What Thanksgiving is to the National Football League, Christmas is to the National Basketball Association. The tradition dates back to 1947, when the inaugural game found the New York Knicks downing the Providence Steamrollers at Madison Square Garden 89-75. The Knicks have played 53 total Christmas games (more than any other team), are 22-31, have 22 wins on that day (second most) and their most recent Xmas appearance was a 2018 109-95 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks at Madison Square Garden. The only time the NBA was dark on Dec. 25 was in 1998, when a lockout canceled half the 1998-99 season.
A few fun facts: late Portland Trail Blazers coach Dr. Jack Ramsay, who helmed the franchise from the 1976-1977 season to 1986 had the most Christmas Day coaching victories (11), which Phil Jackson eventually matched in 2008. The following are some notable Christmas Day showdowns.
Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Lebron James’ first Christmas Day match in a Miami Heat uniform came on the heels of his handling The Decision, which led to his leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Plenty of haters felt James was going to get his desserts in going up against the two-time defending champion behemoth Lakers on Dec. 25. Instead, the King led Miami Heat to a dominating 96-80 win over Los Angeles with a triple-double line of 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
New York Knicks vs. New Jersey Nets
Knickerbocker legend and future Hall of Famer Bernard King left his mark by ringing up 60 points—the most ever scored by a player on Christmas Day. It was a Madison Square Garden record that stood for almost 25 years. Of course, this being the Knicks meant that despite King putting up one of the greatest single-game performances in franchise history, New York still fell to New Jersey by a score of 120-114.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat
Kobe Bryant has played the most games on Christmas Day (16), having first played in 1996 and making his last Xmas appearance in 2015. But this game would better be remembered for it being the initial return to Los Angeles of former teammate Shaquille O’Neal, who was rumored to have been forced off the Lakers by Bryant. The hype gave way to civility between the duo as Bryant put up 42 points, Dwayne Wade wound up with 29 points in his Xmas debut and O’Neal wound up on the bench as his Heat downed the Lakers by a score of 104-102.
New York Knicks vs. Boston Celtics
With the Larry Bird-led Celtics viewed as heavy favorites, not much was expected from the Knicks, despite it being the first Yuletide game for their heralded rookie first-round draft pick Patrick Ewing. Boston took an early 25-point lead, but after much clawing, New York tied the game by the fourth quarter. Two overtimes later, the Knicks came out on top 113-104 with Ewing ending up with a double-double of 32 points and 11 rebounds in this upset over New York’s New England rivals.
Philadelphia Warriors vs. Syracuse Nationals
In his rookie season Christmas debut, Wilt Chamberlain put up 45 points and grabbed 34 boards. Wilt the Stilt was only getting started, as two years later he put up even more garish Xmas numbers in a one-point loss to the Knicks where his line read 59 points and 36 rebounds. And yes, that was the same season he put up 100 points against the Knicks and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.
Cincinnati Royals vs. Detroit Pistons
The first time Oscar Robertson suited up for this holiday match-up, he unsurprisingly posted a triple-double: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists. The Big O would do it four more times in the 1960s and was the first of five players to post a Christmas triple-double. The other four were John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).
New York Knicks vs. Chicago Bulls
Michael Jordan’s Christmas Day debut was one of the few times Ewing would best him. Jordan put up 30 points, three rebounds, five assists, six steals and two blocks and while Chicago led New York 85-84 going into the final possession, Ewing followed up a missed jumper with a rebound and a short buzzer-beater to hand the Bulls the loss. The Knicks may have won the battle, but the Bulls would go on to win the war as Jordan would be the victor over the course of several playoff appearances against Ewing.