National Basketball Association Christmas games
The National Basketball Association schedules matchups on Christmas, December 25. It has been an annual occurrence since the league's inception in 1946. Currently, five NBA games are played every Christmas. Unlike the National Football League's traditional Thanksgiving Day games, Christmas Day games in the National Basketball Association have no fixed opponents; rather, they feature some of the best teams and players.
The first NBA games played on December 25 came in 1947, a year after the NBA's inception, when the New York Knicks beat the Providence Steamrollers at Madison Square Garden 89–75. Since then, the NBA has played games every year on Christmas Day, except in 1998, when a lockout canceled half the 1998–99 season, making the NBA the only league to regularly schedule games on December 25.
In the early days, regional proximity dictated most of the matchups on Christmas Day. Teams would usually play their geographical rivals to cut down on holiday travel and allow them to have more time with their families. According to Dr. Jack Ramsay, coach of the Portland Trail Blazers from their only championship season of 1976–77 to 1986: "Christmas meant being at home with the family and having a game we always won. That was a perfect Christmas to me." He has the most coaching victories on Christmas Day, with 11, a record that Phil Jackson tied in 2008.
In the early 1980s, after three straight years of memorable moments involving the New York Knicks, including Bernard King scoring 60 points in 1984, the most ever scored by a player on Christmas Day, and with the advent of television, the NBA scheduled games over the holiday as a showcase featuring the best teams and players.
Teams and players
The Knicks have played the most games on Christmas Day, with 47, and are 22–25 on the holiday. Their most recent appearance on the holiday came in 2011 when they beat the Boston Celtics 106–104 at Madison Square Garden in the very first game of the 2011–12 season. The Knicks' 22 wins are the most by a team on Christmas Day.
Some players have participated on Christmas Day as both player and coach. Doc Rivers played with the Knicks in 1992 and coached the Boston Celtics since 2008. Kobe Bryant has played 14 games on Christmas Day, the most of any player and more than he has on any other date on the calendar, playing his first in 1996, and most recently in 2011. Phil Jackson, who also participated as a player and coach, being part of at least 20 of them, coached during the holiday every year since 1990 (except for 1995 and 2004) until his retirement at the end of the 2010–11 season and won his 1,000th game on Christmas Day in 2008.
Many teams and players that have played on this day have worn special uniforms and sneakers. From 2009 to 2011, the Knicks wore their third jersey, the green/orange alternate which they first used exclusively for St. Patrick's Day from 2006 to 2012. During the game between the Heat and the Lakers in 2010, players on both teams wore holiday sneakers, including lime-green Nike kicks on Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. James and Chris Bosh wore holiday-red shoes with garish green laces. Since the 2008–09 season, teams playing on Christmas Day wear a patch featuring the NBA logo inside a snowflake. For the 2012–13 season games, special edition monochrome uniforms were used. The uniforms, colloquially known as "Big Color", was designed by Adidas. Players from those games also wore colored socks and sneakers.
The NBA playing on Christmas Day has featured some of the most memorable games ever played, including Bernard King scoring 60 points for the New York Knicks in 1984, Patrick Ewing helping the Knicks come back to beat the Boston Celtics after trailing by 25 points in 1985, and again beating Michael Jordan and the Bulls on last second jumper in 1986, Scottie Pippen's last second block in 1994, the first showdown featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as opponents in 2004, Phil Jackson becoming the fastest coach to win 1,000 games in 2008, showdowns between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant in 2009 and 2010, and the opening of the 2011–12 season as a result of a lockout. ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy said about the 2011–12 season on opening on Christmas Day: "It's a different opening day than has ever happened in the past and Christmas Day games have always been a big day for the NBA. This unique situation combined with the unveiling of a championship banner for the Mavericks in a finals rematch, and then to see the Lakers and the debut of Mike Brown as head coach, those things are all going to be very compelling." In 2012, Kobe Bryant became the all-time Christmas Day scorer with 383 points, surpassing Oscar Robertson who scored 377 points.
Rivalries have also been showcased during games played on this day. During the 1990s, each Christmas featured a game involving either the New York Knicks or the Chicago Bulls, with both teams playing against each other in both the Bulls championship season of 1992–93 and 1994, and would have played each other in 1998, if there had not been a lockout. The only year during the 1990s in which neither team played on Christmas Day was during the Bulls first championship season in their second three-peat, in 1995–96. During the 2000s, the NBA showcased the Shaq–Kobe feud. Since 1999, each Christmas has featured games involving either the Celtics or the Lakers, with the two teams playing on the holiday in 2002 and every year since 2008 and facing off against each other during the first of the Lakers' most recent back-to-back championship seasons of 2008–09, the first meeting between the two teams since that year's finals.
Scheduling and broadcasting
Scheduling of games on the holiday is quite compelling, as it is the day the first ever NBA games air on network television during a particular season.
