Games held by the National Basketball Association (NBA) on Christmas Day, December 25, have been an annual tradition since the league's second season in 1947. Currently, five games are played on Christmas. Unlike the National Football League (NFL)'s traditional Thanksgiving Day games, the NBA's Christmas Day games have no fixed opponents; rather, they feature some of the best teams and players. Very often a rematch of the previous season's NBA Finals is showcased on Christmas Day.
The first NBA game played on December 25 came in 1947, a year after the NBA's inception, when the New York Knicks beat the Providence Steamrollers at Madison Square Garden 89–75. Since then, the NBA has played games every year on Christmas Day except in 1998 (when a lockout canceled half the 1998–99 season). In contrast, Major League Baseball is in its off-season during Christmas, the National Football League only schedules Christmas games when Christmas falls on the weekend (and even then only schedules games on Christmas occasionally) and the National Hockey League's collective bargaining agreement forbids playing games on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the day after Christmas (In seasons in which Dec 26th is a Saturday, the break occurs from Dec 23rd thru the 25th). In college football, the only bowl game traditionally scheduled for Christmas has been the defunct Aloha Bowl (and for one year, its replacement, the Hawaii Bowl; that game itself moved its date specifically due to ESPN/ABC's acquisition of NBA telecasts, including Christmas Day games). Thus, the NBA is the only league to regularly schedule games on December 25.
In the early days, regional proximity dictated most of the matchups. Teams would usually play their geographical rivals to cut down on holiday travel and to allow them to have more time with their families. According to Dr. Jack Ramsay, who coached the Portland Trail Blazers from 1976–77 (their only championship season) to 1986, "Christmas meant being at home with the family and having a game we always won. That was a perfect Christmas to me." He set the record for most coaching victories on Christmas Day with 11, an achievement that Phil Jackson later matched in 2008.
In the early 1980s, the New York Knicks put on a show three years in a row. In one game (1984), hall-of-fame forward Bernard King scoring 60 points—the most ever scored by a player on Christmas Day, With the advent of television and the excitement caused by these games, the NBA decided to scheduled games over the holiday that showcased the best teams and players.
The Knicks have played more Christmas Day games than any other team, with 53 total. They are 22–31 on the holiday. Their most recent Yuletide appearance came in 2018 when they were defeated by the Milwaukee Bucks, 109-95, at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks have a checkered history on the 25th. Their 22 wins are the second most by a team on Christmas Day,  while their 31 losses are the most.
Some players have participated on Christmas Day as both player and coach. Doc Rivers played with the Knicks in 1992 and coached the Boston Celtics from 2008 to 2013. Phil Jackson, who also participated as a player and coach, has been a part of at least 20 holiday games, coaching on Christmas every year from 1990, with the exception of 1995 and 2004, until his retirement at the end of the 2010–11 season. He won his 1,000th game on Christmas Day in 2008.Kobe Bryant has never coached on Christmas (or at any time for that matter, as of June 2019), but he has played 16 games on that day, the most of any player. In fact, he has played more often on Christmas than on any other date on the calendar, playing his first in 1996 and his last in 2015.
Many teams and players that have played on this day have worn special uniforms and sneakers. From 2009 to 2011, the Knicks wore their third jersey, the green/orange alternate which they first used exclusively for St. Patrick's Day. During the game between the Heat and the Lakers in 2010, players on both teams wore holiday sneakers. Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom wore lime-green Nike sneakers while James and Chris Bosh wore holiday-red shoes with green laces. From 2008 to 2011, teams playing on Christmas Day wore a patch featuring the NBA logo inside a snowflake. Between 2012 and 2016, the NBA and Adidas produced special uniforms for the Christmas games. All of these uniforms feature a particular theme, such as monochromatic designs ('Big Color') and chrome-treated logos ('Big Logo'). In 2015 and 2016, Stance provided Christmas-themed socks for the games.
The NBA Christmas Day contests have featured some of the most memorable games ever played. Bernard King scored 60 points for the New York Knicks in 1984. Patrick Ewing helped the Knicks come back to beat the Boston Celtics after trailing by 25 points in 1985. He then beat Michael Jordan and the Bulls on a last-second jumper in 1986. Scottie Pippen performed a last-second block in 1994.
The first showdown featuring Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as opponents occurred on Christmas, 2004. 2009 and 2010 featured faceoffs between LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Phil Jackson becoming the fastest coach to win 1,000 games (it happened on December 25, 2008). In 2012, Kobe Bryant became the all-time Christmas Day scorer with 383 points, surpassing Oscar Robertson who scored 377 points.
As a result of a lockout in 2011, Christmas Day was also the season opener. ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy talked about that day, saying, "It's a different opening day than has ever happened in the past and Christmas Day games have always been a big day for the NBA. This unique situation combined with the unveiling of a championship banner for the Mavericks in a finals rematch, and then to see the Lakers and the debut of Mike Brown as head coach, those things are all going to be very compelling."
