NBA All-Star Weekend to transform downtown

The trucks began arriving at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Saturday stocked with balls, hoops and even the makings of a regulation-size NBA court.

The rest of this week will be spent transforming the corporate meeting hall — and some of downtown New Orleans — into the temporary driving, dribbling and dunking capital of the world.

NBA All-Star Weekend is coming to town.

The four days of basketball contests, fan events, industry conferences and community projects will begin Thursday and culminate Sunday with the 63rd NBA All-Star Game, which will air live on TNT.

Expect the National Basketball Association’s takeover to include a pop-up sports shop in the French Quarter, a full-scale basketball arena in the convention center, hundreds of athletes roaming the streets and towering images of players plastered onto the sides of downtown high-rises.

All-Star Weekend is expected to bring about 50,000 people to town, many of them professional basketball players and team owners with their celebrity friends and business partners in tow.

Early last week, hotels were reporting occupancy rates in the high 90 percent, said Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp.

“This is a big party weekend,” he said. “Restaurants will be busy. It’s definitely a late-evening crowd.”

New Orleans last hosted the NBA All-Star Game in 2008. The city was awarded the game in May 2006, just nine months after Hurricane Katrina, as a vote of confidence in the recovery effort.

The game helped to re-establish New Orleans’ reputation as a city capable of hosting major sporting and tourist affairs, Romig said.

The value “probably was incalculable because New Orleans was able to demonstrate it could put on an event,” he said.

An economic impact study wasn’t conducted following the 2008 game, but Jay Cicero, president and CEO of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, said the anecdotal evidence convinced New Orleans it should try to host the event again.

The game returns this year as part of a deal struck between the National Basketball Association and Tom Benson when Benson bought the then-New Orleans Hornets from the league in 2012. New Orleans’ six-year lapse between hosting duties is the shortest in NBA All-Star history, said Patrick Sullivan, the league’s vice president of special events.

With the exception of community service projects, the NBA events will all take place at the New Orleans Arena, just renamed the Smoothie King Center, and the convention center.

Many of the NBA-sanctioned events, hosted by league owners and players, are exclusive. But NBA Jam Session, or what the league describes as an “interactive basketball theme park,” is open to the public.

Jam Session will take up five of the convention center’s 10 halls and will feature about 40 different spaces where fans can get celebrity autographs and attend basketball clinics.

The centerpiece of the space will be the 3,200-seat Sprint Arena, with a regulation-size basketball court, where, among other contests, the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game and the NBA All-Star practice will take place.

More than 80,000 people are expected to attend the Jam Session over the four-day period, Sullivan said.

When he started at the NBA 12 years ago, Sullivan said, the All-Star Weekend offered only a handful of events leading up to the game. Now there are about 50 events, though many of them, like a technology conference for NBA owners and industry executives, are closed to the public.

“We’ve certainly worked hard to enhance and improve and showcase new things from 2008,” Sullivan said.

The NBA will introduce a few new features in New Orleans, he said.

Jam Session attendees, for instance, will be given wristbands outfitted with radio-frequency identification tags that allow them to photograph, track and share their experiences.

Also, wannabe NBA stars will have the opportunity to see how they stack up against the pros in a mock NBA combine. Sullivan said the All-Star event team worked closely with the NBA’s basketball operations department to make the combine as close to the real thing as possible. The results can be shared with friends on social media. No word yet on whether they also will be shared with scouts in the NBA or its developmental league.

Both of those experiences will be new to the Jam Session this year, Sullivan said.

The NBA is also debuting new areas for children, including a rookie camp and kids’ basketball courts.

In addition to NBA-sponsored events, more than a dozen corporations will descend on the city as sponsors of the weekend. Adidas will operate a pop-up shop on Chartres Street in the French Quarter where athletes will make appearances. Foot Locker and Nike are turning the Foot Locker store on Canal Street into the “House of Hoops.” A performance artist, hosted by Sprite, will create an original work outside the French Market. Ciroc is turning the House of Blues into Club ene-be-a for a night.

The weekend is anticipated to have a $90 million economic impact, a spokesman for the city said. For comparison, Super Bowl XLVII held in New Orleans last February had a $480 million impact on the region, including $263 million in direct spending, according to a University of New Orleans study. The April 2013 NCAA Women’s Final Four brought in more than $20 million, Tulane University Athletic Director Rick Dickson said.

“Nothing else is the Super Bowl,” Cicero said. “This is more of a celebration of basketball and the NBA and its stars and its teams.”