After a season's NBA Finals comes to an end, officials from both the NBA and the broadcast network that broadcast the NBA meet to plan the schedule of games over the holiday during the upcoming season. In most cases, two of the teams that play during the holiday are the teams that reached the finals the previous season. The NBA usually tries to have the best players play against each other. Some examples of this include 2009 and 2010, when the defending champions of those seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers played at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009 and the Miami Heat in 2010, so that they could have showdowns between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James both times.
The first telecast of an NBA game on Christmas Day dates back to the league's early years. In 1947, the Providence Steamrollers played in New York against the Knicks on WCBS channel 2 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Stan Lomax and Bob Edge called that particular game. Approximately 15 minutes later, at 8:15 p.m. Central Time, Joe Wilson broadcast the game between Baltimore Bullets and Chicago Stags for WBKB channel 4 in Chicago.
The first nationally televised Christmas Day NBA broadcast occurred in 1967, when ABC broadcast a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets from San Diego. Jerry Gross and Jack Twyman called that particular broadcast for ABC. ABC would continue to televise Christmas Day games on through 1972. The remainder of these broadcasts, emulated from Phoenix. Chris Schenkel did play-by-play for ABC during this period with the exception of 1970, when Keith Jackson had the honors. Jack Twyman remained in the color commentating position up until 1971, when Bill Russell took over. From 1975-1989 (with the exception of 1982), CBS broadcast a game on Christmas Day.
However, it was not until 1983 that the games became a household tradition, when CBS broadcast the game between the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks and ESPN broadcast the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers (Sam Smith and Dick Vitale were on the call for ESPN). In the 1990s, NBC broadcast a doubleheader each year on Christmas Day and this has continued after ABC took over in 2002. However, in 2004 and 2006, ABC broadcast only one game. For three years (2004–2006) ABC insisted on having a Christmas Day game between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers so that Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal could play against each other. Since ABC took over the NBA, ESPN has also broadcast games on Christmas Day (except in 2006). Since 2009, Christmas Day broadcasts on ESPN/ABC have featured a music video featuring Mariah Carey singing "All I Want for Christmas Is You." In 2010, Carey was featured singing "Oh Santa!"
In 2008, TNT broadcast on Christmas Day for the first time as Marv Albert, Mike Fratello and Craig Sager broadcast the game between Washington and Cleveland in Cleveland and Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller and Cheryl Miller broadcast the game between Dallas and Portland in Portland. This marked the first time that all three networks that broadcast the NBA (ABC, ESPN, and TNT) broadcast games on Christmas Day. This happened again in 2011 when TNT broadcast their next Christmas game, the very first game of the 2011–12 season, which was between the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden with Albert (himself a former Knicks broadcaster) calling the game with Steve Kerr. ABC broadcast the Dallas Mavericks raising their 2011 Championship banner during their pre-game show. In the case of the latter, this marked the first time in NBA history that a pre-game championship banner ceremony has been aired on a terrestrial television network; either Turner Sports or a regional sports network has been airing the said ceremonies in previous years.
The NBA playing on Christmas Day has received a lot of positive comments from fans, players, coaches, the networks that broadcast the NBA, and the news media. They have remarked that it's an honor, as it's not only a chance to play on national television, but also a reward for having a great team and great players.
Before the game between the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic at Amway Arena in 2009, personnel on both sides said that playing on Christmas is a reward. Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said that like most of the players, he always watched Christmas Day games growing up because of the nature of them. He said, "As a kid, you wanted to be on Christmas...I tend to look at it as a reward," and in 2010, called it an "honor" to be part of the marquee games, saying that "I look at it as a privilege. The fact that they asked us to play on Christmas means we're one of the good teams, one of the featured teams." Magic Center Dwight Howard said that he didn't "see a challenge. We're playing basketball on Christmas. We couldn't help it. If you play on a pretty good team and if you have to play on Christmas, so be it. I enjoy it. I'd rather be playing on Christmas than sitting at home wishing I was playing on Christmas. I like it. I think it's fun."
Lamar Odom called it "a tremendous privilege to be able to entertain the world...playing on TV in those games." The Lakers have played every year on Christmas Day since 1999, but would have played every year since 1998 if there had not been a lockout. In 2010, Knicks Coach Mike D'Antoni said that players should be "very fortunate" to be playing on Christmas Day and that "it helps the league, and...it helps other people on Christmas or on the holidays."
Doug White, an ESPN executive, said that Christmas is "Thanksgiving on the NBA side. Obviously, Christmas Day is a day when everybody is home, everybody is relaxing, and what better way to serve them than with as many games as we possibly can...We try to put on the best games possible that people have interest in." Jermaine O'Neal on the Celtics agreed, saying, "It's special because the whole world is watching. It's Christmas, it's a special day, with everybody together to spend time with each other, as far as family and friends. We have the opportunity to do that, bringing our families down with us. It makes it that much more special—the opportunity to play in front of the rest of the world and be together at Christmas with our family."
