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A Christmas (Sports) Story

By Max Toth

We all know that Christmas is a time for appreciating those that matter most to us - our friends and family. 

But what happens when you’re tired of spending all day making small talk with your relatives? 

I mean, there's only so many ways you can respond to uncles and aunts who seem to be amazed that you're growing. It's called puberty, people.

Fortunately, however, sports has your back. Christmas Day games have always been a popular experiment amongst a lot of North American pro sports leagues, producing some interesting stories and results. 

So, here’s a holiday history lesson on the story behind these festive specials.

Christmas Day games have long been a staple of the NBA calendar as top contenders (and the New York Knicks) annually clash in games that often turn into playoff previews. In fact, Christmas contests are almost as old as the NBA itself as the inaugural game, between the Knicks and Providence Steamrollers, was played in 1947, just a year after the NBA’s inception. The Knicks won 89-75 in Madison Square Garden and a Yuletide tradition was born. 

Despite that early victory, however, the Knicks have struggled overall on December 25th, suffering the most Christmas defeats in NBA history. Still, they have been blessed with a sprinkling of holiday magic. Most notably, the Christmas Day points record has come from a Knick, as Bernard King dropped an incredible 60 points on Christmas Day ‘84. Another great moment came for New York when Patrick Ewing led them back from a 25 point deficit to defeat the Boston Celtics in 1985. 

The most memorable NBA Christmas game however, is almost undisputed and has absolutely nothing to do with the Knicks. On Christmas Day 2006, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal faced off for the first time as opponents after Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat following a wildly successful but highly dramatic stint with Kobe and the Lakers. Kobe won the head-to-head battle, scoring a very Kobe-like 42 points on 12 of 30 shooting, but Shaq won the team war, when a would-be game winner from Kobe rimmed out and gave the Heat a 104-102 overtime win. 

This year's holiday matchups will be a little different than usual, as Christmas Day will come just three days after the start of the COVID-delayed season. But actually, this isn’t the first time Christmas will come early on the NBA calendar, as the 2011 season opened on Christmas Day, wrapping up an ugly lockout that wiped out half the season. 

Speaking of good old Collective Bargaining Agreements, have you ever wondered why the NHL has stopped playing on Christmas? 

Well, first let’s go back in time. NHL Christmas games are actually 27 years older than the NBA’s. The first game was in 1920 and featured the Montreal Canadians and the Toronto Saint Patricks (who are now the Leafs). The Saint Patricks came back from a 3-1 deficit to win 5-4, but Christmas games never really caught on and were dormant for six years before they returned in 1926. The NHL then continued with them annually for decades. There aren't really any legendary Christmas NHL games that jump out at you, but there are a few fascinating stats. Unlike their Madison Square Garden companions in the Knicks, the Rangers have dominated Christmas Day. They’re an all-time 24-11-2 on December 25th and once went 21 years without a Christmas loss. After 1971, the NHL fazed out Christmas games and a few years later the NHLPA created a "No Christmas games" waiver that ended the chances of them ever making a comeback. 

The NFL has also experimented with Christmas games and, in fact, the New Orleans Saints and Minnesota Vikings are scheduled to face off this year. One of the more memorable games came when the NFL had the bright idea to schedule the 1971 Divisional Playoffs on Christmas Day. The first game went well, a 20-12 win for the eventual Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboys over the Minnesota Vikings. 

But the second game?

The Kansas City Chiefs and Miami Dolphins ended up playing the longest game in NFL history. While a 27-24 double overtime playoff thriller (won by the Dolphins) may seem like the perfect Christmas present for hardcore football fans, it actually created a huge outcry. Tons of people were angry that the NFL had hijacked their family members and ruined Christmas dinner. In fact, the game was so controversial that the City of Kansas City banned all future games on Christmas. The NFL, meanwhile, stayed away from games on Christmas for 17 years before they occasionally began to mix them in again.

So, what about this year?

A full slate of NBA games with an NFL tilt on the side.

Christmas, of course, is all about spending time with the people you love.

But if they really love you, they won't give you too much grief if you mix in a little bit of LeBron with your festive fun.

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