NEW ORLEANS — Six years ago this week, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and several other NBA All-Stars left the comforts of a high-rise hotel in downtown New Orleans for a short, sobering bus ride to a devastated neighborhood a few miles away.
“It was pretty sad. I think nobody really knew how bad it still was,” Nowitzki recalled from the NBA's “Day of Service” during 2008 All-Star weekend. “If you only stayed downtown (or) in the French Quarter, everything looked great. But once we drove out there, 10 minutes outside the city ... it was tough to see what conditions people still lived under.”
The 6-foot-11 Dallas Mavericks forward remembered feeling small in the face of such widespread destruction in the Holy Cross neighborhood, situated along the Mississippi River in New Orleans' Ninth Ward. He figured the few hours of painting he did was largely symbolic, but hoped that the presence of NBA stars in storm-ravaged neighborhoods, and the encouragement they offered to rebuilding residents, would make a lasting difference in the city's recovery Hurricane Katrina.
More than half a decade later, New Orleans remains part of the NBA, defying many who predicted storm-torn community would ultimately lose its franchise — and the All-Star game is coming back this weekend.
“Us painting a couple of houses didn't really make the difference, but us being there and lifting up some spirits is I think what made the difference,” Nowitzki said. “And the NBA, obviously, making that commitment. That was one of the better things we did in my All-Star games so far I've been a part — what — 11 times?”
More than eight years after Katrina struck in August 2005, pockets of New Orleans are still rebuilding, but many areas of the city are more vibrant than even before the storm. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that, as of July 2012, the population of New Orleans proper was just surpassing 80 percent of its pre-Katrina population of about 484,000.
In the past few years, New Orleans has hosted college football's 2012 BCS championship game, the 2012 NCAA men's basketball Final Four and the 2013 Super Bowl.
The arena that hosted the city's first NBA All-Star game six years ago has since undergone significant upgrades. The first phase of what will be a two-part renovation costing about $50 million is done. The stadium also has a new name — the Smoothie King Center — thanks to a 10-year sponsorship deal with a growing company that chose to maintain its headquarters in New Orleans after flirting with the idea of moving to Atlanta or Dallas.
Only a handful of 2014 All-Stars were part of the 2008 festivities in the Big Easy. Along with Nowitzki and James, they include Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony.
James helped sponsor the resurfacing of a basketball court at a recreational center in the flood-damaged St. Bernard neighborhood.
“It was perfect timing,” James said of the NBA's decision to bring the All-Star game to New Orleans in 2008, even though some people, including former NBA Players Association head Billy Hunter, questioned whether New Orleans could handle the event or if players would be safe.
“I was happy to be part of it,” James added. “For us to be there is good.”
Wade said he was able to help three displaced families get into permanent homes six years ago.
“I don't remember the game, but I remember the city,” Wade said. “The NBA really made it about the city of New Orleans.”
Howard won the '08 slam dunk contest, wearing a red Superman cape. That wasn't the only highlight for him, though.
“I was just happy to be there and help people out in any way we possibly could,” Howard said. “The city has really picked itself up fast. It's a lot better place than it was when we were there for that (2008 All-Star) game.”
Paul was a first-time All-Star and spending his first full season in New Orleans in 2008. The franchise that drafted him in 2005 — then called the Hornets, now the Pelicans — had been displaced to Oklahoma City for Paul's first two seasons.
He remembered fielding phone calls from players around the league who wanted his assurances that it was wise to attend All-Star festivities in New Orleans.
“I am not sure what the NBA knew to expect coming to New Orleans, but once everyone got there, no one wanted to leave,” Paul said. “It was one of the funniest times of my career and a game that I will never forget.”
After that All-Star weekend, Paul's community service efforts in New Orleans — from helping Habitat for Humanity build homes to refurbishing public basketball courts — continued. And though he was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2011, he still sponsors an after-school program in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood.
“If anyone knows me, they know how much I love the city and how much I miss the city,” Paul said. “As I always say, it is not Bourbon Street, not the beignets, not the amazing restaurants.
“It is the people that make the city of New Orleans.”