NEW ORLEANS (AP) -As the charter bus turned right on to Lizardi Street and descended into this city's crippled Lower Ninth Ward, the lighthearted mood on board turned serious and sobering.
Through the windows on both sides, LeBron James, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and other NBA All-Stars viewed unimaginable devastation. Suddenly, those horrific TV images and photographs burst to life.
Quaint, two-story homes once submerged in 25 feet of water still sit abandoned or boarded shut. Other houses bear the spray-painted Xs and numbers signifying rescues that were sometimes too late.
This is where Hurricane Katrina first left her mark in 2005, and where she endures 2 1/2 years later.
``I didn't think it was going to be this bad,'' Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki said moments after stepping outside into a steady rain. ``I really had no idea. A lot of work needs to be done.''
s and did its part to help New Orleans rebound from the worst natural disaster in U.S. history.
Billed as an ``NBA Cares All-Star Day of Service,'' the world's best hoopsters and 2,500 league employees fanned out all over the city to help in rebuilding efforts.
Greeted by volunteers and folks from the hard-hit Holy Cross Neighborhood who stayed to reclaim their shattered lives, James, Nash, Kidd, Nowitzki, Chris Bosh and Deron Williams painted, scraped windows and attempted to raise awareness for a problem that isn't going away anytime soon.
Standing on a ladder, Nash, the Phoenix Suns' point guard whose wondrous game is devoted to the assist, was struck by the work remaining in New Orleans, 80 percent of which was flooded by the storm and when the levees failed.
``It's a great shame,'' Nash said. ``I can't relate to what these people went through. It's devastating. To come here and see what little has been done is disappointing. It feels like the city has been forgotten in a lot of ways.
``This is not what America's about and we should look at why we failed.''
In bringing its signature mid-season event here, the NBA is hoping to further New Orleans' comeback. And in the process, maybe improve its own image, too.
to control.
Those incidents and other reports of misbehavior didn't help the league, which has done much in recent years to clean up a bad-boy reputation. By lending a helping hand to New Orleans, the NBA may be rewarded.
``I feel like we have so many good guys and we're sort of at the bottom of the list as far as how fans view us with community service,'' Utah's Carlos Boozer said. ``Hopefully this does help how people see NBA players.''
New Orleans guard Chris Paul feels this weekend can have a more profound affect on a city he has adopted as his own. The Hornets' playmaker, who has taken an active role in post-Katrina recovery efforts, sees the NBA's three-day visit as an opportunity to make an enduring difference.
``A lot of times, the All-Star game is like hit and run,'' he said. ``But building things is going to leave a lasting impression. This should be the most memorable All-Star game of them all.''
It's off to a nice start.
As he stood in front of his rebuilt home at 937 Lizardi, Jerome Richardson looked up at a small vent on the second floor.
``See that hole?'' he said. ``The one they pulled me out of was even smaller than that.''
When the water rose more than 20 feet in the hours after Katrina, Richardson was forced to crawl into a small space under his roof. With little time to spare, he was pulled to safety by rescue workers who cut through shingles to get him.
Richardson shows pictures in a book about Katrina as proof.
``That's me, and that's Fats Domino,'' he says pointing to a shot of the music legend, who had to be rescued from his home.
Richardson hopes to be back in his home by March. Unlike a few others who fled, he was determined to stay on the block where he grew up, so he could one day enjoy big barbecues on Mother's Day or a neighbor's birthday.
``We can bring this back,'' said Richardson, who has been living in a FEMA trailer while his house is worked on by Rebuilding Together, a volunteer group devoted to bringing back low-income homes. ``We can be what we once was.''
As Kidd and Nash worked side-by-side painting a front door, Nowitzki and Bosh were inside using rollers to coat the walls and ceiling of a back room. The 7-foot Nowitzki is no stranger to a bucket or a brush having worked for his father's painting company during summers as a kid in Germany.
But as he slapped on paint, Nowitzki couldn't help but wonder why the city's recovery has been so slow.
``This should have been done two years ago,'' he said. ``This city needs a lot more help than us painting the walls. But hopefully this will be educational and us being out here will help get the message out. They need all the help they can get.''
About 30 minutes after the All-Stars got started, a dreary, cloudy Friday suddenly gave way to rays of sunshine - a symbolic moment on a day devoted to hope.
Like the waters, New Orleans can rise again.

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