When Did NBA Christmas Day Games Become a Tradition?
Five NBA Christmas Day games will take place this season, and those holiday matchups are typically viewed as the biggest day of the league’s regular season. The 2022-23 campaign will be the 75th year the NBA has played on the holiday. While NBA Christmas Day games have been a thing since 1947, they didn’t become a household tradition until nearly 40 years later.
Celtics vs. Bucks headlines this year’s NBA Christmas Day games
The NBA’s Christmas Day menu lost a little bit of its luster this year because of a mix of injuries and poor play. The marquee matchup appears to be the 5 p.m. Eastern game between the Boston Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks. The game is a meeting between the two teams who played in an epic conference semifinal a year ago.
Although the teams still sport the two best records in the league, it’s been a struggle lately for both clubs, more so for the Celtics. The Celtics have dropped their last three games — all at home — and have lost five of their last six contests. They raced out to the league’s best record at 21-5 but now find themselves trailing the Bucks at 22-10 heading into Friday night. The Bucks are 22-9 and have dropped three of their last six games.
The slumping Golden State Warriors host the Memphis Grizzlies without All-Star guard Stephen Curry (shoulder). The Warriors are 15-18 and aren’t the most appealing team with Curry in street clothes. LeBron James and Luka Doncic face off against each other when the Mavs travel to LA. To nobody’s surprise, Anthony Davis is injured for the Lakers, who enter with a 13-18 mark.
The other matchups have the New York Knicks playing at the Philadelphia 76ers and the Phoenix Suns hosting the Denver Nuggets. Here is the full list of Christmas Day games:
New York Knicks vs. Philadelphia 76ers – 12 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)
Dallas Mavericks vs. Los Angeles Lakers – 2:30 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)
Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks – 5 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)
Golden State Warriors vs. Memphis Grizzlies – 8 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)
Denver Nuggets vs. Phoenix Suns – 10:30 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)
When did the NBA Christmas Day tradition take off?
Multiple Christmas Day games have taken place since the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until the early 1980s when the holiday hype took off. That’s also when the NBA hype exploded.
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson burst onto the scene in the early ’80s, rejuvenating a Celtics/Lakers rivalry. Television deals expanded, and the NBA became more of a global game. The league began to market rivalries, starting in the 1979-80 season with the New York Knicks/New Jersey Nets rivalry.
The following year, the Celtics, led by a young Bird, took on the Knicks, but then the NBA went back to Nets/Knicks for the next four years, highlighting the holiday schedule. The first of those meetings was a 96-95 Nets win, and then there were two overtime thrillers. New Jersey won 112-110 in the 1982-83 season before the Knicks returned the favor with a 112-110 OT win the following season.
During the 1984-85 season, New York’s Bernard King captured the eyes of all NBA fans when he poured in a holiday-high 60 points in a 120-114 loss. King’s performance played a significant role in building up that Christmas Day tradition.
In 2014, King said he knew he’s have to have a big game that day for his team to have a chance.
“As we prepared to play the Nets on Christmas Day in 1984, I was leading the league in scoring,” King told Sports Illustrated. “Our team was dealing with injuries, so I knew I was going to have to provide greater production than usual.
“Got off to a great start in that game against the Nets and felt great. I could recognize and feel all the spacing on the floor, the seams in the defense, and I didn’t have to think about it. I scored 40 points in the opening two quarters, the greatest first half I ever played in my career.”