David Stern got what he wanted out of the NBA All-Star game even before LeBron James showed he could play without anyone defending him as well as he can when someone actually is.
In a league where image is everything, it was hard to beat the images coming out of New Orleans.
The sight of multimillionaire athletes banging nails and wielding paint brushes to help rebuild the damage Katrina wreaked, if only for a few hours, helped relieve some of the gangsta stigma associated with last year's contest in Las Vegas and showed us that, yes, the players really do have a heart.
Sure, they didn't stay long and were back at their luxury hotels figuring out which celebrity bash they would attend that night without much real work getting done.
Still, if the point was to draw attention to the damaged city and Stern's refusal to allow the NBA to leave it, then the point was well made.
After that, the game didn't mean much, which was OK because not many bothered to watch. The overnight ratings were the worst ever, proving that even soft and fuzzy players aren't enough to attract viewers to a meaningless game they have to work to find on cable television.
That aside, Stern had a lot to be happy about as he pondered the shape of the league he inherited during the glory days of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird and has shepherded for nearly a quarter century into the sometimes entertaining and always moneymaking machine it is today.
Television ratings are for the most part holding steady or are slightly up, a string of blockbuster trades has generated extra excitement, and there's a rousing playoff battle in the Western Conference that will make the remaining weeks of the regular season more watchable than most.
The Lakers are back, Kobe Bryant is happy, and a couple of old veterans got moved to teams where they have chances to win the NBA title. The league is so flush with cash that all former player Keith Van Horn had to do was take a plane to New Jersey to get a bonus of $4.3 million for forgetting to file his retirement papers.
Players who had to be told how to dress and how to act just a few years ago seem to have gotten the message, and the league has been remarkably trouble free since escaping relatively unscathed from the Tim Donaghy fixing scandal. Stern has no Pacman Jones, no Michael Vick, no disastrous public relations problems with steroids or human growth hormone, and no Spygate hanging over his league.
Take away LeBron's 101 mph trip down an Ohio interstate, and there wasn't much off court to even talk about.
The players actually seem to be acting better than the owners, two of whom ran afoul of the law recently. Lakers owner Jerry Buss was convicted on drunk driving, prompting Stern to suspend him for two games from the owner's box at Staples Center, while Kings part-owner Robert Hernreich was arrested in Colorado on a domestic violence charge.
There remain problems, of course, that hammering a few nails before the television cameras in New Orleans are not going to solve. One of them involves the New Orleans Hornets, who have the best winning percentage in the Western Conference yet are drawing less than 13,000 fans a game in their first year back from sabbatical in Oklahoma City amid rumors their owner wants to take them back there permanently.
The Hornets aren't the only team hurting at the gate. After three years of increases, attendance is down leaguewide, and one out of every three seats in such basketball hotbeds as Philadelphia and Indianapolis goes unsold at an average home game.
That could become an even bigger issue if the current economic lull worsens and the country heads into a full-fledged recession. The mythical average family of four needs some $300 to attend a regular season game and perhaps get some popcorn and a few soft drinks, money that might not be so easily spent if its needed to pay the mortgage and put food in the cabinets.
Meanwhile, what should be the league's most prestigious franchise in New York wallows in last place behind its paranoid and megalomaniac owner and coach, while the Supersonics will almost certainly be leaving Seattle because the city - in a potentially worrisome move that should make owners everywhere edgy - wouldn't agree to the usual taxation blackmail to keep them in town.
For now, though, that's all for someone else to worry about. We've got a dominant Lakers team again, the possibility of Kobe and Shaq battling in the playoffs, and a Celtics team that is stirring some memories of the storied past in Boston.
Who knows, the playoffs might be so interesting we'll forget that they last almost as long as the regular season.
Indeed, Stern has plenty to be pleased about.
Most importantly, though, he should be happy his game suddenly seems fun again.
These days that's about all any sport can hope for.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlbergap.org

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