by Chris Foss
The New York Knicks are the NBA’s holiday darlings, having played in more Christmas Day games than any team in league history since the NBA started its annual tradition of playing on Christmas back in 1947. Today the Knicks are such shorthand for ineptitude that they aren’t even on this year’s Christmas schedule. In the mid-1980s, however, they were involved in a string of memorable contests. In 1984, Bernard King poured in a Christmas Day-record 60 points, a mark which still stands. A year later, rookie Patrick Ewing led the Knicks to a 25-point comeback win over the eventual champion Boston Celtics. In 1986, Ewing’s buzzer-beater knocked off Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Christmas Day has long been called by pundits the unofficial beginning of the NBA season, even though that actually was only true in 2011 when the league came off a lockout. Wilt Chamberlain boasted in an interview conducted for the NBA Commemorative Collection VHS set that he once blocked over 20 shots in a Christmas Day game; however, because he played before the league kept records of blocked shots, his achievement has never been verified. Despite the occasional grumbling from personnel and fans, most seem to agree that Christmas Day NBA games constitute a special tradition.
However, when you look at it, is there really any value-added for the sports fan to watch at the holidays? Over the years I have seen many a Christmas blowout—punctuated only occasionally by interesting incidents like Shaquille O’Neal’s 2005 tussle with Andrew Bynum, and a Golden State-LA Clippers brawl a few years ago—and increasingly wondered if the Christmas tradition really matters. If the NBA’s ratings from Christmas Day 2014 are any indication, though, it’s clear that there will continue to be games played on the holidays.
When I was a kid, I would tune into the games, but I’d just as quickly tune out, because these largely non-competitive early-season games didn’t seem that interesting. Things reached a low point in 2009, when then-Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy blasted the league for scheduling games on the holiday, earning him a healthy pocket-picking from then-Commissioner David Stern. Over on ABC, meanwhile, LeBron James had a big game for the Cavs against the Lakers, scoring 47 points en route to a near-triple double. The game itself was a dud, though, a 102-87 runaway for Cleveland. I haven’t even score-checked the Christmas Day games since, as family time and dinner has taken precedent.
What about games on Christmas Eve, though? Normally this day has been a dead-zone for sports. The NBA is off, understandably, and if the day is a Sunday, the NFL switches its games to the Saturday before. But what are we doing before church that evening (or if you’re not Christian, what are you doing at all)? There’s a market to be tapped here, both in terms of good business and entertaining play.
ESPN showed the way last year with a slate of minor college football bowl games. The almightiest dud of all appeared to be Western Kentucky and Central Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl, and indeed, the Hilltoppers held a 49-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, and ESPN color man Lou Holtz, in the best tradition of Howard Cosell, seemed to be getting a little tipsy in the booth. I turned the game on because I was wrapping presents and I needed a break from It’s a Wonderful Life. Central Michigan roared back, improbably got one final chance with 1 second left, and pulled off perhaps the craziest Hail Mary I’ve ever seen to pull within 1 point. I was sitting there, yelling in the best tradition of Josh Lyman, “Go for two! You’ve got the Big Mo!” Sure enough, Central Michigan goes for 2 and the win—and fails. You could say they were stupid for not taking the safe extra point to go to overtime. But the point is that this was big-stakes, high-drama sports—on Christmas Eve!
Granted, the day’s other games were not all that good, and the NBA is not going to pull out of their lucrative Christmas Day gig anytime soon. But college football, college basketball, the NFL, even hockey could get wise. The NHL’s Winter Classic has become a huge hit on New Year’s Day. Why not make it a home-and-away series, with Game 1 on Christmas Eve and Game 2 on New Year’s Day? Or perhaps bring teams from power hockey countries like Russia or Canada in for a big-time exhibition in a cold northern city?
Yes, ESPN has college football bowl games on already, but why does it have to be cruddy games featuring cruddy teams? If the College Football Playoff were expanded to eight or even 12 teams, as has been suggested, Christmas Eve would be a natural day for one of the early rounds of games. Have one kickoff at noon eastern and the other at 3:30--that way, to paraphrase Ronny Cox in Total Recall, we’re still home in time for Corn Flakes.
So you add an NHL Winter Classic on NBC Sports and some good college bowl games, but you’re still left with best-of-the-year junk on a lot of the other sports platforms. That’s where college basketball and the NFL can come in. The college kids deserve a break on Christmas Day, but you know coaches are likely making them practice on that day now as it is. Why not have a ton of games on Christmas Eve, so that then they get the next day off? Big name out-of-conference matchups could rule the roost, including a prime-afternoon slot featuring a rematch of the NCAA Final Four championship game, just as the NBA typically has its finalists rematch on Christmas Day. And when Christmas Eve falls on Sunday, I say keep the NFL schedule mostly intact, although I would certainly understand not having an evening game.
Whether you’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, or nothing at all, Christmas is a time to have fun, take a breather, and enjoy our families. Leagues and colleges should coordinate annually to make sure that as often as possible teams don’t play on the holidays in back-to-back years, and never have a game on Christmas Eve followed by practice the next day. With a little bit of balance and some imagination, Christmas athletics can go from the doldrums to become memorable, and yes, perhaps even generate a Christmas miracle.
 This is a surprisingly durable record, held by the Lakers’ Elmore Smith, who blocked 17 shots in a game held almost immediately as soon as the league started keeping track of blocked shots in the 1973-74 season. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_National_Basketball_Association_single-game_blocks_leaders
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tF4MKNiuULc and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6nAwetPDzVM, and even the latter was just a little pushing and shoving.
 From the seventh season of The West Wing, which, despite all of the naysayers, I think is actually a terrific final season of the show: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hiEs34TNY6w
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIVNslHE_j4 (warning: vulgar language at the start of the clip)