A history of Christmas Day game debuts
As Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and others make their first holiday appearances, a look back on how other stars played on Christmas
As it is with the NFL and Thanksgiving, the NBA is synonymous with Christmas Day. “It’s about what the fans wanna see,” said Tom Carelli, NBA senior vice president of broadcasting, “and our great storylines.”
For over a decade, the NBA has rolled out a five-game palette packed with the biggest, brightest and most talked-about names and teams. This year is no different. But the more things change, the more they stay the same in some regards. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors became the first set of teams to face each other on Christmas for three straight years since the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers from 2004-2006. While that streak is officially over, the Warriors will welcome a familiar foe in LeBron James—his first Christmas as a Los Angeles Laker. And unlike last year, Stephen Curry won’t be missing the game because of an ankle injury. Speaking of the Lakers, the franchise is set to play on its 20th consecutive Christmas.
Though Carelli has a dream gig — developing the schedule for all 30 teams and, in essence, serving as the NBA’s Santa Claus by selecting the Christmas agenda — there’s a science to devising a timeline conducive to all parties. “You want to make it so it works for the overall schedule, and team travel,” he said. “We made these games priority games. … It’s an opportunity for people to see them when a lot of people aren’t at work.”
The first Christmas Day game was played 71 years ago: an 89-75 victory for the New York Knicks over the Providence Steam Rollers. And 51 years ago, the first televised Christmas game took place when ABC aired a meeting between the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets.
Every year since, sans the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the NBA has become an annual Dec. 25 tradition. Yet, with established cultures comes the equal importance for siphoning in new blood. Christmas 2018 will feature its usual cast of characters like James, Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and more. But it’s also nothing quite like the Christmas Rookie Game. Guys like Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Paul George became Christmas neophytes last year. Meanwhile, a new crop of stars are set introduce themselves to the national holiday stage this year in Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram and Portland’s electric backcourt of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Following the trend of one of the more perplexing omissions, Golden State’s Demarcus Cousins—who never played on Christmas while in Sacramento or New Orleans—will very likely have to wait another year before he can suit up on Dec. 25 as he inches closer and closer to a return following a torn Achilles.
This begs the question. Even the most grizzled of Christmas vets played on the grand stage for the first time. How did some of the basketball’s all-time greats and stars of today fare on their inaugural Dec. 25 game? Starting with the 11-time champ Bill Russell, we work our way up to Embiid and George. How many do you remember?
Bill Russell, Boston Celtics
Line: 6 points, 18 rebounds
Rookies (and future Hall of Famers) Russell and teammate Tommy Heinsohn didn’t have to wait long to play on Dec. 25. Russell didn’t shoot well, going 2-for-12 from the field, but his 18 rebounds were merely a preview of the dominating titan he’d become over the next decade-plus.
Elgin Baylor, Minneapolis Lakers
Line: 12 points
Elgin Baylor, a rookie at the time, only mustered a dozen in his Christmas debut. The outing was an anomaly, though: Baylor finished his career averaging 27.36 points per game, the third-highest scoring average in NBA history.
Wilt Chamberlain, Philadelphia Warriors
Line: 45 points, 34 rebounds
Many of the feats Chamberlain pulled off will never be outshined. His 45-34 stat line during his rookie season on Christmas, however, isn’t one of them. Only because exactly two years later, in a one-point loss to the Knicks, Chamberlain put up even gaudier numbers with 59 points and 36 rebounds on Christmas. Yes, for those wondering, that is the season when he dropped 100 points in a game and averaged 50 points and 26 rebounds.
Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati Royals
Line: 32 points, 15 rebounds, 16 assists
Seeing as how Oscar Robertson was 0.3 assists away from averaging a triple-double during his rookie season, it should come as no surprise that Rookie Oscar actually dropped a triple-double on his first holiday work trip. “The Big O” is the first of five players to register a Christmas triple-double, and he did it four times in the 1960s alone. The other four are John Havlicek (1967), Billy Cunningham (1970), LeBron James (2010) and Russell Westbrook (2013).
Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers
Line: 31 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists
In a game that featured Baylor and Robertson both going for 40 (and Robertson securing another triple-double, tacking on 12 rebounds and 17 assists), Jerry West’s first Christmas was a successful one.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Milwaukee Bucks
Line: 38 points
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was riding high on having won his first (of six) championships earlier that year. He kept that same energy heading into the very next season, despite taking a L on his very first Dec. 25 outing.
Julius Erving, Virginia Squires and Philadelphia 76ers
Line: 27 points | 16 points, 5 rebounds
Julius Erving is the only person on this list with two Christmas debuts for two different teams in two different leagues.
