Unwrapping the Christmas Games: the NBA, Phil Jackson and Playing on Christmas Day

How often is it that you see a coach from one team and a player from another agree with each other about an upcoming game between the two?

Miami Heat forward Lebron James and Los Angeles Lakers head coach Phil Jackson both question the NBA’s desire to have games on Christmas Day.  But to both, it should be clear as to why they must perform for the masses on the second holiest day in Christianity.

Look at the trend in the NBA with regards to Christmas games.  The NBA notes that Christmas games go back to the 1940s and really became more of staple in the 1980s when the games were televised on CBS and ESPN.  But these Christmas “gifts” generally consisted of one game or, at most, two.

Then in the 2000s things changed.  In the 2002-03 season and the 2003-04 season the NBA went to three games before reverting back to two games.  In 2006 there was only one game — Heat v. Lakers.  This single game was due to the “rivalry” between Kobe Bryant and then-Heat Shaquille O’Neil, the latter not playing in the game.

In the 2007-08 season, the NBA went to three games again.  Then the NBA got greedy and went to five games for the 2008-09 season!  That trend was repeated in 2009 and appears again in 2010.  This season we have Bulls-Knicks, Celtics-Magic, Heat-Lakers, Nuggets-Thunder, and Trailblazers-Warriors spread out across ABC and ESPN.

Why not just have 15 games going and have them all play?  The NBA is already a third of the way there.

Jackson complaints focus on family, which is fair, and Christianity.  Huh?

It’s like Christian holidays don’t mean to them anything anymore.  Just go out and play and entertain the TV.

Mmmm! Those white jerseys taste better than Sunday dinner!

Well, that is disingenuous.  As noted above, the NBA has scheduled Christmas Day games basically since its inception.  It is not as though the NBA suddenly decided to schedules such games.

Additionally, where are the outcries for games played on Sundays?  The Lakers will wear their pretty white uniforms for Sunday home games.  The only team that avoids Sunday home games are the Utah Jazz, based primarily on late owner Larry Miller and his Mormon faith [this season the Jazz have four scheduled Sunday games — all on the road].

And what of Easter?  Easter is considered by some Christians to be holier than Christmas.  Yet, the NBA schedules playoff games on Easter Sunday.  Where is the outcry there?

This Sporting News article also notes that Jackson points out that the NHL and “other major sports” usually take Christmas off.  That is not entirely accurate.  Yes, the NHL takes both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day off (the NBA also avoids scheduling games on Christmas Eve).

But the NFL, perhaps the major sport in the U.S., does not take off for Christmas Day if that day falls within the normal NFL schedule.  The NFL is not going to randomly schedule a game on a Tuesday Christmas, but this season it has one game scheduled for Christmas, which is on Saturday.  Last season, the NFL scheduled one game for a Friday Christmas.  And in 2004, while the NFL scheduled most of its Week 16 games for a Saturday Christmas Eve, there were still two games on Sunday Christmas Day.

Additionally, in years past there have been college bowl games on Christmas Day.  The Blue-Gray Classic — a college football all-star game — used to also be played on Christmas Day.

Easter is not sacred to other sports either.  The NHL allows for hockey games on Easter Sunday while Major League Baseball had a full slate of games on Easter Sunday 2009 [Easter fell on 4 April 2010, which was the end of spring training.  However, the first game of the 2010 season was played on Easter Sunday].

About the only sport that truly holds holidays sacred is NASCAR.  NASCAR avoids running races on Easter weekend and until 2005 did not schedule races for Mother’s Day weekend.  Since 2005, NASCAR has held races on Mother’s Day weekend, but does so on Saturday rather than Sunday.

But NASCAR still does not hold Sunday sacred — most races are held on Sundays.

And maybe family would be a better argument than attempt to float Christianity out as a reason for avoiding Christmas games.  The commercialization of the holiday as strip it of much of its original Christian meaning.  So the holiday is about being with loved ones.

But then again, this is coming from an industry — sports — where being on the road and away from family is the norm.  It cannot mean that much more than it means to others who work on the road.

Now, it may seem cold-hearted to write that; as if athletes do not deserve time to be with their family on holidays.  They do.  But so do truck drivers and Waffle House waitresses.  Many of them work on holidays, including Christmas.  Is Kobe Bryant really that much better than Edna the Waffle House waitress?

She’s just like Kobe Bryant!

Actually, they are more alike than you realize.  Both work in the service industry.  Elite sport is a form of service.  Restaurants provide a service.  Both are products of the capitalist economy.  And as such, the goal of both is not necessarily to provide that service but to make money, both for the worker  — NBA players and the WH waitress — but also for the owners.  However, they must earn that money and to do so must provide their particular service — serving up food or serving up dunks.

Waffle House exists because the market exists.  People want food quickly; WH provides that “want” and in turn makes money.  Supply and demand.

The NBA exists because the market exists.  People want professional basketball; the NBA provides that “want” and in turn makes money.  Supply and demand.

Christmas Day games are all about making money, as if that needed to be stated.  I think it is well understood that the NBA knows there is a captivated audience of people at home and maybe someone — the gambling uncle, for example — will turn on the game just because you can only take so much of A Christmas Story.

Okay, maybe there is a difference between the Waffle House waitress and NBA players.  A multi-million dollar difference.  While waitresses struggle to get by off of petty tips, NBA players get millions for each tip-in they make. Their million-dollar position also gives them a platform to complain about working on Christmas while the Waffle House waitress (and the cooks) must smile and pretend to enjoy pouring your coffee.

On the other hand, that million-dollar difference is also the reason why NBA’ers play on Christmas.  The NBA is not stupid; and neither is Jackson.  The NBA, like Christmas, has become commodified  and commercialized.  It has become big money and the NBA and its respective sponsors know this.  Hence why the NBA trots out marquee games in the middle of December.  We are not talking about the Milwaukee Bucks versus Los Angeles Clippers.  As Jackson’s Saturday counterpart Erik Spoelstra stated, “If you play with a team that doesn’t matter, you never play on a holiday.”

Take that Memphis!

Perhaps James has the most rational quote in all of this.

The fans, we always say it’s good for the fans.  But the fans get an opportunity to see us all year.  We’ve got TV games all year.  We’ve got a TV game on Thursday [in Phoenix].  I don’t care for it too much.

Good point.  Again, it is not about the fans or being anti-Christian or anti-family.  It is about money.  The NBA knows that Heat v. Lakers will be a big draw.  Forget the fans who have “nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game” [Magic coach Stan Van Gundy’s words; not mine].  It is about money.

And honestly, despite James’s rational quote, he and Jackson and Van Gundy and all of the NBA players have no room to complain.  Maybe Jackson and James are simply tired of playing on Christmas every year, the latter seemingly coaching on the 25th every season.  But the system that creates a situation where the NBA schedules Christmas games also created James and Jackson and the rest of the NBA’ers.  The commericialization of the sport made them who they are today and the Christmas games are simply a consequence of this creation.

So go forth and entertain the TV!  Provide the service that basketball fans demand!  You created this game; revel in it!  Millions are going to be watching.

Not me though.  I will be at Waffle House ordering up some hash browns…scattered, smothered and chunked, of course.

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