NEW ORLEANS -- LeBron James had neither anger nor amusement in his voice, just a resigned tone as the bus inched its way through traffic.
"All-Star Weekend," he said.
All-Star Weekend. Three words and a hyphen -- it's the only way to summarize an event that can put you face-to-face with the famous and the homeless, a weekend that tests the limits of male athleticism and female clothing, a time for excessive spending and insufficient sleep. The black Super Bowl.
If it takes 30 minutes to drive four blocks at 2:30 a.m., as was the case when I tried to get back to my hotel Saturday morning, understand that's part of the experience. It's the price you pay for the only-at-All-Star-Weekend, only-in-New-Orleans sights such as Dikembe Mutombo talking to former LSU coach Dale Brown on the sidewalk outside Café Du Monde, or Arnold Schwarzenegger rolling through the French Quarter in the back seat of an SUV, spitting the tip of a cigar out the window.
So, yeah, the traffic was bad. But there were ways to deal with it. One of the benefits of having the festivities in New Orleans, besides the great food ("That gumbo -- man," Allen Iverson said), was the option of walking everywhere you needed to go. That's what I did Saturday, footing it to the arena, the parties, wherever, despite a right leg that was severely damaged after Charles Barkley's inexplicable decision to sit on my lap Thursday night.
New Orleans has always been the best host for the big sports weekends, and even in its weakened state it still came through.
This year, both the city and the league were better off for the event. That's a big change from last year's run in Las Vegas, which became known for the Pacman Jones strip-club shooting, cranky cabbies and waitresses complaining about poor tips, and a game that looked like it was played by 24 guys who had spent 48 hours in Vegas.
This time, on my plane ride out of town, all people talked about were the events.
Saturday night featured a record-tying shooting display by Jason Kapono, then an enthralling dunk contest that set new standards for the combination of creativity and athleticism displayed by Gerald Green and the winner, Dwight Howard. Afterward, Brian McIntyre, the NBA's senior vice president of communications, was gushing that it was the best All-Star Saturday since Chicago. That was in 1988, when Larry Bird walked off with his index finger in the air even before his final money ball swished through the net in the 3-point shootout, and Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins staged their legendary duel.
Even 1988 didn't advance the event as much as Saturday's dunk contest did. The props, the teammates serving as magician's assistants, made it even more enjoyable. I loved the look on Rashad McCants' face as he climbed a ladder to carefully place a cupcake on the back of the rim, then lit a candle. He took his job so seriously, like Jerome holding Morris Day's mirror. Jameer Nelson, on the other hand, couldn't keep from smiling as he unfurled the red cape Dwight Howard used for his Superman dunk.
Terrell Owens was watching from courtside, filled with awe and jealousy. I give him credit for inspiring all of these gimmicks, starting with his Sharpie. Yes, credit, not blame. What's wrong with having fun in sports? When I ran into him later that night he raved about the creativity of the cupcake dunk, and regrettably said that he wouldn't try to top it the next time he scores a touchdown.
"The NFL's getting too restrictive," he said.
That is football's loss.
If the All-Star Game on Sunday didn't rank with the all-time greats, it at least had its share of highlights, then a hard-played fourth quarter filled with big shots that kept the outcome in doubt until the final minute.
But of course, the game itself might be the smallest part of All-Star Weekend. And this weekend, when compared with the recent C-list extravaganza that was the Super Bowl in Phoenix, also drove this point home: While football is the bigger sport, basketball has produced the bigger stars.
You can't find three football players who could match the wattage produced by Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Julius Erving, who all attended a celebrity billiards event Thursday night. People wouldn't stand three-deep to watch Tom Brady play pool the way they did for Jordan.
Before he grabbed his cue and partnered up with Chris Paul, I finally got a chance to ask Jordan a question I'd wondered for years: If a 1994 draft-night trade of Scottie Pippen for Shawn Kemp had gone through, would Jordan have come out of his first retirement the next year?
"Probably not," Jordan said. "I could have played with Shawn, but I wouldn't have been as comfortable as I was with Scottie."
I always figured that was the case, which makes that the all-time best trade that didn't happen. Reportedly, Seattle's owner nixed the deal after hearing negative reaction to it on local sports-talk radio. So Jordan came back to play with Pippen and the Bulls won another three championships.
