The NBA Is Bullish On Christmas, By Necessity

Dec 20, 2011
Originally published on December 21, 2011 8:35 am

This time last year, Phil Jackson, then the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, complained that the NBA scheduled games on Christmas Day. It seemed, he said, that "Christian holidays don't mean anything" any longer.

A few players echoed Jackson's sentiments, but the complaint died aborning. This Christmas, Sunday, the league has scheduled ... (to the tune of "The 12 Days Of Christmas"):

  • 5 gold games,
  • 4 point guards,
  • 3 referees,
  • 2 free throws,
  • and an ad pitch in a timeout.

Of course, this year the pro basketball quintuple-header is not so much a Christmas bacchanalia as it is a debutante coming-out party for the NBA, inasmuch as the whole season so far has been lost to the lockout.

If ever pro basketball were going to give up Christmas, it would not be 2011, because Christmas is to the NBA, well, what Thanksgiving is to the NFL.

All that old-fashioned Currier and Ives/Norman Rockwell stuff –– with the family gathered 'round the turkey, and then the Christmas tree –– is nice. But winter holidays are now primarily for gathering the family 'round whatever games are on television.

Anyway, sports are pretty agnostic when it comes to religion. As joyous as Christmas might be, the holiest day in the Christian calendar is Good Friday, and baseball has never shied away from scheduling games then. Nor, for that matter, has Our National Pastime been any more considerate about the most sacred times in other religions.

Yom Kippur is most famous athletically as the day the World Series went on as usual — but Sandy Koufax didn't pitch. Muslim athletes have an even more trying time during Ramadan, when they must fast during daylight. I spent a day of fasting once with Hakeem Olajuwon, and I couldn't help but believe that his dining routine had to have some debilitating effect on his ability to play 40 minutes or so a game.

Some people get terribly upset when players offer any displays of personal faith. Tim Tebow's kneeling has become a cause celebre in some circles, but games are not government, and athletes are not elected officials.

And, good grief, that Tebowing sort of thing has been around forever. I remember playing Catholic schools in basketball, when every kid on the team would cross himself before he took a foul shot. I asked a Jesuit priest I knew if that helped. "Well," he said, "it does if you're a good free-throw shooter."

Rather than worrying about Christmas Day, if I were the NBA, I'd be worried about all those days on the schedule before Christmas this year, when nobody much seemed to care that the NBA was missing in action. If there's one thing the lockout showed us, it's that no matter how many shopping days before Christmas, we can very well do without any basketball days before Christmas.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Professional basketball is back after labor unrest and a 149-day lockout. As in years past, the league has a full slate of games on Christmas Day.

Commentator Frank Deford says that this year, the NBA may wish for a holiday miracle to help win back fans.

FRANK DEFORD: This time last year, Phil Jackson, then the coach of the Lakers, complained that the NBA scheduled games on Christmas Day; it seemed, he said that Christian holidays don't mean anything any longer. A few players echoed Jackson's sentiments, but the complaint died aborning.

This Christmas Sunday, the league has scheduled (singing) five gold games, four point guards, three referees, two free throws, and an ad pitch in a time-out.

Of course, this year, the pro basketball quintuple-header is not so much a Christmas bacchanalia as it is a debutante coming-out party for the NBA, inasmuch as the whole season so far has been lost to the lockout. If ever pro basketball was going to give up Christmas, it would not be 2011 because Christmas is to the NBA, well, what Thanksgiving is to the NFL.

All that old-fashioned Currier and Ives, Norman Rockwell stuff - with the family gathered 'round the turkey and then the Christmas tree - is nice, but winter holidays are now primarily for gathering the family 'round whatever games are on television.

Anyway, sports are pretty agnostic when it comes to religion. As joyous as Christmas might be, the holiest day in the Christian calendar is Good Friday - and baseball has never shied away from scheduling games then. Nor, for that matter, has our national pastime been any more considerate about the most sacred times in other religions.

Yom Kippur is most famous athletically as the day the World Series went on as usual, but Sandy Koufax didn't pitch.

Muslim athletes have an even more trying time during Ramadan, when they must fast during daylight. I spent a day of fasting once with Hakeem Olajuwon, and I couldn't help but believe that his enforced dining routine had to have some debilitating effect on his ability to play 40 minutes or so a game.

Some people get terribly upset when players offer any displays of personal faith. Tim Tebow's kneeling has become a cause celebre in some circles. But games are not government, and athletes are not elected officials. And good grief, that Tebow-ing sort of thing has been around forever.

I remember playing Catholic schools in basketball, when every kid on the team would cross himself before he took a foul shot. I asked the Jesuit priest I knew if that helped. Well, he said, it does if you're a good free-throw shooter.

Rather than worrying about Christmas Day, if I were the NBA, I'd be more worried about all those days on the schedule before Christmas this year, when nobody much seemed to care that the NBA was missing in action.

If there's one thing the lockout showed us, it's that no matter how many shopping days before Christmas, we can very well do without any basketball days before Christmas.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.