The Rise Of NBA’s Christmas Day, From Afterthought To Full-Fledged American Tradition

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Jalen Rose’s most memorable Christmas didn’t involve a present, unless you consider getting ejected from a game a gift. Rose – then with the Pacers – scuffled with the Knicks’ Kurt Thomas, who landed a hard shot with his elbow. The next thing he knew, both of them had been ejected. Looking back on it now, if he was going to go out, he’d have rather gone out with a bang.

“As I get older I can tell he hit me a lot harder in that moment,” Rose, who will be appearing on ABC as part of pre-game coverage for the Dec. 25 tilt between Golden State and Cleveland, told UPROXX. “I purposely didn’t retaliate because I didn’t want to get ejected. But guess what happened? I got ejected. I look back at that as I might as well have thrown a quick two-piece and run and hide behind Dale Davis after that.”

The fight resulted in a $10,000 fine and a two-game suspension for Thomas, who called Rose “some little punk that acts like he is tough.” Rose left with a story he could tell for years, including on Grantland back in 2014. It was just one of Rose’s memories of Christmas Day basketball, although the tradition has left us with too many to count over the years.

For 69 nice years, the NBA has held games on Christmas Day. And while it hasn’t always had the prestige of Thanksgiving football, year by year, the NBA has delivered compelling games and chances for marquee matchups. What started as a way to see some of the league’s biggest stars and teams – chief among them the Lakers, Celtics, and Knicks – it’s now a showcase of the best teams, including this year’s Finals rematch between the Cavs and Warriors.

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“It was almost a badge of honor or reward to play on Christmas,” Rose says. “The rest of the league was watching four total teams play. Now that we have more teams playing, it doesn’t diminish it. It continues the excitement because Christmas is a holiday, families are together, it’s celebratory. It makes sense. It’s only right. It almost seems more American to have five games on Christmas Day. I’m upset it wasn’t always this way.”

It’s not just a long-standing practice either. We’ve had big moment after big moment. Wilt Chamberlain’s 59 points and 36 rebounds in 1961 (the Christmas scoring feat was topped by Bernard King’s 60 in 1984). Patrick Ewing’s mid-80s dominance of the holiday with a buzzer-beater against Michael Jordan and the Bulls in 1986. Or that epic win in 1985 over the Celtics right after Ewing got into the league.

“As a Knicks fan it was a tough season,” ESPN’s Mike Breen says, “But on Christmas Day, the Knicks overcame a 25-point deficit to beat the eventual champion Boston Celtics in double overtime, led by rookie Patrick Ewing. The Celtics didn’t lose many that season, but they did that day.”

There was also any time Kobe Bryant laced up on Dec. 25 that was sure to be a show. That was the case in 2008 when Bryant went off in a revenge game against the Celtics.

“Boston had just come off its championship over Los Angeles and had won 19 straight going into that game,” ESPN play-by-play announcer Ryan Ruocco says, “and I remember wondering what Kobe was going to do about it. You knew he was stewing after dropping the Finals and wanted a crack at revenge. Kobe played a terrific game and the Lakers ended that Celtics winning streak. Kobe and Los Angeles went on to win the Finals that year and then beat the Celtics in the Finals the year after. I just remember looking at that game as a big one for Kobe and those championship Lakers. “

For many players, the game is an honor. It’s a chance to play in front of a captive audience resting and relaxing. Casual fans and diehards have Christmas circled on the NBA calendar, and the way the league is taking ownership of the day, it’s only going to get better.

This year features the aforementioned Cavs-Warriors, but also delivers the classic New York vs. Boston rivalry, Dwyane Wade and the Bulls against the Spurs, the exciting (even if their record doesn’t show it) Timberwolves against triple-double machine Russell Westbrook, and a nightcap battle of Los Angeles.

“You know the whole world is watching,” NBA Hall of Famer and Lakers player development coach James Worthy says. “That’s one thing when everybody’s home that they’re looking forward to. It’s a big day, not quite like a playoff game, but for a regular season game it’s always been bigger than most.”

The key, Worthy indicates, is to not get too up or too down about playing on Christmas. While the old cliché is that it’s just another game, let’s be honest: it isn’t. Playing on Christmas means juggling family time and finding a way to stay focused with other things competing for your attention.

Worthy cautions against players “drinking too much egg nog,” but it goes beyond that. It’s important to have fun on Christmas, and spend time with your family, but they have to enjoy the honor and try and grab a win. One year Worthy even checked into a hotel because he had too many relatives at the house, and he knew he couldn’t effectively balance preparing for the game with giving his family the attention they deserved.

“It was tough being away from family,” Worthy says. “That’s the only thing most guys would want, but for me it was knowing that all the rest of the NBA teams are at home and they’re going to be watching. The rest of the world too. It was a sacrifice worth making in my opinion. You knew you were getting special attention.”

Rose agrees.

“You get the best teams facing one another,” Rose says. “I like the theme that it’s always rewarding a team that played in a Finals. I really enjoy and appreciation of how that was done. You know it’s going to be great theater.”

Worthy’s favorite memories of playing on Christmas are, of course, “anytime we beat the Celtics.” But he’s quick to mention that today’s fans are lucky to see their favorite players as often as they do. When he was growing up, before he ever stepped foot on the UNC court or won any titles with the Showtime Lakers, he’d get local broadcasts, but Dec. 25 was one of the rare times outside the playoffs he’d get the national powers.

The Christmas Day games are a throwback to that tradition, pitting the biggest names and teams with not much competing against them. Heck, this year’s games fall on a Sunday, and the NFL took Christmas Eve for itself, leaving hoops to face off against the tail end of the A Christmas Story marathon on TBS.

So while Wilt provided the history and Ewing kept the tradition going, Kobe ushered in a new era of can’t-miss games over the holidays.

“It became the best of both worlds,” Rose says. “The one thing about the Lakers brand is they’re going to be on whether they have Kobe, Magic, Shaq, or not. It was actually warranted because Kobe Bryant became one of the greatest players of all time, and if you’re 20 years old, you’d wake up to Santa and Kobe.”

LeBron has continued to carry the torch, and the Warriors are all too happy to try and snatch it away from him.