Like a lot of kids, Ryan Anderson had to sneak around on Christmas.
Forget finding presents or stealing a glance at Santa.
Growing up in what he called “the least sports-oriented family in America,” Anderson would have to slip away from his relatives to catch a few plays of NBA Christmas games until he got caught.
“And then I’d change the channel to ‘White Christmas,’ ” Anderson said. “The old one, you know? Bing Crosby, right?”
Among the New Orleans Pelicans, Anderson was an outlier.
For most of the Pelicans — who will meet the Heat on Christmas Day in Miami — slam dunks were as much a holiday staple as stuffed stockings.
Tyreke Evans remembers tuning in to watch his favorite player, Tracy McGrady, put up big numbers on Christmas. Growing up in Los Angeles, Jrue Holiday said “if the Lakers were on TV, I was inside watching,” and that included a host of games on Christmas. Eric Gordon and his basketball-loving brothers were Christmas-broadcast regulars.
Ask Norris Cole about Christmas memories, and he’ll break into the opening notes of “Roundball Rock,” the NBA on NBC theme song that he knew meant Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls were about to tip off holiday hoops.
And Anthony Davis was gathered with family around the TV for the NBA on Christmas whether he liked it or not.
He mostly liked it.
“I kind of had no choice,” he said. “I was probably one of the youngest out of my family. All my cousins, uncles, everybody played basketball. Even if I wanted to watch cartoons on Christmas Day, that TV’s staying on ABC all day.”
Christmas games have been a tradition for almost as long as the NBA has been a league. The New York Knicks beat the Providence Steamrollers on Christmas 1947, the league’s first Dec. 25 game in its second season in existence.
Since then, the NBA has featured Christmas games every season except 1998-99, when a lockout delayed the start of the season until Feb. 5. Christmas doubled as Opening Day in 2011, when a lockout pushed the start of the season into December.
Christmas games joined the national TV schedule in 1967, NBA spokesman Michael Wade said. They’ve been a holiday staple since, an annual marquee moment for the NBA, which mostly owns the holiday. This season marks the eighth straight year the league will have five televised Christmas games.
New Orleans is playing for the second time on Christmas in franchise history, a prime spot that the Pelicans landed, Holiday said, “because of Anthony,” one of the league’s premier young stars.
“To me, it’s an honor,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “If they choose you to play on Christmas Day, they think you’re a pretty good basketball team.”
Gentry should know. He’s lost count of his Christmas coaching appearances but has vivid memories of a few — including Christmas 2008, when he was coach of the Phoenix Suns, who lost at home to the Spurs 91-90 on Roger Mason Jr.’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer.
“Thanks, Roger, for ruining my kids’ Christmas,” Gentry said. “Every time I see him, I tell him that.”
It’s hardly the only time the NBA has spoiled a family Christmas.
The downside of Christmas games for players and coaches, Gentry said, is their interference with family time, particularly for teams hitting the road on the holiday. That inconvenience is mitigated this week for the Pelicans, who tip off at 11 a.m. Central time in Miami and are expected back in New Orleans by early evening.
A minor delay in holiday merriment is a small price to pay, Cole said, for the privilege of playing on the NBA regular season’s marquee day.
“It’s always special to play on Christmas,” said Cole, who has played on the holiday every year of his career, thanks to four straight Christmas games as a member of the Heat. “Only a certain amount of guys get to play on Christmas. Obviously you’d like to spend time with your family, but you know they’re always there. It’s always a blessing. Never take that for granted.”
Cole, Anderson and Gentry all have taken part in Christmas games, and all agree there’s a special atmosphere to the day. Games are hyped for weeks in advance. Atmospheres are different — “kind of playoff-esque,” Anderson said — and more electric. And there’s an understanding that, because games are staggered throughout the day, you’re taking part in the only show on TV at the time.
But, ultimately, it’s a game day.
The Pelicans have won two straight, and a third would tie their season-long winning streak. Watching Christmas games in recent years, Davis said he would think, “I know we can be there.”
Now that the Pelicans have a spotlight moment, their Christmas wish is to make the most of it.
“You definitely want to win the game,” Cole said. “You’re happy that you’re playing on Christmas but, once you get up and down the court, it’s basketball, and you want to win.”