In the days leading up to Sunday's big game, the NBA and the National Basketball Retired Players Association (NBRPA) offer an All-Star Weekend schedule packed with events and activities designed especially for fans. The NBA's signature fan experience, Jam Session, starts Thursday at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, which organizers will convert into what they call "the world's largest interactive basketball theme park."
"The Jam Session was created for the fans to have a chance to not just be a spectator, but to get off the bench and into the game," says Patrick Sullivan, NBA Vice President of Events. "It's truly made for the fans of New Orleans."
Sullivan says Jam Session offers something for everyone, including kids' courts for all ages, interactive games, and exhibitions that highlight the NBA's rich history. Fans who attended Jam Session in 2008, when New Orleans last hosted All-Star weekend, will be familiar with some of the activities, like the popular dunk courts where fans can show off their jams on hoops of various heights. There will also be the usual appearances and autograph sessions featuring over 100 current and former players, including 2014 All-Stars Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry and Paul George, NBA legends Clyde Drexler, Bruce Bowen, Darryl Dawkins and many other big names.
New to Jam Session this year is the Jam Band, a wristband encoded with an RFID chip that can track fans' Jam Session experiences and upload images and status updates to their social media accounts. The Jam Band can be swiped at exhibits throughout Jam Session, including the brand new Draft Combine, where fans can create a player profile and go through the same drills and exercises that NBA hopefuls go through, comparing their stats to friends and other fans along the way.
All-Star exhibition games take places at Jam Session's Sprint Arena, a regulation hardwood court built inside the Convention Center that seats nearly 3,200 fans. On Thursday night, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association kicks off the slate of games with their annual Wheelchair Classic all-star game. On Friday afternoon, Jam Session presents the Sprite Slam Dunk Showdown finals, an amateur dunk contest between eight high-flying contestants from around the country, all of whom are regional winners from last summer's Slam Dunk Showdown road show. That night, the Sprint Arena hosts the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, headlined by comedian and two-time MVP Kevin Hart, featuring America's Got Talent host Nick Cannon, ESPN Radio hosts Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg and other celebrities.
"I'm sure these guys would rather be performing in the NBA, but they don't have that kind of skill," Sullivan says. "So we're able to deliver this really raucous environment where they have 3,000 screaming fans, and they want to be a part of it."
Following the celebrity game, the NBA's young guns take the court at the New Orleans Arena for the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge, featuring the league's most promising rookie and sophomore players, including New Orleans Pelicans' second-year forward Anthony Davis. More young talent will be on display Saturday at the NBA Developmental League All-Stars Game, where fans can catch the stars of tomorrow throwing down at Jam Session's Sprint Arena. Of the 20 players at the last New Orleans D-League All-Star Game in 2008, 14 ended up playing in the NBA.
The NBRPA, whose membership includes some of the greatest players in the sport's history, is also catering to fans during All-Star Weekend. NBRPA's President and CEO is Arnie Fielkow — former New Orleans City Councilman and Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints.
"It's a phenomenal feeling to come back to a city that I greatly love and consider home," Fielkow says. "The NBRPA and our board of directors and our members have a successful partnership with the city of New Orleans, and continue to give back to our youth through not only this All-Star weekend, but what will assuredly be more events in the future."
NBPRA will host community outreach events, including basketball clinics for local students and a visit to Children's Hospital. At noon on Saturday, the NBPRA hosts a community picnic in the Lower 9th Ward that will be open to the public. The event takes place at Oliver Bush Playground, a park rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures thanks in part to donations from the NBA, NBPRA and WNBA. Following the picnic, the NBPRA will present a youth summit in conjunction with Dillard University and the Louisiana Justice Institute, featuring a panel discussion and interactive session with former NBA players.
Later that afternoon, the NBPRA will conduct a basketball clinic at the park. The event is part of the NBPRA's Full Court Press: Prep for Success program.
Those who want to spend the weekend rubbing shoulders with former stars of the NBA can purchase all-access passes to NBPRA events. The passes start at $1,000 and offer access to several invitation-only events, like the NBPRA Legends Gala at Harrah's Casino theater. The gala honors the 40th anniversary of the old New Orleans Jazz franchise, and features a Jazz reunion where fans can get autographs and photos. There will be live entertainment, a memorabilia auction, and special presentations from the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. Half of the proceeds raised by ticket sales will benefit the New Orleans Recreation Development Foundation, and the other half will go to the NBPRA's Dave DeBusschere Scholarship fund, to help former players and their families to pay for college educations.
The number of opportunities to get involved in All-Star weekend reflects not only the growth of the NBA over the years, but also the league's dedication to fans who inspired the growth.
"When it first started, All-Star was a handful of activities that fit on one sheet, and now it's gotten to be more than 50 events and activities that happen as part of All-Star," Sullivan says. "It's such a focal point of everything we do now. Everything we do — from the programming, to the games, to the contests — they're all done with the fans in mind."