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Can NBA players refuse to play on Christmas Day?

Some of the most memorable moments in NBA history have occurred during Christmas Day games. However, do players have a say in the matter?

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With Christmas Day upon us, it’s time for one of the NBA’s long-running traditions, the league’s Christmas games.

A brief history of the NBA’s Christmas games

The very first NBA Christmas Day game was played in 1947 - one year after the league’s inception - when the New York Knicks beat the Providence Steamrollers. Since then, the league has staged Christmas Day games every year except in 1998, when a lockout resulted in the cancellation of almost half of the 98/99 season. Unlike the NFL’s traditional Thanksgiving Day games, the NBA’s Christmas Day games have no fixed participants; instead, they feature some of the best teams and players. Quite often, the previous season’s NBA Finalists face off against each other on Christmas Day.

Interestingly, the NBA is the only major sports league in the country with a fixed set of games on the day. The NFL only holds clashes if their usual game day falls on Christmas Day, the MLB is in its offseason, and the NHL has gone in the other direction entirely, having negotiated a collective bargaining agreement that prevents games from being played on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day.

This year, however, the NFL has announced plans to show three games on Christmas Day, causing an audience setback for the NBA.

Teams, players, and the little details

For history buffs, the New York Knicks have played more Christmas Day games than any other team in the league, with 54 in total. They are 22–32 on the holiday. Their record, however, is a mixed bag in that their 22 wins count as the second most by a team on Christmas Day. On the other hand, their 32 losses are the most. Where players are concerned, it’s both refreshing and saddening to learn that the late NBA legend Kobe Bryant is the player with the most appearances on Christmas Day. Kobe played 16 times on Christmas Day, with his first appearance coming in 1996 and his last in 2015.

There is, of course, also a degree of spectacle to the whole affair, with teams typically choosing to wear their third jersey and some form of tribute to the Yuletide spirit. Between 2009 and 2011, for example, the Knicks wore their third jersey, the green/orange alternate, which they traditionally reserved for St. Patrick’s Day. There was also the game between the Heat and the Lakers in 2010, where players on both teams wore holiday sneakers. Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom wore lime-green Nike sneakers, while James and Chris Bosh wore holiday-red shoes with green laces. Even the league has endorsed the festive approach over time, with the NBA logo sometimes featured inside a snowflake.

Memorable games

Christmas Day has seen some of the greatest games played in the history of the NBA, from Bernard King’s 60 points for the Knicks in 1984 to Patrick Ewing of the same team beating Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls with a last-second jumper in 1986. Then, of course, there was the first meeting between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in 2004, and let’s not forget when Bryant also faced LeBron James in 2009 and 2010. Incidentally, it’s Kobe Bryant who has the record for the most points scored in Christmas Day game history, with 383. Another memorable game was that of the Mavericks and Lakers in 2011. The game was also the season opener due to a lockout.

Can players refuse to play?

While there are mixed opinions regarding the Christmas Day games, most players accept that it comes with the territory and, more importantly, the contract. “You just have to chalk it up,” says veteran point guard Ish Smith while trying to remember the last time he enjoyed a complete holiday with his family. “My family’s kind of used to it by now; my fiancee, it was kind of hard for her three or four years ago,” Smith said.

But I always tell them this is my job. This is what I love to do, and I’m for sure going to make it up to you eventually because it’s hard. It’s hard being away from your family. It’s hard being away from people you love, but this is something we love to do, and it’s a sacrifice that you make. I’m thankful they’re willing to sacrifice with us, and I’m sure everybody in the league can say they’re indebted to their family for that.”