Rivalries have also been showcased during games played on this day. During the 1990s, every Christmas but one featured a game involving either the New York Knicks or the Chicago Bulls, with the two teams playing against each other twice (in the Bulls championship season of 1992–93 and in 1994). They would have met a third time in 1998, if there had not been a lockout. The only year during the 1990s in which neither team played on Christmas Day was during the Bulls first championship season in their second three-peat, in 1995–96. During the 2000s, the NBA showcased the Shaq–Kobe feud. Since 1999, each Christmas has featured games involving either the Celtics or the Lakers, with both teams playing on the holiday in 2002 and every year since 2008. In a great pairing, the two teams faced off against each in other during the first of the Lakers' most recent back-to-back championship seasons of 2008–09. This was the first meeting between the two teams since the finals of the year before.
The home team is 142–75 in Christmas games. The winning percentage of .654 for the home team on Christmas Day is better than the overall winning percentage for home teams during the regular season or the playoffs since 1992.
Of current NBA teams.
|Team||Last Game||Wins||Losses||Win %||Previous team names|
(won 115–104 vs. Cleveland)
|9||11||.450||Tri-Cities Blackhawks (1949–1951)|
Milwaukee Hawks (1951–1955)
St. Louis Hawks (1955–1968)
(won 121–114 (OT) vs. Philadelphia)
(lost 95–78 vs. Chicago)
|4||5||.444||New Jersey Nets (1977–2012)|
|Charlotte Hornets||Never||0||0||–||Charlotte Hornets (original) (1988–2002)|
Charlotte Bobcats (2004–2014)
(lost 119–100 at San Antonio)
(lost 99–92 at Golden State)
(lost 105–94 vs. Miami)
(lost 112–100 at L.A. Clippers)
(won 85–70 vs. San Antonio)
|10||22||.313||Fort Wayne Pistons (1948–1957)|
|Golden State Warriors||2018
(lost 127–101 vs. L.A. Lakers)
|12||16||.429||Philadelphia Warriors (1946–1962)|
San Francisco Warriors (1962–1971)
(won 113–109 vs. Oklahoma City)
|6||5||.545||San Diego Rockets (1967–1971)|
(lost 98–93 vs. Detroit)
|Los Angeles Clippers||2016
(lost 111–102 at L.A. Lakers)
|6||8||.429||Buffalo Braves (1970–1978)|
San Diego Clippers (1978–1984)
|Los Angeles Lakers||2018
(won 127–101 at Golden State)
|23||22||.511||Minneapolis Lakers (1948–1960)|
|Memphis Grizzlies||Never||0||0||–||Vancouver Grizzlies (1995–2001)|
(won 94–88 vs. New Orleans)
(won 109–95 at New York)
(won 121–104 at L.A. Lakers)
|New Orleans Pelicans||2015
(lost 94–88 at Miami)
|0||2||.000||New Orleans Hornets (2002–2005, 2007–2013)|
New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets (2005–2007)
|New York Knicks||2018
(lost 109–95 vs. Milwaukee)
|Oklahoma City Thunder||2018
(Lost 113–109 at Houston)
|6||14||.300||Seattle SuperSonics (1967–2008)|
(lost 97–89 at Oklahoma City)
(lost 121–114 (OT) at Boston)
|17||14||.548||Syracuse Nationals (1949–1963)|
(won 124–93 vs. L.A. Clippers)
|Portland Trail Blazers||2018
(lost 117–96 at Utah)
(lost 111–103 vs. Dallas)
|18||11||.621||Rochester Royals (1948–1957)|
Cincinnati Royals (1957–1972)
Kansas City-Omaha Kings (1972–1975)
Kansas City Kings (1975–1985)
|San Antonio Spurs||2016
(won 119–100 vs. Chicago)
(lost 102–94 at New York)
(won 117–96 vs. Portland)
|5||2||.714||New Orleans Jazz (1974–1979)|
(won 111–103 at Boston)
|16||7||.696||Chicago Packers (1961–1962)|
Chicago Zephyrs (1962–1963)
Baltimore Bullets (1963–1973)
Capital Bullets (1973–1974)
Washington Bullets (1974–1997)
After a season's NBA Finals comes to an end, officials from both the NBA and the network that broadcast the NBA meet to plan the schedule of games for the holiday during the upcoming season. In most cases, two of the teams that play during the holiday are the teams that reached the finals the previous season, and often a rematch of the NBA Finals is scheduled. The NBA usually tries to have the best players play against each other. Some examples of this include 2009 and 2010, when the defending champions of those seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers played at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009 and the Miami Heat in 2010, so that they could have showdowns between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James both times.
