Skip to main content

National Football League games on Thanksgiving Day are a tradition that dates back to 1934. That’s also why we’re stuck with the Detroit Lions every year — tthey 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

In its first 35 seasons, the NBA staged at least one game on Thanksgiving and played 100 total from 1946 to 1980. 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.

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.

Former Milwaukee Bucks star Sidney Moncrief played a game on Thanksgiving, and he told Sportscasting he wasn’t overly fond of it.

“I played on Thanksgiving,” he recalled in 2021. “I believe it was my rookie year. We played the New Jersey Nets at Rutgers (Athletic Center). The game was not on TV.

“I definitely remember the 45-minute bus ride, thinking, ‘Why am I playing on Thanksgiving?’ I got over it. But I remember thinking, ‘Why am I on this doggone bus?’”

Why did the NBA give up Thanksgiving Day games?

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, but after the NFL added a primetime game to its Turkey Day menu in 2006, the NBA stepped away. There was a revival of the doubleheaders from 2008 to 2010, but since the 2011 lockout, the NBA has shut off the lights on Thanksgiving.

The NBA has since made Christmas its biggest holiday event. Many say Christmas is the unofficial start to the NBA season. Recently, the league has had a five-game slate on Christmas, putting the best teams and most intriguing matchups in front of a national television audience.

The problem with the NBA trying to own Christmas is that the NFL still lands games on the holiday when it falls on a Sunday.

In 2022, the NFL played three games on Dec. 25. All three of those matchups looked good at the beginning of the season when the schedule was released. By game time, they were duds. Still, the NFL’s television ratings crushed the NBA’s on the holiday.

It’s no secret NFL is king, and the NBA knows it.


Red Auerbach Never Wanted the Boston Celtics to Play Home on Christmas? It May Not Be Entirely True