Sports Media

Working holiday for NBA

Five games, but not all in the spirit

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / December 24, 2010

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Not long after Mr. Claus wraps up his route and takes his talents back to the North Pole, ESPN and ABC will deliver a few bonus presents to NBA fans with a five-game lineup beginning at noon.

The Celtics will take on the recently revamped Orlando Magic at 2:30 p.m. on Channel 5 in the afternoon’s second game, following ESPN’s noon telecast of Knicks-Bulls.

The champion Lakers will host LeBron James and the Heat in the marquee game at 5 p.m. on Channel 5. A nighttime doubleheader featuring Oklahoma City-Denver (8 o’clock, ESPN) and Portland-Golden State (10:30, ESPN) will conclude the festivities.

“We like to consider it as our version of Thanksgiving on the NBA side,’’ said Doug White, ESPN’s senior director of programming and acquisitions, referencing the NFL’s traditional holiday success. “Obviously, Christmas Day is a day when everybody is home, everybody is relaxing, and what better way to serve them than with as many games as we possibly can, this year being five games. We try to put on the best games possible that people have interest in, and this year we are able to do that.’’

There’s no denying that. This year’s slate of games features the majority of the league’s best and/or most interesting teams. Yet to some participants, playing on Christmas is at the least a nuisance, and perhaps even offensive.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson has been the most vocal recent critic of playing on the holiday, going so far as to wonder whether the league respects its religious meaning. Jackson has long been willing to play a particularly disingenuous Grinch if it benefits his team, but his grievance is justifiable given that the Lakers are playing on Christmas for the 12th straight year.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers has said he considers playing on Christmas a privilege, but agreed that this year’s docket of five games — the most ESPN and ABC have ever aired on the holiday — is too many since it takes so many players and team, league, and broadcast personnel away from their families.

When asked if he’s heard less griping this year about having to play on Christmas, Jeff Van Gundy, who will call the Lakers-Heat game along with Mike Breen and Mark Jackson, flashed the dry wit that makes him such a likable analyst.

“I haven’t heard less complaining,’’ he said, “but that might be my family response, who knows?’’

The barely veiled reference is to his brother Stan, the coach of the Magic. During his own stints as the head coach of the Knicks and Rockets, as well as his time as a broadcaster, Jeff Van Gundy has plenty of experience of having to juggle familial and professional duties on the holiday. In fact, he said every time he’s had to work on Christmas, it’s been a road game.

“But I learned a long time ago in the NBA that 99 percent of what happens in the NBA from when I coached and now broadcasting, it’s so unbelievably good that the 1 percent I wish I could change is not really worth fighting for,’’ Van Gundy said. “If this is what the NBA needs to do to grow its business, and ESPN and ABC have to do to grow their business, sometimes you have to take the good with the bad.

“I do feel for the teams who are on the road on Christmas. It’s such a special holiday. And in particular the early game, and in particular if you have kids, it’s tough. That’s something you never get back. I understand the business part of it, but I understand the great sacrifice. I see it both ways.’’

There’s no doubt that the NBA’s Christmas programming greatly benefits both ABC and ESPN. This will be the second year that a noontime game is part of the package; last year, the noon game between the Heat and Knicks delivered ESPN’s highest rating of the season for an NBA game, earning a 1.9 with 2.6 million viewers.

“So the noon game is a big game for us, and a lucrative window,’’ said White.

In other words, don’t hold your breath waiting for that reduction in games, gang. What we’re doing works.

In fact, as the Associated Press reported earlier this week, it’s been a tremendous season for the NBA on television. Ratings for games on ESPN and TNT have increased more than 30 percent from this point a year ago. Even excluding the five nationally televised games for the supposed superteam in Miami, ratings are still up 23 percent.

In Miami, ratings for ESPN’s broadcasts are up 69 percent. In Los Angeles, 58 percent. And in Boston, ESPN’s numbers are up 56 percent.

Not coincidentally, they are the home cities of arguably the league’s three best teams.

“Early in the year I had Miami as a clear-cut favorite [to get to the Finals], but I thought the [Shaquille] O’Neal signing and how well the [Celtics] fit together, I think Boston and Miami are both neck-and-neck,’’ Van Gundy said. “I think Boston’s starting lineup, as well as LA’s, fits together as well as a lineup can. I think the Celtics are a balanced team, very good defensively, the highest field goal percentage-shooting team in the league. To compete with Miami, you have to have a [small forward and a shooting guard] that can both score and want to compete against [Dwyane] Wade and James. And with [Ray] Allen and [Paul] Pierce, they have that.’’

Is it possible that the Celtics-Magic game — which will be called by Mike Tirico and Hubie Brown — will trump the Heat-Lakers game in terms of interest? After all, the Celtics have won 14 games in a row. And the Magic have a new cast surrounding star Dwight Howard after the recent flurry of activity that brought Jason Richardson as well as misfit toys Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu.

“Not . . . a . . . chance,’’ said Mark Jackson with a laugh. “Although it’s intriguing and exciting, ultimately the talk across the country is the matchup between Miami and the Lakers. You have the three best players in the world [in the Miami-LA game], and it’s going to be an exciting ballgame [since it’s the first time they’ve met this season]. And that’s not to take anything away from Orlando or Boston, but from a fan’s perspective, to watch Kobe [Bryant], LeBron, and Wade is certainly the marquee [game].’’

Leave it to Van Gundy to come up with a whimsical plan to emphasize the league’s marquee franchises even more on the holiday.

“What I think should happen on Christmas this year is for Miami to play both Boston and LA, so there was a round-robin, so they have to play two games each,’’ Van Gundy mused. “Those games you just play at a neutral site and go, and it would have been an extravaganza. I really mean that.

“Each year you should plan this like a round-robin type of thing where you’re just captivated, and the team with the worst record has to play their games in a row, where the other teams get rest. That’s my new league idea.’’

If it works for Van Gundy even half-seriously, it works for us, especially since the mere suggestion of such a plan might cause Phil Jackson to fall over in his chair.

But for Van Gundy’s employers at ABC and ESPN, as well as the league itself, there’s no need for such tweaks. For them, these Christmas Day games are the gifts that keep on giving.

Chad Finn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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