Before the Big Show, All-Stars Give New Orleans a Helping Hand

All-star LeBron James scrapes paint from a window in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
All-star LeBron James scrapes paint from a window in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "It's a humbling, humbling experience," Chauncey Billups said. "It's still kind of surreal." (By Bill Haber -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 17, 2008; Page D01

NEW ORLEANS, Feb. 16 -- When Detroit Pistons all-star point guard Chauncey Billups arrived here this week, he took his wife, Piper, and other family members for a drive through the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas most devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He had taken the drive himself when the Pistons visited in December, but the All-Star Game gave him an opportunity to let others realize that the damage of the storm can't truly be explained in words and photographs.

It takes a firsthand look to see the boarded-up houses, the people living in trailers, the red numbers on some of the homes to signify the number of people who were found dead inside.

"It's a humbling, humbling experience," Billups said. "It's still kind of surreal to be honest with you. I am still amazed that there's some areas where it looks like [the storm] happened three weeks ago. That's sad, to be honest with you."

The recovery in areas such as the French Quarter -- where most of the All-Star Game festivities have taken place this weekend -- and some of the outer suburbs has been dramatic. But there are still places like the Lower Ninth Ward that have been slower to come back.

In addition to its usual blinged-out all-star activities, the NBA has brought attention to these damaged communities through charity work this weekend. An estimated 2,500 people -- including stars, former players and celebrity volunteers -- grabbed drills, hammers and paint brushes and worked on 10 service projects throughout New Orleans on Friday.

"I think that this city, I wouldn't say we've been forgotten after a couple of years post-Katrina. But I think it's kind of simmered down now that the city's getting back on its feet, which we are," New Orleans Hornets Coach Byron Scott said. "But we're still in dire need of support. And we still need a lot of help. We still need the attention to let everybody know that this city is not where it should be at this particular time. But us who are here, we understand it is a process that's going to take some time. It's not going to happen overnight. But we still need the spotlight of everybody understanding we have a long way to go."

Some all-stars have been heavily involved in separate community events. Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James both helped build playgrounds. "Basketball is a small part of our job," James said. And Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade has balanced several projects throughout an already busy weekend. He had a fundraising brunch on Saturday and will take a tour Sunday through the Lower Ninth Ward, where he plans to distribute 72-hour emergency kits and help build three homes.

"It's having a tremendous impact on our community economically and emotionally," said Jay Cicero, president and chief executive of the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation. "The NBA took a stance that they wanted this to be more than a celebration of basketball. They are showing that they are a leader in caring."

Cicero said NBA Commissioner David Stern "took a leap of faith" two years ago when he announced that the 2008 All-Star Game would come to a city that hadn't made baby steps from one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history. New Orleans has hosted several major events since then: the BCS championship last month, a few jazz festivals, Mardi Gras and the Bayou Classic.

The NBA All-Star Game will generate $80 million to $90 million for the city, Cicero said, which pales in comparison to the estimated $250 million each brought in by the BCS game and the 2002 Super Bowl. "It's all in how you measure it," said Cicero, adding that the international media attention and coverage makes more people aware.

All-Star Weekend last year in Las Vegas was filled with incidents that cast a negative light on the event. Fights broke out and there were a few shootings. The unruliness had several players concerned for their safety in New Orleans. Some, including Houston Rockets forward Tracy McGrady initially questioned if it was good idea to put the event here. "I think initially everybody was probably concerned with the criminal element," Boston Celtics guard Ray Allen said. "A couple of years removed, everyone has stabilized themselves and us being here helps the people here stabilize some more."

But San Antonio Spurs forward Tim Duncan understands that a weekend of hard work won't change everything. "We were here for a short amount of time," Duncan said. "We tried to do as much as possible. But there are a lot of good people out there and a lot of people trying to give their time and efforts to put this city back together. There is still a lot of stuff to be done."

Billups was pleased that the NBA has taken a positive step in New Orleans and that he was able to make more people, including those in his own family, understand. "I thought this was going to be great. That it'd be something good to, one, generate money for the city. And two, it'll be a good event to get out in the community and show our support to all the Katrina victims," Billups said. "It validates what I thought. I knew the city needed us, more than any other city at this particular time. the NBA stepped up to the plate and made it happen."

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