NBA All-Star Weekend Preview: Inside The New Orleans Musical Programming

Pharrell

Terry Richardson

An NBA exec explains why Pharrell Williams is a global superstar, and how Trombone Shorty helped organize the halftime show over GRAMMY weekend.

Each year, NBA All-Star Weekend boasts an impressive lineup of musical stars delivering stylized performances in between various basketball happenings. This year in New Orleans is no different, with Pharrell Williams performing during the player introductions before the game on Sunday night (Feb. 16); a city-inspired halftime show with Janelle Monae, Dr. John, Trombone Shorty, Earth Wind & Fire and Gary Clark Jr.; a pre-game concert with Jason Derulo, Aloe Blacc and Mack Wilds; and a performance by Kendrick Lamar during the Sprite Slam Dunk on Saturday night (Feb. 15).

Charles Rosenzweig, senior VP of entertainment & player marketing for the NBA, tells Billboard that the league started putting the full bill of performers together last summer by staying in close contact with labels and managers about talent availability.

"This is a little bit of a different year, because we're in such a rich music city, and you can't ignore that," Rosenzweig says. The NBA All-Star Game was also held in New Orleans in 2008, with Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis collaborating on a jazz-based halftime performance lineup that honored the city; this year, the league decided to get more ambitious with its Monae/Dr. John/Clark/Trombone Shorty/Earth Wind & Fire mash-up.

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"We've always had it in mind to do a fusion of hot, current talent and the heritage of the city's music," Rosenzweig continues. The 23-year NBA executive specifically names Trombone Shorty, a New Orleans native, as one of the key players behind this year's finalized halftime lineup. The NBA was working on securing the roster of talent "right to the end," and Shorty was apparently on the phone throughout GRAMMYs Weekend last month -- where he and Orleans Avenue performed "Same Love" with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Madonna -- speaking to the league and helping to lock in talent.

Top-line artists like Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Pitbull and John Legend have been among the halftime show performers since the All-Star Game was last in New Orleans, attaching some star power to an event that typically occurs two weeks after the Super Bowl's own halftime extravaganza. However, the real revolution has been in the musical programming of the player introductions before tip-off. In recent years, artists like Usher, Nicki Minaj and Ne-Yo have been tasked with performing their hits while LeBron James, Kevin Durant and co. take the court.

This year, the player intro performer, Pharrell Williams, has been dubbed the "headliner" of the Entertainment Series presented by Sean John at Macy's, shifting more of the focus to pre-game than to halftime. Earlier this week, it was announced that Diddy, Snoop Dogg, Nelly and Busta Rhymes would all be performing with Williams during the player introductions.

"We've been developing this 'player intro' slot, and it gets as much viewership and production value as the halftime show, if not more," says Rosenzweig. The reasoning to go with Williams, whose solo hit "Happy" moves to No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart this week? He's a global star, Rosenzweig argues -- pointing to the Russian police choir's performance of Williams' Daft Punk collaboration, "Get Lucky," at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. "We program both for the 18,000 people in the arena and... for 215 countries around the world," says Rosenzweig. "Pharrell is as hot as they get now."

Brands like Sprint, Sprite and Sean John all receive major activations during NBA All-Star Weekend, and this year, Bud Light has created the 'Bud Light Entertainment District,' a 30,000-square-foot bungalow that will host the Sprint Pregame Show on Sunday afternoon and a special Trombone Shorty performance following the All-Star Game. NBA TV will exclusively broadcast the first hour of the pre-game concert, featuring Derulo, Blacc and Wilds, and the league-owned network has been consistently broadcasting commercials featuring Pharrell since his performance was announced earlier this month.

Of course, among these musical showcases is some of the best basketball you'll see all year. "At the end of the day, it's all about our game, and showcasing it to the world," Rosenzweig says. After this weekend, Rosenzweig will focus on the musical programming of the NBA playoffs this spring, the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup this summer, and next year's NBA All-Star Game, to be held for the first time at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.