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How the NBA came to own Christmas Day

Dec 24, 2013, 8:45 AM EDT

Houston Rockets v Chicago Bulls Getty Images

How big is Christmas Day to the NBA?

Look at it this way: Last year’s Christmas Day game between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder drew more viewers (9.6 million people) than all but one playoff game prior to the NBA Finals (that was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals between Miami and Indiana).

On the whole in 2012, 33 million people tuned in to watch the NBA on Christmas Day.

For a lot of casual sports fans Christmas Day is the day the NBA tips off — they have followed their fantasy football team closely all fall, and while the NBA started playing a couple of months ago they have only been watching out of the corner of their eye.

That changes on Christmas Day because the NBA has worked over the years to own that day of the sports calendar — once you get your new 70-inch flat screen installed you turn on some hoop because the NBA has put forward showcase games.

“The NBA on Christmas is a tradition dating back almost 70 years,” said Michael Bass, the NBA’s Senior Vice President, Marketing Communications. “Each year, our goal is to provide fans with the most compelling contests based on storylines, rivalries, player matchups, and the history and tradition of the teams and the players. Christmas Day is always one of the most watched days on the NBA calendar.”

Yes, 70 years.

The NBA had its first NBA Christmas games in 1947. Three games were played that day and it worked so well there were four the next year. Then six in 1949. Since then the number of games has fluctuated but the NBA has been consistent in making its presence felt on that day. While the NFL and college football have had some games, the NBA makes sure on showcase matchups.

It is the day that ABC starts its broadcast of NBA games, taking advantage of those matchups.

For the past six years the NBA has settled on five games — a full late that tips off at noon Eastern and features the biggest names in the sport. This year you get to see LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony (if healthy after tweaking his ankle Monday), Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and more. (The games are Bulls at the Nets, Thunder at Knicks, Heat at Lakers, Rockets at Spurs, and Clippers at Warriors.)

“The players love it,” said former NBA coach and current NBC analyst Stan Van Gundy. “The are big games with big audiences and they want to be in those games.

“I never liked the Christmas Day games and wish the NBA would stop playing them. I got fined for my opposition to the games. Christmas should be a day for family. For the players and coaches, even though I don’t like it, at least we benefit financially from the NBA TV contracts. But for the ushers, security people, ticket takers, concession workers etc. they are paid low wages, but have to work on Christmas because the NBA cares about little other than how much money they can make.”

Like Christmas itself, the NBA on Christmas Day can come off as all about the marketing and commercialism. For example you have the shoe brands breaking out special Christmas Day editions of players’ signature shoes.

In addition, this year for Christmas Adidas has designed and the players will wear a special edition sleeved NBA jerseys with an oversized logo — which are available for purchase online, not so coincidentally. LeBron has already said the Heat’s shooters don’t like them, but the reality remains the league thinks it can sell more jerseys with sleeves so you are going to see a lot of those.

Still, just like all things Christmas, if you look past the commercialism you see something good. Something pure.

In this case great basketball played by the best in the world.

Like the time more than 50 years ago Jerry West dropped 47 on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden to lead the Lakers to a win. Or in 1984 when Bernard King had 60 points (but the Knicks still lost). Or LeBron’s first Christmas Day game when he had 34 points but was outdone by Tracy McGrady who had 41 points and 11 assists.

“As a player, you know the whole world is watching,” said former player an NBA coach Byron Scott, while working for NBA TV. “The Christmas and New Year’s Eve [games] have the spirit of happiness. You just opened a bunch of gifts, the kids are running around, maybe they’ve gotten a jersey or two from their favorite player and everyone is watching. So [all the players] try and put on their best performance.”

And those performances are how the NBA really came to own Christmas.

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