Jrue Holiday grew up watching Christmas Day games, with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers almost being an annual fixture in the NBA’s holiday lineup.
He’s never gotten to play on the holiday.
That is, until now.
He’s not alone. Several players will make their debut under the Christmas lights, including New Orleans star Anthony Davis — the reason why the Pelicans are on the Christmas schedule. Then there are some of the top rookies like Miami’s Justise Winslow and the Lakers’ D’Angelo Russell. And the wait may be over for veterans like the Clippers’ Josh Smith, Miami’s Gerald Green, the Lakers’ duo of Roy Hibbert and Lou Williams, all set to play on Christmas for the first time.
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“We got Christmas Day because of Anthony,” Holiday said. “I think everybody knows why. I’m not offended or anything by being passed over or whatever. But it’s pretty cool to play on Christmas. Thank you, Anthony.”
As many as 46 players could make their Christmas debuts Friday, when the league’s holiday slate has New Orleans at Miami, Chicago at Oklahoma City, Cleveland at Golden State in an NBA Finals rematch, San Antonio at Houston and then the Clippers and Lakers meeting in Los Angeles.
For some like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, playing on Christmas is as much of a holiday tradition as presents. Bryant will be in his 16th Christmas game — his Lakers haven’t had Dec. 25 off since 1998. Wade will play in his 11th Christmas matchup for the Heat, who are looking for their seventh consecutive win on the big day.
“I’m so damn happy about it,” Bryant said, “and so damn thankful for it.”
For others, like Cleveland’s Richard Jefferson, this has been a long time coming: His only other Christmas spent on the court was 2002. But it’s a relatively safe bet that the widest-eyed players Friday will be those first experiencing the day in which the NBA dominates the sports landscape.
“It’s an honor,” Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan said.
Donovan remembers plenty of details from his only other involvement with the Christmas NBA slate. He was with the New York Knicks in 1987, playing seven minutes and shooting 1-for-3 in a loss to Detroit. He left Madison Square Garden after the game, caught the train from Penn Station — under the arena — to Long Island to his aunt’s home for the family Christmas gathering.
When his Thunder play host to the Bulls on Friday, Donovan will actually be the coach with the edge in Christmas experience: Fred Hoiberg, in his first season coaching Chicago, spent parts of 10 seasons in the league as a player but never got in a Dec. 25 game.
“I think playing on Christmas Day is always an exciting time,” Donovan said.
Many of the league’s biggest names are in this year’s lineup: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, Chris Paul and LaMarcus Aldridge.
“It’s a fun day,” said Aldridge, who hasn’t played on Christmas since 2010 and is in his first season with San Antonio. “Everybody’s at home waiting for the games. It’s an honor to be on Christmas Day. I think everybody’s looking forward to it, for sure.”
Few are probably looking forward to it more than Davis. The start to the season has been dreadful for New Orleans, but that won’t matter to him on Friday. He remembers being outvoted when he wanted to watch cartoons on Christmas as a kid, with family members keeping the television on the NBA games instead.
Now he’ll be the one trumping the cartoons.
“We know all the hype around the Christmas Day games,” Davis said. “It’s kind of a big deal. … Just love watching the games. The past couple of years you watch and I know we could be there. Now we’re finally here and we’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do to win.”