All-Star return to N.O. could be ‘historic’

NEW ORLEANS — In 2008, the New Orleans Sports Foundation received much acclaim for its work during NBA All-Star Game Weekend, when it put the city’s rich culture on full display.

With the league showcase returning in February 2014, members of the city’s All-Star Game host committee went to Houston last week to observe this year’s event. They came back excited, said Jay Cicero, executive director of the sports foundation, which leads the way in bringing events such as the All-Star Game, Final Four and Super Bowl to the city and in funding such events.

“What we took away (from Houston) is that the event has grown since it was here in 2008,” Cicero said.

That, Cicero said, is part of the reason for the group’s excitement. The other part is New Orleans’ growth since 2008, when the city was bouncing back from Hurricane Katrina and the NBA awarded the All-Star Game to help restore the nation’s confidence in the region as a tourist destination.

Next year’s game also will be the first with Adam Silver as NBA commissioner, adding a coronation aspect to the weekend.

“I think there’s an opportunity to have an historic event here ... to really impress the NBA with the capabilities of New Orleans to bring the event to a whole new level,” Cicero said.

First of all, Cicero said, his foundation will have much more support from the city. New Orleans now has more resources to work with, and Cicero’s staff is larger.

Couple that with the event’s increased size and scope, and it makes for a bigger canvas and more supplies to paint a prettier picture on a grander scale.

“We have 4,000 new hotel rooms, an extended street-car line that ends at New Orleans Arena, the French Quarter has come back strong and the arena will have been improved,” he said. “We did a great job in 2008, but we have a new product here to be a better host city.”

City government was not in the position to help that it is now, and Saints owner Tom Benson having bought the Hornets will yield a smoother ride.

The committee just finished working with Saints executives, as well as city leaders, to put on the Super Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. With Benson’s Hornets, who will be known as the Pelicans next season, in a lead role for All-Star Weekend 2014, that makes for a seamless transition.

“Part of the discussions in his buying the team was that New Orleans would get another All-Star Game,” Cicero said. “Just like for the Super Bowl, we will meet monthly leading up to the event.”

Free concerts at Woldenberg Park at the Riverfront were a big hit with visitors and locals alike during Super Bowl week. Cicero said he didn’t know whether that would be duplicated for All-Star Weekend, when events such as the Rising Stars game and 3-point and dunk contests take place.

Using Champions Square, since it is next to the arena and dome, is a possibility, he said. It could be a resource site that would not compete with attendance to those events.

“I think it’s just whether the NBA wants to use it,” Cicero said. “It is certainly part of the whole campus. I’m sure it’ll be part of the weekend.”

The arena did New Orleans proud in 2008. It was awash in decoration depicting New Orleans’ history, culture and architecture — an impressive backdrop for prominent local musicians such as Irvin Mayfield, Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty, who performed before the game and at halftime.

This summer, it will undergo $50 million in improvements that include technological upgrades. Last time, the budget for hosting the All-Star Game was $2.5 million, Cicero said. About $3.5 million will have to be raised this time, he said.

“People think these events just come to New Orleans because (officials) like the city,” Cicero said with a chuckle. “You have to be competitive with the other cities. A lot of work, execution goes into it. Expectations have gone up.”