MIAMI – Phil Jackson and LeBron James agree: Christmas Day games are not the ideal holiday gift.
A day after the Los Angeles Lakers’ coach reiterated his longtime stance against NBA games on Dec. 25, James and other members of the Miami Heat said they also wish they could be with their families on Christmas.
Instead, the Lakers and Heat will spend the holiday together, playing in Los Angeles this afternoon.
“If you ask any player in the league, we’d rather be home with our families,” James said. “I think the people that even set the games up would rather be home with their family during this day. It’s not just a regular holiday. It’s definitely one of those days that you wish you could wake up in the morning with the kids and open up presents.”
James’ two children did their gift-unwrapping on Friday.
Jackson is the son of two Christian ministers, and he famously wrote a book on his spiritual growth related to basketball. The Lakers have been picked for a Christmas game annually since 1999.
“I don’t think anybody should play on Christmas Day,” Jackson said Tuesday night before the Lakers lost at home to Milwaukee. “I don’t understand it.”
Keeping with the theme from recent years, the NBA went with five games again on Christmas. Chicago is at New York to open the quintupleheader, Boston plays next at Orlando, then after the Lakers host the Heat it’ll be Denver at Oklahoma City and Portland at Golden State in the nightcap.
Christmas games are a tradition nearly as old as the league itself.
So, too, is complaining about them.
“I actually feel sorry for people who have nothing to do on Christmas Day other than watch an NBA game,” Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said last year.
And those words drew the Magic what Van Gundy said Wednesday was a “hefty” fine a year ago. He even wondered if Jackson would be fined for what he said in Los Angeles the previous night.
So this year, he took caution when asked about playing on the holiday.
“I think you just have to accept it,” Van Gundy said. “It’s gone from the one game to the two games to the five games last year. It’s part of the league. I had my say last year, I’m not going to have my say again. My owner paid for my comments last year, and he’s not going to do that again.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says he understands the arguments for and against playing on Christmas.
It’s not a new notion for Miami, which beat the Lakers on Christmas in three successive years after Shaquille O’Neal left Los Angeles for the Heat from 2004 through 2006. Miami also lost to Chicago in 1997 and Cleveland in 2007, while beating the Knicks in 2009.
“If you play with a team that doesn’t matter, you never play on a holiday,” Spoelstra said. “When your team is viewed as a contending team, you normally play on the holidays and we view that as a good thing – because we’ve seen it on both sides. Certainly the times we haven’t played on Christmas we’ve had good family time, but it also meant we probably didn’t have a great team.”
Jackson and James don’t always have their opinions in concert.
Jackson, the 11-time NBA champion, said this summer after Miami signed James and Chris Bosh to play alongside Dwyane Wade that the “players obviously wanted to collude together and do this” – and use of the word “collude” raised some eyebrows in South Florida.
On this issue, though, the league’s two-time reigning MVP and most decorated championship coach are in perfect harmony.
“The fans, we always say it’s good for the fans,” James said. “But the fans get an opportunity to see us all year. We’ve got TV games all year. … I don’t care for it too much.”
Nor does Jackson, when he spoke out against the league’s long-standing decision.
“It’s like Christian holidays don’t mean to them anything any more,” Jackson said. “Just go out and play and entertain the TV. It’s really weird, but it is what it is. We have to go to work and make the best of it.”
Heat center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a father of two as well, and he’s been a teammate of James’ for eight years – so he’s well-versed in the Christmas scheduling issue.
Diplomatically as always, Ilgauskas echoed James’ thoughts.
“I understand it’s a business and people want to see marquee matchups on Christmas Day,” Ilgauskas said. “Maybe give teams some time off. I think the Lakers play every year at Christmas. That’s not right. Give them a year or two. Let them enjoy Christmas.”
Miami guard Dwyane Wade has a new commercial getting unveiled nationally on Christmas, because millions of eyes will be watching the broadcast of Lakers-Heat.
But given the choice, he’d rather not play, either.
“Our families understand,” Wade said. “We’ll celebrate when we get back home.”
Spoelstra said the Heat, as in past years, will simply reschedule Christmas in some respects. The team plans to have Sunday off to spend with family.
“It’s tough,” Spoelstra said. “There’s no question about it.”