Bernard King, Utah Jazz
Line: 7 points
Fun fact: Bernard King played one season with the Utah Jazz, his third year in the league. And while his 60-point classic on Christmas ’84 with the Knicks is the greatest Christmas Day performance of all time — one of only three 50-plus-point games on Christmas in league history — this was actually King’s first.
Larry Bird, Boston Celtics
Line: 28 points
Cedric Maxwell, Larry Bird’s teammate on the 1981 and 1984 title teams, said the following a few months ago: “When I finally knew how great Larry Bird was as a player, when I finally realized how great he was as my teammate, it was the day I walked into a black barbershop and I saw his picture on the wall.” Needless to say, it didn’t take long to understand “The Hick from French Lick” was about that action.
Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers
Line: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 steals
Not only was this Magic Johnson’s holiday introduction, it was also Pat Riley’s as head coach. Riley accepted the position after Paul Westhead’s firing a month earlier.
Dominique Wilkins, Atlanta Hawks
Line: 7 points, 2 blocks
Charles Barkley (Philadelphia 76ers) and Isiah Thomas (Detroit Pistons)
Line: 25 points, 11 assists, 3 steals (Isiah Thomas); 8 points, 10 rebounds (Charles Barkley)
These two future Hall of Famers made their holiday introductions at the same time. Thomas was the standard of consistency and tenacity in Detroit basketball, traits that would etch him in history as one of the two best point guards to ever play (along with Magic). Sir Charles, then only a rookie, shot only 3-for-11 from the field. His first breakout Christmas Day performance came four years later. Also, long live the Pontiac Silverdome.
Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks
Line: 32 points, 11 rebounds
Pat Riley is on record saying the biggest regret of his career is losing the 1994 Finals and not getting Patrick Ewing the title he so desperately sought. We forget how truly transcendent Ewing’s game was. In so many ways, he lived up to the unreal New York hype that met him when he was selected by the Knicks as the first pick in the 1985 draft out of Georgetown. For instance, as a rookie, he led a 25-point comeback against Bird and the Celtics, who would eventually capture their third title of the decade months later.
Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
Line: 30 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 6 steals, 2 blocks
Michael Jordan’s first Christmas special is actually one of the holiday’s all-time great games. In a contest that went down to the wire, Ewing capped off his second consecutive Yuletide classic with a game-winning putback. Needless to say, Jordan would eventually extract revenge against the Knicks — over, and over. And over. And over again.
Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls
Line: 14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals
While you-know-who carried the bulk of the offense for the Bulls with 37 points and eight rebounds, Scottie Pippen’s first Christmas would be a sign of the immediate future for him and the Bulls. After three consecutive postseason defeats at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Pistons, the Bulls finally exorcised their Detroit demons months later when Chicago swept Motown en route to its first of six titles in the ’90s.
David Robinson, San Antonio Spurs
Line: 21 points, 12 rebounds
What was going on in America around the time David “The Admiral” Robinson played on his first Christmas? Dr. Dre’s The Chronic was the new kid on the block. And Bill Clinton was less than a month away from his first presidential inauguration.
Hakeem Olajuwon, Houston Rockets
Line: 27 points, 13 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, 4 blocks
Everything came together for The Dream in the 1993-94 season. He played in his first Christmas Day game. Despite the loss, Hakeem Olajuwon stamped himself as an all-time great by winning the 1994 MVP and his first of two titles in a series that would forever link Olajuwon and O.J. Simpson.
Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, Orlando Magic
Line: 18 points, 5 assists (Hardaway) | 20 points, 11 rebounds (O’Neal)
Jordan was off pursuing his baseball dreams. Meanwhile, Pippen was in the midst of his finest individual season and showing that while he was, perhaps, the greatest co-pilot of all time, he could lead a team as well. Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway nearly walked away victorious — until Toni Kukoc’s floater put the game on ice.
Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp, Seattle Supersonics
Line: 16 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals (Payton) | 10 points, 4 rebounds, 2 blocks (Kemp)
The previous season, Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp and the Seattle SuperSonics won 63 games and lost in five games to Nuggets. The series’ defining image is Dikembe Mutumbo’s emotional celebration in the deciding Game 5. Seven months later on Christmas Day, the Nuggets again got the best of the Sonics.
Bonus: This was also our very own Jalen Rose’s first holiday as a working man. A rookie then and future member of the All-Rookie team, Rose came off the bench with eight points and three assists.
