Players try to balance family, basketball on Christmas

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LOS ANGELES — Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan played in a Christmas Day game in 1987, his one season in the NBA. He was a Knick, and they were taking on the Pistons at Madison Square Garden. What does Donovan remember about the experience?

“I remember catching the Long Island Railroad back out of Penn Station and going to my aunt’s house, where my whole family was for Christmas. I think we played an afternoon game that day,” Donovan said Wednesday, before the team he now coaches dismantled the Lakers.

Notice the memory is what we always associate with Christmas — family. Not the hoops. Donovan played seven minutes and had a bucket.

“I don’t even remember making a field goal,” Donovan laughed. “I, obviously, didn’t play a whole lot. I think playing on Christmas Day is always an exciting time. It’s also tough, too. A lot of guys have family, kids, and sometimes Christmas morning is a little bit different for families now when you are coaching and playing in the NBA. But also as I think it relates to playing on Christmas Day, it is an honor as well.”

For the players, that is the dichotomy of the NBA owning the sports calendar on Christmas Day.

On one hand, they would like to chill with their family, open gifts, eat too much, and joke around like the rest of us. But it doesn’t work that way. LeBron James will be quick to tell you that he and his family don’t have any real, set Christmas traditions because he is always working and often on the road (including this year, when the Cavaliers are in the Bay Area to take on the Warriors).

On the other hand, they know that they and their team are being put on one of the biggest stages the NBA has — it’s a privilege not to be taken lightly.

“I do like playing on Christmas,” Russell Westbrook said. “We’re playing early (2:30 ET vs. Chicago) so we can do gifts, go play some basketball, and then have the rest of the day…

“I think it’s a blessing (to play on Christmas). I think me, growing up, on Christmas I had the opportunity to watch other people play and now I’m the one people get the chance to watch. I think that’s a blessing in itself.”

That blessing comes with a sacrifice, but just playing in the NBA and being on the road comes with sacrifices for anyone who has a family. The players know that, they know they are well compensated for it. Still, if you’re facetiming with your young children on Christmas morning, it’s not the same.

The players don’t look at it that way — they know they are fortunate to be on the stage they occupy.

“It’s a privilege man,” Kevin Durant said of playing on Christmas. “It’s a blessing to play and inspire so many people. We’re just blessed we get to be at home for one. But to get to play the game on Christmas, you don’t ever want to take that for granted.”