Like chestnuts roasting or caroling, NBA games on Christmas Day are a holiday tradition, one dating to three played on Dec. 25, 1947, that featured the long-gone Providence Steam Rollers, Chicago Stags and St. Louis Bombers.
Nearly 70 years later, the Timberwolves will play on Christmas for the first time in their 27-season history. Invited perhaps a season early, they play at Oklahoma City on Sunday evening in the fourth game of a marathon quintupleheader that delivers in the afternoon a Golden State-Cleveland rematch from the past two NBA Finals.
The Wolves are among the 10 chosen teams primarily because of what young stars Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine someday will be, not what they are just now.
All three were raised on opening presents, eating holiday dinner and watching the NBA on Christmas Day.
Unlike teammate Cole Aldrich, who already has played on Christmas six times with four teams, this will be a first for each.
“It’s always something I wanted to do,” said Wiggins, who grew up in Toronto. “Obviously, I’ll miss having Christmas with my family, but I love playing basketball, and being able to play on Christmas is a privilege. Not many people get to do that. Usually it’s the best teams, the most exciting teams.
“For the NBA to think we’re one of the most exciting teams to play on Christmas, that says a lot for us. I’m excited to play on that day.”
The NBA fined then-Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy in 2009 after he proposed a five-day Christmas break and said he felt sorry for anyone with nothing better to do than watch basketball on Christmas, a religious holiday.
There’s no doubt that playing five Christmas Day games — down from seven in 1947, 1971 and 1977 — disrupts schedules and lives for everyone from players, coaches and referees to ushers and concession employees.
But it also has become the NBA’s marquee day, a stage expansive enough that even the labor lockout of 2011 ended so the season opened with the Christmas Day games.
Played before a captive television audience homebound after giving gifts and eating a feast, the games attract big ratings, particularly the headliner afternoon games on ABC.
“It’s important for the NBA, it’s a great day for the NBA,” said Golden State coach Steve Kerr, whose team plays at Cleveland in a traditional Christmas showdown because the Warriors lost to the Cavs in the Finals. “The NBA has kind of come to own Christmas Day, just like the NFL owns Thanksgiving. It’s not ideal for the players and coaches and families involved, but that’s part of the deal. We’re bringing a lot of entertainment and joy to a lot of people around the country. It’s a price to pay for being in the NBA.
“I don’t think anyone is complaining too much. We have a pretty good gig.”
Obligation or honor?
Well, Van Gundy did once upon a time. Eleven-time NBA champion coach and current New York President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson also has long disagreed with the concept.
Van Gundy spoke reluctantly on the subject recently and said he has empathy for the ushers, ticket-takers and others who work without getting paid the big money that he and players receive.
“I know the league puts a lot of importance on those games,” said Van Gundy, now Detroit’s coach and GM. “To me, look, regular-season games are all one of 82. I know people don’t want to hear that and think it’s cliché, but it’s the truth and most coaches would tell you that. I never looked at it as anything special. I know it’s a big day for the league and everything else.
“There’s nothing that goes together, I guess, like Christmas and basketball.”
That actually rings true, though, for generations raised watching the game’s best teams and greatest superstars — from Jerry West and Julius Erving to Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, among the many — since Christmas Day games were first broadcast nationwide in 1967.
“It’s an honor because you remember as a kid watching sports on the holidays, just like Thanksgiving Day,” said NBA TV analyst Dennis Scott, who played with Orlando on three Christmas Days. “I’ve been a Cowboys fan since I was 10 years old, and I look forward to that [Thanksgiving] game every year as an adult. When you have young talent — like this new generation of the NBA — that’s exciting and the networks realize fans want to see that. If the guys aren’t pinching themselves and being thankful, something is wrong with that.”
Atlanta star center Dwight Howard said he felt like that in his youth, when he considered Christmas Day games a “present” and “privilege” because his friends and family watched him play under the bright lights.
But times do change.
It also matters whether a team plays at home, just minutes away from Christmas morning or dinner, or on the road, where Christmas Eve is spent in a hotel room.
“Time goes by so fast and now you want to have those little moments with your family because those are moments you can’t get back,” Howard said. “You never know what can happen in the course of life. Next year, somebody might not be there. As you get older, you realize it more that these holidays are really special.”
It’s the Show (and the Shoes)
But for those who attend or watch from home, what else do you do on Christmas Day after church, gifts and dinner, unless you’re a movie buff or a bowler?
“You’re put on this platform, everybody is watching,” said Toronto guard Cory Joseph, who played Christmas Days with San Antonio. “It’s a big-time stage, almost like playoff basketball. It makes everybody’s day on Christmas lovely. After the presents, the games are gifts that keep on giving. You watch the game, all the games.”
Towns watched with his parents at home for years, calling Christmas Day “one of the days I do watch NBA basketball.” Together, they all thought about someday.
“I’d watch and dream about the moment, if I’d have the chance to play in the NBA,” Towns said. “It’s going to be really cool to play in my first Christmas game.”
LaVine watched for a reason beyond the games or what could be someday: He sought their fashion, which included special Christmas uniforms he considered only the appetizer.
“What I remember are the shoes,” he said. “I remember wondering what they’d wear and watching Kobe, Shaq, Allen Iverson and just being in awe.”
One year, Bryant unveiled green “Grinch” shoes that broke all convention with Lakers purple and gold. Another time, LeBron James wore all-red Christmas shoes.
On Sunday, the Wolves will wear black uniforms with Christmas green script lettering and LaVine will wear shoes special enough that even he doesn’t know what they will be.
“I have no idea,” he said. “Nike has a surprise for me.”
The Wolves will have a team dinner Christmas Eve in Oklahoma City to celebrate the holiday. The Warriors flew family members to Los Angeles when they played the Clippers there two years ago. Van Gundy doesn’t remember any special Christmas Day considerations when he coached in Miami and Orlando.
“I remember playing in L.A. one year,” he said, “and in the room we did our walk-through there was a Christmas tree.”
But Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau’s heart might have grown a size or two that day he discussed the NBA’s Christmas Day invitation.
“Any time the league asks you to play on that day, it’s an honor,” Thibodeau said. “Hopefully, that’s a sign of things to come.”
Kerr can safely mark Christmas Day off his calendar for years to come. Maybe even Thibodeau can, too.
“I suppose the bad sign is when they don’t want you to play on Christmas Day,” Kerr said, thinking about the NBA and Commissioner Adam Silver. “Hopefully, we’ll keep doing it. But home games would be better, if you’re listening, Adam.”
Staff Writer Kent Youngblood contributed to this story.