Grant Hill, Detroit Pistons
Line: 27 points, 8 rebounds
Individually, Grant Hill’s Christmas debut went well. But his Pistons were no match for the Bulls, led by near triple-doubles from Pippen (27-8-8) and Dennis Rodman (11-22-7). The Bulls won 69 games and their fifth title of the decade six months later.
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Line: 0 points, 1 rebound
Kobe Bryant’s playing time fluctuated during his rookie season. Sometimes he’d start. Sometimes he’d hardly play — like 21 Christmases ago, when he only logged five minutes. He more than made up for it, as he eventually became the all-time leading Christmas scorer with 395 points.
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Line: 28 points, 9 rebounds
This was the Spurs and Lakers’ first meeting since San Antonio swept Los Angeles the summer before. The result of that postseason journey was Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich’s first title together. Mr. Consistent, who captured his first title in the strike-shortened ’98-’99 season, was as dependable as ever in his first Christmas game despite taking a loss. Current Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old at the time.
Reggie Miller, Indiana Pacers
Line: 26 points, 3 rebounds, 4 assists
Speaking of reunions, Knicks-Pacers on Dec. 25, 1999, was the first time the two had seen each other since this happened. As a member of the 1987 draft, Reggie Miller didn’t play on Christmas until a full 12 years later. It’s only right that Miller’s first Christmas win, even on an off shooting night (6 of 16 field goals), came against his best friend Spike Lee’s favorite team.
Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic
Line: 43 points, 9 rebounds
An incredibly fascinating “what if” in NBA history is how differently careers would have panned out if Tim Duncan had signed with Orlando in the summer of 2000. Imagine a combo of Tracy McGrady and Timmy, both of whom hadn’t even hit their primes. Disgusting. McGrady’s time in Orlando was largely spent carrying teams on his back, but one thing’s for certain — he delivered more than Santa Claus on Christmas. In three Dec. 25 games, McGrady averaged 43.3 points.
Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers
Line: 31 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists
It’s pretty crazy to realize this is the last Christmas Day game the Philadelphia Sixers had until Simmons’ and Embiid’s debuts this year. Especially when Allen Iverson still had a few good seasons (scoringwise) before leaving Philly in 2006.
Vince Carter, Toronto Raptors
Line: 15 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 steals
By the winter of 2001, Half Man-Half Amazing was widely accepted as one of the more must-see spectacles in all of sports. Months earlier, Vince Carter and Iverson squared off in an incredibly riveting seven-game shootout that has since gone down as one of the greatest playoff series in NBA history. Unfortunately, though, his inaugural Dec. 25 didn’t bring that same energy.
Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics
Line: 27 points, 6 rebounds
The truth is Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson and the New Jersey Nets were The Grinch who stole Boston’s Christmas 15 years ago. They held Beantown to 32.4 percent shooting as a team. But at least The Truth did his thing.
Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
Line: 31 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 3 blocks
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Line: 34 points, 6 assists, 2 steals
Neither team was great, recordwise, but every game during LeBron James’ rookie season (much like for his entire career) was must-see TV. James’ first Christmas was an instant classic, as the young phenom battled one of the game’s best scorers in McGrady. James exhibited the all-around potential that would make him an international megastar, but he was no match that day for McGrady’s 41 points, 8 rebounds and 11 assists.
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Line: 29 points, 10 assists
As you can see, Dwyane Wade’s first Christmas was fruitful and he played a significant part in the win. Yet, even the young superstar played a supporting role to the game’s unavoidable storyline — O’Neal’s first game back in Los Angeles since he and Bryant’s very ugly and public divorce in the summer of 2004. Wade, though, is the all-time leader in Christmas Day wins with 10 and is set to make his 13th holiday work outing, tying him for second-most ever behind Bryant’s 16.
Kevin Durant, Seattle Supersonics
Line: 23 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks
It was supposed to be a holiday matchup between the top two picks in the 2007 NBA draft: Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. But Oden’s season-ending knee surgery three months earlier derailed those plans. Unfortunately, the theme would go on to define the two selections for the remainder of their careers — Oden as one of basketball’s greatest “what ifs” and Durant as one of the game’s greatest, period.
Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Boston Celtics
Line: 22 points, 9 assists (Garnett); 14 points, 3 assists (Allen)
In their first meeting since Boston’s 2008 title, capped off with the Celtics’ 39-point destruction in Game 6, the two storied franchises resumed their rivalry nine Dec. 25s ago. The Lakers’ win was Phil Jackson’s 1,000th. But even more fascinating, after more than a decade in the league for both Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, Christmas 2008 was both The Big Ticket and Jesus Shuttlesworth’s first.
Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic) and Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets)
Line: 12 points, 15 rebounds, 3 blocks (Howard); 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists (Paul)
CP3 and D12 earned gold medals months earlier in Beijing at the 2008 Olympics as members of the “Redeem Team.” But neither young superstar exactly made the grandest impression on his first Christmas. Don’t expect a similar outing from Paul this year, though.
Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets
Line: 32 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists
Carmelo Anthony in a Nuggets uniform feels like a distant memory. His near double-double on Christmas would’ve been enough for a Denver win had it not been for Brandon Roy’s 41. ‘Melo is averaging 33.2 points in five Christmas games, the highest among all players who have played in four or more games on Dec. 25.
Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Line: 24 points, 13 rebounds
Bosh never played on Christmas while playing in Drake’s hometown. That quickly changed once he joined the Miami Heat. Bosh’s grown man double-double seven years ago helped lead the charge on the “Big Three’s” first Dec. 25 extravaganza. His other two superstar brothers put in work as well: Wade with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and James with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder
Line: 19 points, 4 assists, 3 steals (Westbrook); 21 points (Harden)
Now is time for the occasional reminder that the Oklahoma City Thunder had three of the current top 10 players in the world on their team at one point. Two of them are MVPs — and James Harden could very well complete the trifecta this season. Oh, and Durant went for 44 in this game, in case you’re wondering.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Line: 4 points (2 of 15 field goals, 0-for-5 on 3s), 11 assists
Despite this horrible day at the office, it’s safe to say that Stephen Curry guy turned out halfway decent at this professional basketball thing. A year later, his fellow “Splash Brother,” Klay Thompson, made his Christmas debut in a 105-86 opening-night loss (due to the shortened season) against the Clippers. Thompson had seven points off the bench.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Line: 25 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists
It still feels weird to refer to Kyrie Irving as “the former Cav.” But that’s exactly what he was three years ago when the new-look Cavaliers traveled to Miami for James’ first trip back to South Beach since returning to Cleveland.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Line: 24 points, 6 rebounds, 11 assists
Sure, the Knicks were absolutely pathetic headed into this game with a record of 5-26. But that doesn’t mean John Wall’s Christmas debut was any less nasty to watch.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Line: 13 points, 7 rebounds
This has absolutely nothing to do anything, but the Leonardo DiCaprio classic The Wolf of Wall Street also hit theaters this same day. So that’s a perfectly good excuse if you happened to miss Kawhi Leonard’s first Christmas.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Line: 29 points, 15 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals, 3 blocks
Anthony Davis did most of his damage in the first half with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks. Both teams barely shot 40 percent for the game, but it was Bosh and Wade, the remaining two of Miami’s “Big Three,” who’d ultimately leave a lump of coal in Davis’ Christmas stocking.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Line: 22 points, 12 rebounds
With Anthony in Oklahoma City now, the stage is set for Kristaps Porzingis to cement his New York legacy more on Christmas as the main attraction in a city full of them.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Line: 26 points, 8 rebounds (Towns); 23 points, 3 rebounds (Wiggins)
The year 2017 marks the second consecutive year the Wolves work on Christmas, this time traveling to Los Angeles to take on the Lakers. While both of the team’s young stars played well in last year’s loss, the addition of All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler may just change the result this time around.
Joel Embiid & Ben Simmons
Line: 25 points, 16 rebounds, 3 blocks (Embiid); 8 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists (Simmons)
Yikes. Look at the last sentence from the entry right above this. What a difference a year makes. Nevertheless, Embiid and Simmons made their Christmas debuts last year in a win with the big man having a better outing than the young floor general. This year they’ve got the marquee slot—5:30 pm EST vs. the Boston Celtics—in what could very well be an Eastern Conference Finals preview —hough Milwaukee and Toronto just might have something to say about that.
Line: 31 points
Despite the loss last year, Kuzma—who willed himself into last year’s Rookie of the Year discussion—didn’t show any hesitation while playing in the closeout game on one of the NBA’s biggest days. And let’s just say: life is totally different this year. On one hand, he’s got this guy on his team who commands a lot of attention and is well-versed in the art of Dec. 25 games. Someone you might have heard of, with the last name of James. On the other, he’s prepping to walk into a terrordome in Oakland. Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and The Dynasty By The Bay await.
Line: 24 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists
It’s still wild to think P.G. never played on Christmas Day during his stellar years as a Pacer. Patience is a virtue, though, and even if he is only one Christmas in, George is currently sporting a perfect winning percentage on the day millions unwrap gifts. This year, George is playing some of the best ball of his career, thoroughly enjoying playing alongside Russell Westbrook. He finds himself in the MVP conversation himself for his play on both sides of the ball.