On Dec. 25, 1976, George McGinnis made a last-second jumper to lift his Philadelphia 76ers over the New York Knicks. Bill Campbell, the Sixers’ announcer, proclaimed a festive benediction, “Merry Christmas, everybody.”
This day, the 76ers and the Knicks will battle anew, in a noon tipoff, the first of five NBA games that will wrap around the holiday and put a bow on top. The Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles will play the NFL season’s last Monday Night Football game, too. But NBA basketball will dominate the holiday’s pro sports menu.
In the future cultural historians will divine how Christmas became a holiday festooned with NBA basketball.
After all, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which chronicle the birth of Jesus, make no obvious mention of basketball. And the season’s secular gospels — Clement Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — don’t mention basketball, either, though both stories present people flying through the air, as many NBA players will do.
Nevertheless, NBA basketball will be as much of many families’ Christmas stories as watching holiday movie marathons will be in others.
Although NBA basketball is not rooted in the religious or secular Christmas gospels, the sport often reflects the spirit of the holiday.
When the Los Angeles Lakers’ Lonzo Ball struggled with his shooting, three kings, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, sought to shield the young guard from criticism. Later, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas, old friends suffering through 25 years of estrangement, reconciled, just as old friends do in holiday movies, just as more real-life estranged friends and family members should this Christmas.
More important, the NBA melds player activism and league philanthropy, maintaining the spirit of Christmas giving all year.
Furthermore, basketball is an ecumenical sport, melding influences from the New York Rens of the 1920s to the Soviet National team of the 1970s. Or put another way, like jazz and hip-hop, at its best, NBA basketball influences the world and learns from the world, too.
Basketball is played in all 50 states and all around the world; it’s equally at home on the playground blacktop or on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Still, today’s NBA, like jazz and hip-hop communities, embraces being rooted in African-American style, rhythms and sensibilities, a charisma exemplified by Cab Calloway, who was born on Christmas Day, and James Brown who died on the holiday.
But when the great NBA teams come together, it’s as if all the players speak the same language: winning and entertaining.
There are some in our great country who seek to ignore the NBA’s lessons of inclusiveness: They seek to circumscribe how we mark the fall and winter holidays. They seek to make “Merry Christmas” the only magic words that open the door to a glittering holiday season.
Still, about 90 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas. But it’s the way the country accommodates (and seeks to benefit from) Christmas and fall and winter holidays, and the people who don’t celebrate them, that helps define America’s greatness.
This day, after the last NBA basketball game has been played between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Los Angeles Lakers, the nation will be stuffed with turkey and hoops.
We can wish one another glad tidings. The words will taste sweet and All-American in our mouths, like apple pie or flan or baklava or ginger ice cream or kugel.
Merry Christmas, everybody. And happy holidays, too.