During broadcasts of NBA games, commentators and the news media have agreed with White and said that the nature of the games played has made Christmas Day the best day of an NBA regular season and that they can serve as a preview of a potential series in the playoffs, and perhaps, the finals.
The song, "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays" has also seemed fitting for NBA games played on the holiday. The home team is 142–75 in Christmas games. The winning percentage of .654 for the home team on Christmas Day is better than the overall winning percentage for home teams during the regular season or the playoffs since 1992.
Even as the players and coaches give their comments on playing on the holiday, there have been criticisms.
In 2004, the news media criticized the NBA for scheduling a game between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers, as it was the first time since their brawl that the two teams were facing each other. While their obvious concerns were valid, this criticism was invalid because the entire regular season is scheduled before it begins, so the other three Pistons-Pacers games had already been scheduled when the first (the game ending with the brawl) took place. However, the (Indiana) fans and players at the game at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indiana were well-behaved, unlike the Pistons fans at the Palace of Auburn Hills the month before, and there were no incidents. The day's other game, between the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center marked the first time since the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat that the two teams were facing each other and the first time that Shaq and Kobe Bryant would be facing each other as opponents. These complaints didn't exist during the 1990s when the NBA scheduled games involving the New York Knicks and the Chicago Bulls.
In recent years, players and coaches have complained about playing on Christmas Day, saying that it's time away from families, even though they call it an honor to be playing on the day. In 2009, Orlando Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy requessted that the NBA do not schedule any more games on Christmas Day, saying "I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game" and said that the day is best spent with family. The Magic was fined for his comments.
In 2010, there were complaints from both sides before the game between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles, although it was a game that millions would be watching. On the Lakers, coach Phil Jackson, son of two Christian ministers, and famously wrote a book on his spiritual growth related to basketball, said that "I don't think anybody should play on Christmas Day" and that it's like Christian holidays don’t mean to them anything any more." On the Heat, LeBron James that "if you ask any player in the league, we'd rather be home with our families...It's not just a regular holiday. It's...one of those days that you wish you could wake up in the morning with the kids and open up presents." However, Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra disagreed, saying, "When your team is viewed as a contending team, you normally play on the holidays and we view that as a good thing—because we've seen it on both sides. Certainly the times we haven't played on Christmas we've had good family time, but it also meant we probably didn't have a great team." Before the game between the Bulls and the Knicks in New York, personnel on both sides disagreed and said that the game brought back memories of the rivalry being showcased in Christmas games of the 1990s. On the Knicks, Coach Mike D'Antoni said "I can adjust a little bit. I can open my presents up at 7 o'clock at night instead of 7 o'clock in the morning." Although Raymond Felton said that "you'd rather be with your family. We're still going to celebrate," he, like many players, said that he was fortunate to have played with his family in attendance. Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau said, "I think it's an honor and a privilege to be playing. I know it's tough on the away team, particularly the players who have kids. But that's all part of it." Derrick Rose said: "I'm going to miss my family, and I hate being away from home. But this is my job and it's an honor to be playing on Christmas."
The NBA doesn't schedule games on Christmas Eve, December 24, to allow players and coaches who have to play on Christmas Day to be with their families. Also families of players and coaches normally attend the Christmas games.
The NBA's Christmas games have garnered some of the highest ratings for a regular season NBA game on television, and it has been seen in recent years.
In 2010, the games that aired on ABC and ESPN delivered the highest cumulative audience ever. ABC's doubleheader averaged a 5.5 rating and ESPN's three telecasts averaged a 1.8 household coverage rating, the highest averages for either network when airing multiple NBA games on Christmas Day, with the game between the Heat and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers drawing a 7.3 rating, making it the second-highest rated NBA regular season game on ABC, trailing only the game between the two teams on Christmas Day in 2004, which drew a 7.9 rating. Because of the nature of the Heat-Lakers game, Miami guard Dwyane Wade had a new commercial unveiled nationally on Christmas.
In 2011, the season started late due to the lockout, specifically, the regular season started with the Christmas games. These games drew larger audiences than the games in 2010. The games averaged 6.2 million viewers, with the Bulls–Lakers game drawing a 6.5 rating, the third-highest rated NBA regular season game on ABC, while the Celtics–Knicks game on TNT to open the season drew a 4.0 rating, making it the most-watched Christmas game on cable. The game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors drew a 2.3 rating, making it the highest-rated Christmas prime-time game on ESPN. The Associated Press said of the large audiences: "NBA fans seem more excited about basketball's return than bitter about the lockout based on television ratings for the league's delayed openers."
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