Nathaniel Leon could get used to the celebrity life.
The Entergy engineer certainly looked the part on Sunday night. Sporting cool shades, diamond studs, a gold chain and a splash of Gucci Guilty cologne, Leon planted himself on a leather courtside seat before Sunday night’s NBA All-Star Game, and no one could blame him.
He chatted up Trombone Shorty to his left while movie director Spike Lee sat two seats to his right and schmoozed with the basketball elite. On Saturday night at the Smoothie King Center, Leon found himself sitting next to rapper Nelly.
Leon, 32, was living the high life of a pop celebrity on borrowed time as a “seat filler” — one of about 100 people handed the chance to brush up to fame if only for a few hours, maybe longer with a little luck and celebrity straggling.
For a guy who normally operates chillers and boilers in the Central Business District, the imminent shoulder tap was a small price to pay as the NBA’s midseason entertainment spectacle swarmed around him.
Not all of the seat fillers — charged with delivering the impression of packed rows for the cameras — plop down in the front row, mind you.
“I just got enough (gumption) to go on the court. If I’m gonna fill a seat, I’m gonna fill a seat in the front,” Leon said. “It’s a great job. A beautiful surprise.”
For many of the fans who got a seat up close — free or not — Sunday night was more about the glow of fame than it was hoops excellence.
The NBA’s best players gave liberally of their time before the game, posing with kids and Jesse Jackson and each other and anyone else as they slid practice shots through the net.
But in the stands, fans were peering around for pop stars, mostly, while reporters from around the globe — The Hindustan Times, Xinhua News, NBA Phillipines and Buckets Magazine among them — scurried for players’ attention.
“Last night it was hard for me to watch the dunk contest. P. Diddy and Drake were right there, just cracking jokes and stuff,” said 22-year-old Jim Alig. The Tulane University philosophy student sat with three friends from Indiana.
One of them, Harrison Greenberg, said his great-uncle has a stake in the Indiana Pacers. Nelly, comedian Chris Tucker and rappers Drake and 2 Chainz were among the superstars who waltzed by him.
“That’s how we do,” Greenberg said.
“Good job last night,” Alig blurted as pop personality Nick Cannon idled past, drawing a brief thanks.
“I think I could get accustomed to this,” Alig said.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu slid past, rubbing Trombone Shorty’s shoulders from behind as he soaked in the Klieg light aura.
Landrieu, fresh off a sound re-election victory, recounted a two-year stretch that has seen the top showcases of both football and basketball — the Super Bowl and NBA All-Star Weekend — bring their brightly glossed road shows to the city.
“It’s just a beautiful night,” Landrieu said. “When you look at the past 24 months, it’s been unbelievable. And I think they want to come back.”
Landrieu said some 3,000 public employees were tapped to handle the crowds and whatnot, and with a pair of Carnival parades Saturday night and NBA after-parties spread across, “folks are really stretching it.”
Landrieu chortled at a question about who he plans to endorse for sheriff, moving deftly on to greet Spike Lee, an early face for the mayor’s NOLA for Life anti-murder initiative.
No matter. The stage crews were hustling as the smoke was about to billow for rap superstar Pharrell Williams’ pre-game performance, and Leon was preparing to get booted from courtside as he played on his phone like the celebrities around him.
“I’m gonna have to move anytime now,” he said. “I can feel it.
Injured Los Angles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant strode past in street clothes — a long, draping suit — while in the second row, Greenberg stood in an All-Star Game hat and a Pacers jacket.
Asked which celebrity gave him the biggest charge from the second row, the Indiana University student laughed.
“It makes no sense. Spike Lee, Nelly, all these guys are here. But when I saw (former NFL star and longtime NBA commentator) Ahmad Rashad, that was it,” Greenberg said.
“Ahmad Rashad narrated my childhood.”
Greenberg took a satisfied bite on some potato chips. They were delivered to him in the second row. He was living large, and it was game time.