We did a lot for the NBA, and they did a lot for us. It was a mutual love affair.’’
"Getting this game again continues to add credence to the notion that we are still one of the best in the world at doing this.’’
Sparking change off the court
The NBA’s reinvestment in New Orleans has strengthened ties between the franchise and southern Louisiana. "The whole idea of 'Pelicans’ was to help shed light on what we need to do on the coast,’’ says Lauscha. "The federal, state and local governments had money to rebuild a big part of the coastline -- the levees and the marshland -- and one of the biggest components of it was the education piece.’’
By renaming their team after the Louisiana state bird (the brown pelican), the Pelicans have found a natural way to work with coastal protection agencies. "Our youth programs throughout our schools have two components,’’ says Lauscha. "We encourage kids to be physically active and fit, and then we teach them about the coast. At the end of the session they take a quiz, and if they pass then they and their parents get tickets to a game.’’
Silver recalls that the NBA held its first "Day of Service’’ during 2008 All-Star Weekend. "I think a lot of our business guests who had been previously to New Orleans -- whether for conventions or for vacation -- didn’t know what to expect going back there,’’ says Silver. "There was this outpouring of support among a lot of people who had been on the the sidelines throughout the country who had been wondering, other than possibly writing a check, how can I be helpful to this community? While I think people are realistic that one day’s labor in New Orleans isn’t going to necessarily change the city, it was cathartic to a lot of people that they were in New Orleans, boots on, gloves on, working shoulder to shoulder with other people -- outsiders, residents -- to help bring the city back.’’
In the years since the NBA made its stand here, Silver has seen his players and coaches become increasingly pro-active on social and political issues. He believes the league’s commitment to New Orleans has helped nudge the NBA toward a new socially-conscious direction.
"The goal, both for David and for me, was to create an environment where our employees -- whether they be at the league office or our teams or the players as employees of the league -- feel comfortable finding their voice and finding an authentic voice,’’ Silver says. "That doesn’t mean everyone is going to agree. But it does mean people will find ways, presumably respectfully, to become part of the discourse.’’
The games on the court remain sacred, says Silver, but in other settings he has been proud to see coaches and players speaking out on matters of conscience. That 2008 weekend in New Orleans was "very much a turning point for the league in terms of our social responsibility efforts,’’ Silver says. "I don’t think it’s a coincidence at all.’’
New Orleans there to help NBA, too
"The NBA is dedicated to creating an inclusive environment for all who attend our games and events,’’ read another league statement -- this one authorized by Silver in March 2016, shortly after North Carolina had enacted its "bathroom’’ bill. "We are deeply concerned that this discriminatory law runs counter to our guiding principles of equality and mutual respect and do not yet know what impact it will have on our ability to successfully host the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte.’’
Over the months to come, Landrieu, Cicero, Lauscha, Thornton and other community leaders in New Orleans took stock of whether they would be able to step in. "We certainly weren’t going to lobby for it,’’ says Lauscha, who had worked with Charlotte owner Michael Jordan to restore the "Hornets’’ name to his franchise. "We really were hoping that North Carolina was going to figure out what their issues were. But if the NBA decided to go in that direction, then we were going to offer our facility and everything that the Pelicans have.’’
"One of our missions is to be ready all the time. So whenever there is a jump ball, we are going to get it. ... Everybody always seems to be surprised, if they’ve never been here before, that New Orleans punches above its weight.’’
NBA All-Star 2017 coincides with Mardi Gras, whose parades threaten to snarl traffic around NBA events. A country-and-western concert planned for the arena had to be rescheduled. Hotels cooperated in clearing space, but there wasn’t enough lead time to meet the NBA’s goal of locking up a dozen hotels -- its guests will be scattered across 30 hotels instead. The annual Jam Session, which was held at the Convention Center when New Orleans last hosted All-Star Weekend in 2014, will be replaced by more informal public gatherings in Champions Square, a 121,000 square-foot plaza which serves the arena as well as the dome on land reclaimed after Katrina.
"Getting this game again continues to add credence to the notion that we are still one of the best in the world at doing this,’’ Landrieu says. "You can see the incredible progress -- the 33 new schools that we have, the 88 primary health care clinics, the two new hospitals, the real estate market that’s gone through the roof.’’
One of many constructive influences to help renew New Orleans was the investment of that first All-Star Weekend -- the leap of faith made by the NBA in 2006. It encouraged the city to think big. In the ensuing years, New Orleans has played host to a second All-Star Weekend, an NCAA men’s Final Four, a Super Bowl, a WrestleMania, a Bassmaster Classic and the annual Sugar Bowl.
"One of our missions is to be ready all the time,’’ says Landrieu. "So whenever there is a jump ball, we are going to get it. You know the sports-entertainment-cultural market is very, very competitive. Everybody always seems to be surprised, if they’ve never been here before, that New Orleans punches above its weight.’’
Cicero’s non-profit sports foundation not only bids on events but also takes responsibility for fulfilling those bids, by working out details with public and private partners in the city to help ensure as best they can that all are pulling in the same direction. Of course, in the case of NBA All-Star 2017, there was no formal bid.
"There were some other cities that we heard from who were saying, `Can we come in and meet with you? Maybe we can find a way to make it work,’’’ says Silver, who replaced Stern as commissioner in 2014. "New Orleans was not soliciting this from a business standpoint.’’
He is struck by the outcome of this long, evolving relationship.
"It’s the first weekend of Mardi Gras,’’ Silver goes on, laughing. "It’s not the best possible time for them. Not that they don’t love to have big events there and would love to have more All-Star Games. But this was us going to the ownership of the team, to Dennis Lauscha, to the governmental leaders and saying, `We need your help.’’’
They are here because they made a stand, not just last summer by refusing to confirm to a discriminatory law, but as far back as 2005. When New Orleans was in trouble, Silver’s association joined with so many others in doing what could be done. And now, with the NBA in need a dozen years later, see who was able to return the favor?
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