Charles Oakley was also at the pool event. What's he up to? He said he wants to do a reality show that would feature 10 current and former athletes vying to prove their toughness, with the winner getting a fight with Mike Tyson. Like you wouldn't watch Oakley do that.
The Thursday night before the weekend really gets going is always my favorite. Enough big-name people are in town to make for good people-watching, and the full crowds and the heavy workload haven't kicked in yet.
But there was a noticeable transformation in town come Friday. The general feeling among my sportswriter buddies who have covered our share of All-Star Games, Super Bowls, Final Fours and the like was we'd never seen an event that featured so many beautiful women strolling around at any and all hours. One group of women, dressed in what seemed to be the official, tight-fitting, form-revealing uniform of the weekend, inspired a man holding a sign that read "Homeless Vet. USMC" to stand at attention and salute.
Even with all of the temptation, most people behaved well (although three people were shot early Monday morning in the French Quarter). The crowds were about one-sixth the size of Mardi Gras, but there was that same, happy-drunk vibe.
Still, for all the parties with players and Playmates, all of the sights and sounds (and, on Bourbon Street, smells), my favorite part of the weekend was a bus ride.
The NBA let a few journalists travel with the players as they went to their designated community service locations to help rebuild New Orleans. I asked for the group that included Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki, two would-be teammates kept apart by forces beyond their control, like the plot to "West Side Story" in the on-again, off-again trade that was a no-go at the time of the trip on Friday.
But it turned out that LeBron was the star of the show. Even amid the veterans -- Kidd, Nowitzki and Steve Nash -- LeBron was the center of attention. Kidd asked Nash if he played much golf lately. Nash invited Kidd to play soccer with him. Nowitzki asked Nash how fun it's been to have Shaq in Phoenix. But it kept coming back to LeBron. It wasn't that he constantly talked about himself. He just drove the conversation, asking questions, setting the agenda.
When I got on the bus he was seeking advice from Kidd on how to be a better free-throw shooter. Kidd told him to keep just one thought in his head.
"When you're going to dunk the ball, what are you thinking?" Kidd asked.
"I'm thinking, 'I'm going to tear the f------ rim off," James said.
Kidd said James needed a similar, singular, positive thought in mind at the free-throw line.
On the ride back, when James asked Kidd what number Kidd would wear in Dallas (prompting Nowitzki's head to pop up three rows away) Kidd joyfully speculated. Since his current No. 5 belongs to Josh Howard and the 32 he wore in Phoenix is worn by Brandon Bass (whom everyone agreed is too big and strong for Kidd to punk for his jersey), Kidd said he'd go for No. 14. One plus four equals five. It also would be the reverse of Nowitzki's 41. Then LeBron demonstrated a surprising bit of knowledge. Isn't 14 Dirk's number on the German national team, he asked Nowitzki. Dirk confirmed it was. How many Americans knew that?
I feel like I got to understand LeBron a little more this weekend. Even though I've been around him at least a dozen times, from locker rooms to parties at the ESPYS, he's never opened up to me much. So this time I observed.
I saw him on the way out of the arena Sunday night. He had finished all of his interviews, changed back into his street clothes and was clutching his All-Star Game MVP award. I liked the fact that he carried it himself instead of doling it off to some assistant to haul. His peeps were waiting for him in the lobby, and he greeted each one -- male and female -- with a customized, multistage handshake.
With Kobe Bryant limited to a token appearance because of his finger injury, I had worried that there wouldn't be anyone to set a standard of effort. James was one of the main people who assumed that responsibility. And you know Kobe was jealous as he watched LeBron take over the game while Bryant sat helplessly on the sideline. Even though LeBron always praises Kobe, you can tell there's a healthy rivalry there. God, I hope Kobe and LeBron meet in the Finals sometime in the next three years.
One thing about the NBA's big weekend is it ends swiftly, with players hustling out of town to rejoin their teams for practice Monday. The star power drops considerably, to the point that when I towed my bags through the hotel lobby Monday morning a guy was desperate enough to want to take a picture with me. His gold teeth glinted, his breath reeked of alcohol.
"I watch the show every day," he said. "Around the Horn, mother f-----."
J.A. Adande is the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." He joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.