The first telecast of an NBA game on Christmas Day dates back to the league's early years. In 1947, the Providence Steamrollers played in New York against the Knicks on WCBS channel 2 at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Stan Lomax and Bob Edge called that game. Fifteen minutes later, at 8:15 p.m. Central Time, Joe Wilson broadcast the game between Baltimore Bullets and Chicago Stags for WBKB channel 4 in Chicago.
The first nationally televised Christmas Day NBA broadcast occurred in 1967, when ABC broadcast a game between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets from San Diego. Jerry Gross and Jack Twyman called that broadcast for ABC. ABC would continue to televise Christmas Day games through 1972. Chris Schenkel did play-by-play for ABC during this period with the exception of 1970, when Keith Jackson had the honors. Jack Twyman remained in the color commentating position up until 1971, when Bill Russell took over. From 1975-1989 (with the exception of 1982), CBS broadcast a game on Christmas Day.
However, it was not until 1983 that the games became a household tradition, when CBS broadcast the game between the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks and ESPN broadcast the game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers (Sam Smith and Dick Vitale were on the call for ESPN). In the 1990s, NBC broadcast a doubleheader each year on Christmas Day and this has continued after ABC took over in 2002, except that in 2004 and 2006, ABC broadcast only one game. For three years (2004–2006) ABC insisted on having a Christmas Day game between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers so that Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal could play against each other. Since ABC took over the NBA, ESPN has also broadcast games on Christmas Day (except in 2006). Since 2009, Christmas Day broadcasts on ESPN/ABC have featured a music video with Mariah Carey singing "All I Want for Christmas Is You." In 2010, Carey added "Oh Santa!"
In 2008, TNT broadcast on Christmas Day for the first time as Marv Albert, Mike Fratello and Craig Sager called the game between Washington and Cleveland in Cleveland and Kevin Harlan, Reggie Miller and Cheryl Miller called the game between Dallas and Portland in Portland. This marked the first time that all three networks that cover the NBA (ABC, ESPN, and TNT) produced games on Christmas Day. As Christmas Day fell on a Thursday that year, TNT was given two primetime games as part of their regular TNT NBA Thursday slate (the same scenario also took place in 2014).
Due to the 2011 NBA lockout, the season opener took place on Christmas Day that year. As a result, the NBA gave TNT the first game of the Christmas slate with a contest between the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Calling the game were Marv Albert (himself a former Knicks broadcaster) and Steve Kerr. Also on that day, ABC broadcast the Dallas Mavericks' 2011 Championship banner ceremony during their pre-game show. This marked the first time in NBA history that a pre-game championship banner ceremony has been aired on a terrestrial television network; either Turner Sports or a regional sports network aired the ceremonies in previous years.
TNT returned to cover an NBA Christmas game in 2017 when the Lakers hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves, but instead of employing either Marv Albert or Kevin Harlan and their roster of game analysts, TNT opted to use the Inside the NBA crew of Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Charles Barkley and Shaquille O'Neal for the game.
In 2018, with the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers facing the Steph Curry and Kevin Durant-led Golden State Warriors being the top-ranked Christmas Day matchup in 2018, the NBA’s schedule read that the Association will simulcast that matchup on ESPN and ABC, with the network’s number 1 commentators consisting of New York Knicks play-by-play guy Mike Breen, former Golden State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson, part-time United States men's national basketball team coach Jeff Van Gundy, and Monday Night Football sideline reporter Lisa Salters, calling the action from Oracle Arena in Oakland, California.
The ESPN/ABC simulcast will continue in 2019, when the Lakers, led by LeBron James and newly acquired Anthony Davis, take on reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and the LA Clippers, in the Battle of LA.
Several fans, players, coaches, and members of the news media support the tradition of Christmas games. For players and coaches, the standard public statement is that a Christmas game is an honor, as it is not only a chance to play on national television, but also a reward for having a great team and great players.
Before the game between the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic at Amway Arena in 2009, personnel on both sides referred to playing on Christmas as a reward. Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said that like most of the players, he always watched Christmas Day games growing up. He said, "As a kid, you wanted to be on Christmas...I tend to look at it as a reward." In 2010, added that it was an "honor" to be part of the marquee games, saying, "I look at it as a privilege. The fact that they asked us to play on Christmas means we're one of the good teams, one of the featured teams." Magic Center Dwight Howard said that he didn't "see a challenge. We're playing basketball on Christmas. We couldn't help it. If you play on a pretty good team and if you have to play on Christmas, so be it. I enjoy it. I'd rather be playing on Christmas than sitting at home wishing I was playing on Christmas. I like it. I think it's fun."
