Watching the NBA on Christmas Day is a longstanding tradition that’s happened throughout the last 73 years. NBA players have experienced the thrill of playing on the holiday every year except one since Christmas basketball began in 1947. Why was there no Christmas Day basketball in 1998?
NBA basketball on Christmas Day began 73 years ago
The NBA wasted no time realizing that taking time off on Christmas Day was a bad idea. According to NBA.com, the league began playing holiday basketball in 1947, one year after its inception. In the first NBA Christmas game, the New York Knicks defeated the Providence Steamrollers 89-75.
Those Knicks, as bad as they’ve been through the last several seasons, have been the team most featured on Christmas. They have played 53 times, going 22-31. One of the Knicks’ most memorable games happened in 1984 against the New Jersey Nets. Bernard King scored 60 points in a loss, knowing the entire country was watching.
“I was at the height of my basketball career and profession,” King told Newsday. “It was Christmas Day and I felt it was an honor to play. You knew all your peers around the league would be watching.”
Christmas Day had some memorable NBA games
While Bernard King’s 60 points are the most scored on Christmas, there have been some other big moments and memorable games. In 1961, Wilt Chamberlain scored 59 points and pulled down 36 rebounds as the Philadelphia Warriors lost to the New York Knicks in double overtime.
In 1985, the Knicks mounted a serious comeback, rallying from a 25-point deficit to defeat the Boston Celtics. Patrick Ewing had 32 points and 11 rebounds in what was his rookie season. The Knicks won, 113-104, in double overtime.
In 2004, Shaquille O’Neal and the Miami Heat faced off against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers. It was the first meeting between the former teammates since O’Neal was traded to the Heat. Miami earned a 104-102 overtime victory as O’Neal had 24 points and 11 rebounds. Bryant finished with 42 points.
Why was there no NBA on Christmas in 1998?
For 51 years, the NBA had played games on Christmas Day. Beginning in 1947, there had been at least one game played on the holiday. That changed in 1998 when the tradition was halted for a year.
During the 1998-99 NBA season, labor issues plagued the league. The NBA was coming off a very popular championship series when Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz in what was known as “The Last Dance,” labeled by Bulls head coach Phil Jackson. Greed played a major role from both the players and the owners. The owners locked out the players for the beginning of the 1998-99 season.
“There is nobody in the NBA who thought it would be business as usual coming out of that season,” says Bob Whitsitt, then the Portland Trail Blazers’ president and general manager, according to The Ringer. “If someone didn’t expect a lockout for at least the summer, they didn’t really know what they were doing.” The season didn’t begin until February and the league played a 50-game season. It was the first time in league history games were canceled due to labor issues.