Christmas games don’t bring out cheer in all NBA players

Lakers guard Kobe Bryant tries to drive his way around Heat guard Dwyane Wade in the fourth quarter Sunday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Kobe Bryant didn’t hide his disdain when a television reporter asked him to read a few lines from a Christmas poem for an on-air spot to be used later.

“Are you serious?” the Lakers guard said last week as he reviewed the script inside his team’s practice facility. He eventually complied with a perfunctory performance.

Teammate Dwight Howard was far more amenable to the same request, the center dramatically repeating the words and putting his own colorful spin on a classic tale.

“Happy Christmas to all,” Howard said, breaking out a wide smile, “and to all a good Dwight!”

It’s Christmastime again in the NBA, meaning that scores of players are splitting into ho-ho-ho and bah-humbug factions over more than just potentially irksome promotional demands.

Howard and Bryant are among the 29 All-Stars who will give up a hearty chunk of their Christmases to take part in their league’s annual holiday tradition: entertaining the masses in nationally televised games.

The NBA’s gift to its die-hard fans Tuesday is five games and about 13 hours of basketball, mostly featuring marquee matchups. The Lakers will play the New York Knicks at Staples Center at noon and the Miami Heat will play host to the Oklahoma City Thunder in an NBA Finals rematch at 2:30 p.m. PST. It will be the Lakers’ 14th consecutive season (and sixth in a row at home) playing on Dec. 25.

Even the resurgent Clippers, who once gazed longingly at Christmas games like a boy at a fancy dirt bike his parents couldn’t afford to put under the tree, are becoming a holiday staple. The Clippers’ 7:30 p.m. game against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center will mark their third Christmas appearance in the last four years.

The league loves the ratings it generates from the games and the fans seem to enjoy mixing basketball with buttered rum, but some players hate the lost time with family more than week-old fruitcake.

“My kids don’t like it. My youngest doesn’t like it at all,” Lakers forward Metta World Peace said. “I’m to a point now I forget it’s Christmas, to tell you the truth. I buy the presents and I’m never home, so I totally forget about Christmas.”

Bryant, who will be playing in a record 15th Christmas game, said he neither enjoys nor dreads the tradition.

“It’s just something that I’ve come to expect,” he said. “My entire family is used to us playing on Christmas Day. I mean, we’ve been doing it for years, since my kids were born. It’s kind of part of what we do.”

Christmases in the Bryant home, at least in the years the Lakers are playing at Staples Center, include gift-giving in the morning and a game in the afternoon or evening. They’ve been somewhat happy holidays, with the Lakers going 5-9 in Christmas games since Bryant came into the league.

The NBA has made Christmas a workday since 1947, when the New York Knicks defeated the Providence Steamrollers at Madison Square Garden. As the decades passed, the league increasingly showcased matchups involving its top rivalries (such as Chicago Bulls-Detroit Pistons in the 1990s) or story lines (including Shaquille O’Neal’s return to Staples Center with the Miami Heat in 2004).

There has been plenty of holiday hoops cheer spread along the way, from Kansas City Omaha’s Nate Archibald collecting 18 assists against Milwaukee in 1972 to New York’s Bernard King splurging for a Christmas-record 60 points against New Jersey in 1984 to Chicago’s Scottie Pippen blocking a pair of three-pointers in the final seconds of an overtime game against New York in 1994.

“Christmas Day was special because everybody is watching at home,” recalled former Lakers great Magic Johnson, who scored 18 points in 1981 during a Dec. 25 victory over Phoenix. “That’s what I loved about Christmas Day, because it shined the spotlight on the Lakers, on our team, and we knew that all of the other leagues were at home and millions of people were watching.”

Viewership has increased in each of the last three years, with a Christmas-record 34.8 million people tuning in to watch last year’s five games. This year’s games will be broadcast in 215 countries and territories in 47 languages.

The league has no plans to expand the five-game lineup it adopted in 2008, said Danny Meiseles, the NBA’s executive vice president of broadcasting.

“We just feel that we have something really special,” Meiseles said, “and our fans have shown that they are passionate about watching these great matchups and these great players play these games.”

The players could take the games … or leave them.

“I make the most of it,” Lakers point guard Steve Nash said. “Of course it throws a wrench in everything, but it’s still a great opportunity to play the game we love.”