Boo Christmas: At The Season's Saddest Basketball Game

The Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls are tough to watch under the best of circumstances. Christmas Day basketball is not the best of circumstances.
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There’s no objective way to determine whether this year’s Bulls-Nets Christmas Day game was the most depressing game in NBA history. doesn’t keep track of those kinds of statistics, and even if it did, there were undoubtedly some pre-shot clock stinkers that would easily trump this particular sorrowful affair. At least you could get decent beers at this one.

But even if Bulls-Nets wasn’t officially the most depressing game in history, I took to calling it that in the weeks leading up to it. This is because I had bought tickets and I needed some way to frame it to family members and friends when I explained why I wasn’t going home for Christmas. It’s not a cry for help if you show sufficient self-awareness, was my thought process.

It certainly had the potential to be a humdinger, though. The Bulls had just lost Derrick Rose to another season-ending knee injury and the Nets were old, awful, and steeped in bad vibes. Add to this that Christmas Day NBA games always play like half-hearted exhibition affairs, with players looking sluggish and less-than-happy to be there and the crowds either uninterested or having their cheers muffled by the tens of thousands of down coats piled under the seats.

Still, the saddest thing about this Bulls-Nets matchup was that, when first announced, the game looked like it was going to be great. That’s why I committed to buying tickets before pre-season even started. I had even taken to daydreaming about it during commutes to and from work. On the scale of childish behavior I am capable of as a sports fan, my ability to craft elaborately detailed fantasies about worthless games is located high on the “pathetic” axis, but pretty low on the “wake up the next day feeling guilty” vector and so unlike, say, yelling at a television set or getting drunk and angrily live-tweeting the draft lottery. This was, at one point, a game once worth dreaming on. When these two teams were revealed as something significantly sadder than advertised, it became something else. A chance to witness subjective history. Also a bummer. My extra ticket went unclaimed all winter.


I went out of defiance. If I went home I would be giving up on some as-of-yet-determined moral, a Dickensian twist I would fondly recall on my deathbed. I also had no other plans.

On Christmas morning I headed to the Barclays Center a good hour before tipoff to see if I could find any takers for my extra seat. After twenty minutes of asking around it was once again evident this wasn’t the hottest ticket in town. Even the professional scalpers weren’t interested.

Surprisingly though, when I went inside, the stadium was almost completely full -- a rarity for most games I’ve seen at Barclays. Based on an informal survey of my section, the attendance was bolstered by tourists who figured that even this game was less depressing than sitting in a hotel room on Christmas Day.

When you watch Christmas basketball on ESPN and ABC, they breathlessly try to make it appear manically festive. There’s an infinite loop of the same four or five holiday commercials and every promo or bit of intro copy bores a refrain into your skull: The NBA Christmas Day Tradition, The NBA Christmas Day Tradition, The NBA Christmas Day Tradition.

I had always assumed they meant “tradition” in the hollowest sense of the word, tantamount to the tradition of Lexus’s December to Remember Savings Event or Happy Honda Days. I was mildly surprised to find, after looking it up, that they aren’t completely full of shit: The first NBA Christmas game was in 1947 and, save for the lockout-shortened 1998 season, there has been a game scheduled on December 25th every single year since. The league was eager to end its last lockout in time to get its Christmas games on television.

Its current iteration, though, is an unholy and distended all-day basketball bacchanal. Before 2008, two games were the norm. Now, the standard five-game slate includes gimmicky limited-edition jerseys, buddy-comedy movie tie-ins, and the unveilings of new $250 sneakers. The viewer at home is subjected to this without pause all day like willing participants in A Clockwork Orange’s climatic Ludovico technique sequence, but instead of ultraviolence it’s Kevin Hart performing a parody rap, proving that the modern world is far more terrifying than any dreamt-up dystopia.

Attendees at the actual game are pretty isolated from all this festive merriment. Now, this may be unique to the Barclays Center, as few places are more ill-equipped to generate holiday cheer. Everything is monochromatic and dark, like the Griswolds’ neighbors’ house in Christmas Vacation. The only holiday decorations I saw were black Santa hats worn by the occasional stadium employee.

The BrooklynKnight, the Nets’ terrifying mascot who l’ve heard described as an “S&M Transformer,”  also wore one of these hats atop his chrome headgear. I’m sure this was enough to permanently ruin Christmas for many young children in attendance.

Before the game started, Deron Williams walked out to center court to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. As he unenthusiastically addressed “the best fans in the world,” someone in the stands screamed, “PLAY BETTER!” I’m almost certain Williams heard him because he paused briefly before continuing to spread Christmas cheer.

During the first quarter, that fan seemed to get his wish. The point guard was getting to his spots on the floor, crossing Kirk Hinrich over at will and converting tough looks. Behind me, a kid said to his younger brother, “See, I told you he was awesome!” Of course, this kid said these kinds of things about every single player early in the game: Dunleavy (“he’s a GREAT shooter”); Boozer (“SO talented”); Reggie Evans (“SUPER-tough”). By the second half, his youthful exuberance had been soundly stomped into dust. “He sucks” was his evaluation of almost everyone except, oddly, D.J. Augustin (“Who’s that? He’s kinda quick”).

These flickers of brilliance actually sadden more than they inspire when performed by players like Williams. Every good play illuminates the ever-increasing gap of time that separates these bursts. Somewhere in a player’s career trajectory, “shaking off rust” turns into “staving off rot.” It can be very difficult not to think about Derrick Rose when watching Deron Williams, with no small amount of dread.