Lamar Odom called it "a tremendous privilege to be able to entertain the world...playing on TV in those games." In 2010, Knicks Coach Mike D'Antoni said that players should be "very fortunate" to be playing on Christmas Day and that "it helps the league, and...it helps other people on Christmas or on the holidays."
Doug White, an ESPN executive, said that Christmas is "Thanksgiving on the NBA side. Obviously, Christmas Day is a day when everybody is home, everybody is relaxing, and what better way to serve them than with as many games as we possibly can...We try to put on the best games possible that people have interest in." Jermaine O'Neal on the Celtics agreed, saying, "It's special because the whole world is watching. It's Christmas, it's a special day, with everybody together to spend time with each other, as far as family and friends. We have the opportunity to do that, bringing our families down with us. It makes it that much more special—the opportunity to play in front of the rest of the world and be together at Christmas with our family."
During broadcasts of NBA games, commentators and the news media have agreed with White and said that the nature of the games played has made Christmas Day the best day of an NBA regular season. They serve as a preview of a potential series in the playoffs, and perhaps, the finals.
In recent years, players and coaches have complained about playing on Christmas Day, saying that takes time away from families. In 2009, Orlando Magic Coach Stan Van Gundy requested that the NBA do not schedule any more games on Christmas Day, saying "I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game" and said that the day is best spent with family. The Magic coach was fined for his comments.
In 2010, there were complaints from both sides before the game between the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles. Lakers coach Phil Jackson, son of two Christian ministers and author of a book on spiritual growth related to basketball, said, "I don't think anybody should play on Christmas Day" and "it's like Christian holidays don’t mean...anything any more." From the Heat, LeBron James said, "if you ask any player in the league, we'd rather be home with our families...It's not just a regular holiday. It's...one of those days that you wish you could wake up in the morning with the kids and open up presents."
Others have managed to voice some discontent while still accepting the Christmas game tradition. Before the game between the Bulls and the Knicks in New York, Coach Mike D'Antoni said, "I can adjust a little bit. I can open my presents up at 7 o'clock at night instead of 7 o'clock in the morning." Raymond Felton said, "you'd rather be with your family. We're still going to celebrate." He, like many players, said that he was fortunate to have played with his family in attendance. Bulls Coach Tom Thibodeau said, "I think it's an honor and a privilege to be playing. I know it's tough on the away team, particularly the players who have kids. But that's all part of it." Derrick Rose said, "I'm going to miss my family, and I hate being away from home. But this is my job and it's an honor to be playing on Christmas."
In 2004, the NBA was criticized for scheduling a game between the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers. It was the first time since their brawl that the two teams had faced each other. Such a pairing was unintentional, as the regular season was scheduled before the brawl took place. The other game scheduled that day drew similar criticism. The game between the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center marked the first time since the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat that the two teams were facing each other and the first time that Shaq and Kobe Bryant would be facing each other as opponents.
The NBA does not schedule games on Christmas Eve, December 24, to allow players and coaches who have to play on Christmas Day to be with their families. Also families of players and coaches who participate in Christmas games, normally attend the games.
The NBA's Christmas games have garnered some of the highest ratings for any televised regular season NBA game.
In 2010, the games that aired on ABC and ESPN delivered the highest cumulative audience ever. ABC's doubleheader averaged a 5.5 rating and ESPN's three telecasts averaged a 1.8 household coverage rating, the highest averages for either network when airing multiple NBA games on Christmas Day. The game between the Heat and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers drawing a 7.3 rating, making it the second-highest rated NBA regular season game on ABC, trailing only the game between the two teams on Christmas Day in 2004, which drew a 7.9 rating. Because of the nature of the Heat-Lakers game, Miami guard Dwyane Wade had a new commercial unveiled nationally on Christmas.
In 2011, due to a lockout, the regular season started with the Christmas games. These games drew larger audiences than the games in 2010. The games averaged 6.2 million viewers, with the Bulls–Lakers game drawing a 6.5 rating, the third-highest rated NBA regular season game on ABC, and the Celtics–Knicks game on TNT drawing a 4.0 rating, making it the most-watched Christmas game on cable. The game between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors drew a 2.3 rating, making it the highest-rated Christmas prime-time game on ESPN. The Associated Press said of the large audiences: "NBA fans seem more excited about basketball's return than bitter about the lockout based on television ratings for the league's delayed openers."
Thursday's victory was the 1,000th for Lakers Coach Phil Jackson, enabling him to become the sixth NBA coach to reach that milestone. The 63-year-old Jackson has a career record of 1,000-423 in 17-plus seasons as coach of the Chicago Bulls and Lakers. He became the fastest to win 1,000 games, surpassing Pat Riley, who did it in 1,434 games.
The NBA told NBC it has canceled the Bulls and the rest of the traditional Christmas doubleheader—Bulls-Knicks and Lakers-Suns.