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NBA hoops is a great Christmas gift for fans

When I was a child, the night before Christmas spun on an axis of great expectations and delicious dreams. Over time, I lost that version of the secular Christmas to adulthood. I regained it through the shimmering brown eyes of my children, only to lose it again when they grew up.

But this Christmas Eve, I’ll again look to Christmas Day with a childlike excitement. That’s because the NBA will play five games Tuesday, a series of gifts that I and other fans will open from the Milwaukee Bucks-New York Knicks game at noon in New York to the Portland Trailblazers’ game at the Utah Jazz, which should end after midnight East Coast time.

The unscripted drama of the games will feature everything, including an old rivalry with new stars in the Philadelphia 76ers/Boston Celtics game and another way of posing, if not answering, a perennially tantalizing question in the league: How far can LeBron James, now of the Los Angeles Lakers, take a motley crew? This Christmas, LeBron takes the King James version of the NBA saga, “The Quest for the Championship”, to Northern California. The Lakers will play the Golden State Warriors, the reigning champions. And in Houston, the Rockets will play host to the Oklahoma City Thunder, with both teams seeking to show they have fully recovered from early season struggles.

Oh, to be sure, on the surface Christmas Day NBA games have little to do with the “real meaning” of Christmas. After all, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which chronicle the birth of Jesus, make no obvious mention of basketball.

Nevertheless, it has come to pass that on Christmas Day the NBA presents exciting hoops intertwined with reminders to fans to seek to help others, even as they indulge themselves in another helping of turkey and basketball.

Scholars tell us that the modern secular celebration of Christmas, from Santa Claus to the Christmas tree, are rooted in myriad traditions and influences.

And basketball, invented by Canadian James Naismith in 1891, and refined and practiced all over the world since, is also rooted in many traditions, from big-city American playgrounds to European gymnasiums, the crossover dribble to the Euro step.

Like jazz, hip-hop and the modern secular Christmas, NBA basketball is so compelling because of all the influences it continues to absorb.

Like so many Christmas lights, the richness of the NBA is strung together with its demographic and stylistic diversity. When I watch NBA players, I hear Abbey Lincoln sing her song “People in Me,” which celebrates a vibrant and mixed heritage that helped her and the nation survive and prosper.

Furthermore, when Stephen Curry, James Harden and Kyrie Irving dribble, I hear the staccato rhythms of African drums. I imagine seeing the facial expression of Marques Haynes of the Harlem Globetrotters on the faces of today’s stylish dribblers. When I see Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers rip down a rebound, I see the fingerprints of George Mikan of the old Minneapolis Lakers on the ball. When I see Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers make a brilliant pass, I imagine him getting the ball from Magic Johnson, who got it from Walt Frazier, who got it from Bob Cousy.

Like the NBA and the nation’s most essential and enduring institutions, the secular celebration of Christmas can belong to everyone who learns and uphold its rules, customs and traditions or invents new ones.

Merry Christmas, Feliz Navidad and Happy Holidays.

A graduate of Hampton University, Jeff Rivers worked for Ebony, HBO and three daily newspapers, winning multiple awards for his columns. Jeff and his wife live in New Jersey and have two children, a son Marc and a daughter Lauren.