Lessons learned

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For so many years the NBA's All-Star Weekend has been growing like a tumor upon the soul of the game, a vehicle of greed, selfishness and other vices in blight of the larger team values. But that trend was arrested by coming this weekend to New Orleans, where the NBA's biggest stars spent Friday working on community projects that emphasized giving instead of taking.

For this weekend, at least, the league rediscovered its soul. The Saturday night dunk contest between Dwight Howard and Gerald Green turned into a playful game of cape-wearing and candle-blowing. There used to be something very stupid about the dunk contest when it was treated with majesty. In recent years they were preening and posing while the crowds and judges overreacted, and the emperor wore no clothes. But when the players risked making themselves look stupid this weekend, when they treated a silly event as a reason to have fun, it became wonderful.

It strikes me that the post-Michael Jordan NBA has been working too hard to pretend to be something it isn't. Now maybe that era of insecurity is done with. Maybe this emerging generation of players isn't so worried about meeting expectations as about creating them. Howard, for one, doesn't seem concerned with the burdens of his title as the game's next great center: He wants to enjoy his time on the court, and that's all the fans want from him. They want heart.

He shared much in common with this humbled city. The music of New Orleans is a unifying force of joy, and I have a feeling that no one who watched the pregame or halftime performances of jazz was turned off or threatened or in any way bemused by it.

During the All-Star Game on Sunday night, there were scores of empty seats in the New Orleans Arena, which was symbolic in its own way of the casualties suffered and the tens of thousands of homeless people who have yet to return.

The game itself had trouble achieving a flow, but even then the intentions were good: Too many turnovers from trying to make the extra-spectacular pass. The rhythm peaked midway through the second quarter when Howard and LeBron James played a series of patty-cake possessions above the rim, tossing lobs to one another hilariously.

With five minutes remaining everyone stopped trying to put on a show and started trying to win. By then the West had eaten away all of the East's early 16-point lead, but Boston's Ray Allen (game-high 28 points) responded with a successive trio of threes before drawing a charge from New Orleans point guard Chris Paul (16 points, 14 assists) with 46.1 seconds remaining. An attempt by 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki was blocked by 6-4 Dwyane Wade at the three-point line, leading eventually to Jason Kidd, in his farewell game with the East, to find Allen in transition for the clinching basket. The MVP trophy was seized by James (27 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds), who had broken the tie game on a terrific driving dunk as the East's 134-128 victory entered its final minute.

"This just wasn't about basketball," said Washington Wizards forward Antawn Jamison, who was born in Shreveport. "This was about doing something for the kids, doing something for the fans in need of homes, food and supplies. It was good to go out and see the smiles."

The smiles meant something this time. Future All-Star Weekends will be played in more normal circumstances, and the smiles may not be so sincere and gratifying as they were this weekend. For the NBA players, the trick will be to define themselves moving forward as this weekend served to define them. The lesson is to play for something larger than yourself, and that was the gift these millionaires received from the city that lost everything.