Sure enough, Williams soon tweaked the ankle that had been bothering him all season and was pulled from the game.


During a timeout, the jumbotron played a video of Nets players talking about charity work. It featured Brook Lopez handing out Christmas gifts to kids.The Nets center, easily the team's best player, had recently fractured a metatarsal in his foot. This was his second such injury on this bone and all the talk surrounding it involved the words “Yao Ming” and “career-ending.” He was walking freely in the video, meaning it must have been filmed sometime before December 20th.

Sad as it was, Lopez’s jumbotron appearance couldn’t hold a candle to Derrick Rose’s cameo right as halftime started. An advertisement promoting the All-Star Game came on that featured a two-second clip of Rose. A cacophony of groans filled the arena. That’s all it took: a flash of him, eyes forward, preparing to propel himself across mid-court. He played eleven games this season, and although his shots weren’t falling and his timing was off, he was still fast enough to make other professional athletes look like pudgy toddlers scrambling across a marble floor in stocking feet. The entire crowd seemed to realize as one what I had in retrospect only faintly understood: this game was sadder than we'd expected, maybe entirely too sad to watch.

The halftime entertainment was Steve Max, a.k.a. “SIMON SEZ,” a Simon Says master who brought two groups of children onto the court to play the classic game of coercion and deception. It was 1:15 p.m. on Christmas Day and never before in my life have I needed a drink more. A cheerful but busy woman at the beer cart revealed that she was getting double pay for working on Christmas, which was at least nice.

Shortly after play resumed, the Bulls’ narrow lead started to swell.

“IT’S BLOWOUT TIME!” shouted a man in the adjacent section. He must’ve been a season ticket holder, or perhaps was just well-versed in the subtle signs of this Nets team giving up. Passes floated flatly around  the perimeter and the Bulls forced a few turnovers. Brooklyn responded by taking (and missing) some contested jump shots. Soon, the crowd’s attitude changed from bored indifference to that of survivors in a Stephen King novel turning on the local sheriff’s deputy.

Jason Kidd called a 20-second timeout to draw up a play. For a flash, the noise meter appeared on the jumbotron. It was greeted with bemused silence and was quickly wiped away. When play resumed, André Blatche performed multiple crossovers in isolation along the baseline before launching a fadeaway that clanked off the heel of the rim. I have no doubt in my mind that that this was the play Jason Kidd drew up.

Watching Kidd coach is a wonderful experience that, were it not for the sad product that it produces, I’d recommend without reservation. He patrols the sideline with the aimless conviction of a teenage despot. Players are substituted in and out based on no discernible reasoning beyond, “let’s shuffle the deck.”

As the stench of a blowout began to seep in, part of the stadium started to chant, “FIRE KIDD” while another group wailed, “FIRE JASON.” The latter chant had better rhythm, but participants of the first were reluctant to join in. Maybe they thought they had made a commitment to “FIRE KIDD.” After a while, the chants morphed and ebbed until hundreds of people were just shouting, “FIRE! FIRE! FIRE!” as if they were wishing for the searing kiss of flame to cleanse the world of this game. It was precisely at this moment that I started to enjoy my Christmas.


"I don't think anybody should play on Christmas Day," Phil Jackson said when he was coaching the Lakers in 2010. "It's like Christian holidays don't mean anything to them anymore. We just go out and play and entertain the TV. It's really weird."

Phil highlights the two best things about Christmas games here. The “War on Christmas” bit, which may or may not have been a shot at David Stern -- "it’s like Christian holidays don’t mean anything to them” is wide open for all sorts of interpretation -- is actually one of the greatest joys of going to an NBA game on the holiday, I found. For a little over three hours, you are severed from the constant ads, songs, and brand-adorned sentimentality that Christmas brings. In their attempts to “own” Christmas, the NBA has actually and unwittingly created an island from the holiday, no matter how many Justin Beiber Christmas songs bump through the arenas (I counted three).

More importantly, these games are weird. Live professional sporting events are always weird, but when put in the context of Christmas, everything seems wonderfully out of place. Watching a robot shoot T-shirts out of a gun is an eye-rolling exercise in cornballery 364 days a year; on Christmas it’s absurd, something nearer to art. At one point, a military veteran appeared on the jumbotron and we were all invited to salute his service. With literally no segue or pause afterwards, they launched into the Party City Dance Cam and cranked “Whoomp There It Is” at such a volume a small child a couple rows in front of me grabbed his mother in fear. The game itself was berserk.

Outside, it was sunny, cold and quiet. The sidewalks were empty -- I encountered less than half-a-dozen pedestrians on my thirty minute walk to the game. Inside Barclays, “Whoomp There It Is” blasted from concert-grade speakers. It was a beautiful contrast.

Once the “FIRE” chants calmed down, the purveying attitude was one of satisfied postprandial exhaustion. The Bulls won easily, but there were enough Taj Gibson dunks and hard KG fouls to keep us entertained. We had all just choked down Grandma Stern’s bland Christmas ham, but we were sated.

In front of me, a family got up early in the fourth quarter and made their way to the exit. “Leaving already?” their neighbor asked as he let them through, “Sounds like a good idea.”

“We are,” the dad said, “We have to make it into Manhattan for the Thunder-Knicks game. We’re going to that too.”

Everyone in earshot let off an exaggerated groan, which was quickly followed by chuckles. The kids looked confused by the response as the father pushed them through the narrow row of seats.

“I know, I know,” he laughed, “Merry Christmas.”

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