Why Doesn’t the NBA Play on Thanksgiving?

National Football League games on Thanksgiving Day are a tradition that goes back to 1934. That’s also why we’re stuck with the Detroit Lions every year; they were the first team to host a Thanksgiving Day game and have done so since, with only a few exceptions. The NFL later added to the entrée with the Dallas Cowboys and later a primetime game. The NBA hasn’t played on Thanksgiving for several years, but it’s never been taboo for the league.

For most of its first four decades, Thanksgiving was simply another day on the NBA calendar. Abandoning it is a more recent development.

The early days of NBA Thanksgiving

The NBA hasn't played a game on Thanksgiving since 2010 but it used to be a regular occurrence.
The NBA hasn’t played a game on Thanksgiving since 2010 but it used to be a regular occurrence. | Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

In its first 35 seasons, the NBA staged at least one game on Thanksgiving and played 100 total from 1946–80. The league scheduled at least one game on the holiday, with five played in 1949, 1950, and 1952. Additionally, the old American Basketball Association played Thanksgiving games in all nine seasons of its existence, a total of 13.

The 1949 Thanksgiving holiday included a then-record, as the Anderson Packers and Syracuse Nationals battled for five overtimes before Syracuse came away with a 125–123 victory. The record stood for less than two years; the Indianapolis Olympians and Rochester Royals played a six-overtime marathon on Jan. 6, 1951. That record has stood for more than seven decades.

The first time the NBA went dark on Thanksgiving was in 1981. It returned with a single game in 1982. The NBA then left the holiday to the NFL and college football all but once from 1983–93.

The Indiana Pacers took over Thanksgiving

In the mid-1990s, one team tried to establish itself as the Detroit Lions of the NBA.

For 12 consecutive years, the Indiana Pacers hosted a Thanksgiving game. From 1994–2005 (save for the lockout in 1998). The Los Angeles Clippers jumped on board for four years to form a Thanksgiving doubleheader from 2001–04. The Lakers took over the game in 2005.

After the NFL added a primetime game to its Thanksgiving platter in 2006, the NBA stepped away. There was a revival of the doubleheaders from 2008–10. But since the 2011 lockout, the NBA has shut off the lights on Thanksgiving.

The Atlanta Hawks got in on the November holiday action in 2009–10, with the Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards, Utah Jazz, and Clippers each hosting once during the final three years of NBA Thanksgiving games.

The record shows the Clippers beat the Sacramento Kings, 100–82, in the last Thanksgiving Day game in the NBA. Given the Kings scored 32 points in the second half, they might have unwrapped the dinner during intermission.

The NBA has a couple of more active holidays

Surrendering Thanksgiving to the guys with the pigskin isn’t terrible for the NBA. Instead, the NBA goes big for Christmas, with a five-game slate throughout the afternoon and evening on the East Coast. Christmas games are a big deal for the NBA, with elite matchups of contending teams and stars. And, well, the New York Knicks regardless because it’s a New York thing.

The NBA also goes all-out for Martin Luther King Day in mid-January, with matinee games across the schedule. The Memphis Grizzlies will host its 20th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Jan. 17, with the game against the Chicago Bulls only part of the festivities.

The Grizzlies moved to Memphis from Vancouver in 2001 and has hosted an MLK Day game annually since 2003. According to Marc Spears of The Undefeated, the NBA scheduled King Day celebration games since the first observance of the holiday in 1986.

The NBA traditionally goes dark one other day during its regular-season schedule. In April, the Monday night of the NCAA Tournament championship game is left open by the NBA to allow the collegians to have center stage in the basketball world.

Football has ruled Thanksgiving Day for the better part of a century. The NBA will have its day a month later. Balance in the universe is maintained. We all win.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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