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| Sports |

Dirk Nowitzki Highlights Invitation-Only Opening of NBA All-Star Jam Session, Which GM Donnie Nelson Calls "Basketball Heaven"

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While the Mavs haven't given folks a whole lot to get excited about lately with five losses in the team's final seven games heading into Sunday's All-Star Game (capped off by Tuesday night's 36-point shellacking in Denver), hundreds of fans lined up yesterday afternoon at the Dallas Convention Center to grab some ink, a handshake and perhaps a brief conversation from nine-time All-Star forward Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki's appearance highlighted an invitation-only tip-off to the NBA All-Star Jam Session, which opens to the public this afternoon with a 4 p.m. ceremony featuring NBA commissioner David Stern, owner Mark Cuban and Mayor Tom Leppert.

Before taking the stage to sign autographs, Nowitzki participated in a meet-and-greet with the first 10 people to buy tickets to the Jam Session when Nowitzki manned the ticket booth on January 25 at American Airlines Center. Nowitzki's life-size bobblehead, which is being raffled at the Jam Session, was also unveiled, to which he reponded: "The head is freggin' huge."

We ran into several politicos whilst checking out the festivities -- Mayor Tom Leppert, Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Pauline Medrano, council member Linda Koop and Dallas County judge candidate Wade Emmert just to name a few. Mavs general manager and president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson was also working the crowd and told us: "I don't know if there's ever been a weekend like this in the history of our game."

Nelson describes the Jam Session as "basketball heaven" and says it's the "ultimate kick-off" to All-Star Weekend. "From knee-high to 80 years old, you walk in and it's a smorgasbord of shooting games, technology and everything in between."

There's no doubt that Nowitzki, who Nelson says is sore and got back from Denver at 2 a.m. Wednesday, was the perfect way to begin the event. "There is nothing like looking in the eyes of some of our young fans and seeing that look on their faces like it's Christmas Day. That energizes anyone."

This year's All-Star Weekend differs from 1986 when Dallas last hosted the event, Nelson says, because the game has evolved internationally as the NBA has implemented talent from Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. "It's almost got an Olympic, international feel to it."

Nelson adds that Cowboys Stadium gives the All-Star Game an Olympic "zest, pizzazz and punch," and he stresses that Cuban refused to play the game at the American Airlines Center because he didn't want to punish the season ticket holders. "The only way we were going to have this event in Mark's mind was if we had it at Cowboys Stadium."

Despite the team's recent struggles, Dallas sits at fourth place in the Western Conference, and Nelson says Josh Howard's "piston is firing" after injuries contributed to inconsistent play. "Finally, finally he's pain free."

The break will benefit Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Erick Dampier (who signed autographs after Nowitzki left), Nelson says, and he expects to "hit the ground running" once regular season play resumes, but there are some players who need to step up. "We've had a little slippage with some other guys, and they know that."

As for any potential moves before the trade deadline, Nelson, as he always does, shut down any speculation that any will be made while also leaving the door wide open. "Don't look for us to make any, but if the right opportunity presents itself, we will squeeze the trigger at any time."

Check out more photos from the Jam Session in this slide show.

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