Christmas games: Is Phil just playing?
First of all, and I cannot stress this enough: It is almost always a mistake to take Phil Jackson too seriously. It's the rough equivalent of a fish rising to the bait. Terrible, but very tempting, idea.
The next thing you know, you're hooked into a conversation in which you find yourself staking out an extreme, even ludicrous position. And why? Well, of course: because Phil did it first.
Jackson's NBA coaching résumé is dotted with such episodes. The man loves to hear himself talk. Whether he is injecting himself into the Arizona immigration law debate, claiming Kevin Durant gets all the calls and Steve Nash carries the ball when he dribbles, or interspersing images of skinheads and Adolf Hitler with those of former Sacramento guard Jason Williams and then-coach Rick Adelman during a Lakers pre-playoff film session, this is how Jackson interacts with his universe. Some find it playful, others obnoxious, but either way, a tweak is a tweak is a tweak.
And so when Jackson levies his nearly annual complaint about having to work on Christmas Day, as he did this week with the Lakers-Heat game approaching Saturday, it's important to take the complaint for what it is worth. Which is to say, not much.
But with that said, I want to make an exception to my own rule and risk reading at least a little too much into something Jackson offered. Did anybody else wonder to whom Jackson was referring when he spoke of "them"?
Some context: Jackson was basically objecting to playing on the holiday itself, period. He was not threatening to boycott; if anything, Jackson made it clear that since the league makes the rules, that's pretty much that. He also noted that, whereas Christmas Day used to include perhaps two games, the NBA now schedules a bundle of them -- five this year. And as the coach of glamour teams in Chicago and L.A., Jackson has drawn Christmas work detail almost every year of his NBA coaching career.
Still, listen to Jackson's words, and ask yourself who he is tweaking this time: "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."
I'll tell you what's weird. What's weird is hearing a decorated, spiritually diverse coach make what sounds like a coded jab at the Jewish commissioner of the league for which he works, in the days leading up to a Christian holiday. But surely I'm taking Phil Jackson too seriously again.
It is safer to assume that, by "them," Jackson meant everybody at the top of the NBA decision-making process, not just David Stern. He's frustrated with the whole lot, right? "They" don't appreciate the holiness of Christmas Day. And that's to say nothing of the practical difficulty -- and yes, Jackson made mention of this as well -- of getting players emotionally ready to play a big game on Christmas.
For the record, the NBA is determinedly agnostic when it comes to holy days, holidays and any other days you can name. The league schedules basketball games on Christmas Day because the television ratings are tremendous. That's it. My neighborhood Safeway didn't used to open up on Christmas, but there was a demand from consumers, so now it does.
If you prefer the other end of the telescope, you can argue that the NBA is an equal opportunity offender (and so is every sports league that's actually trying to make money). The league certainly doesn't shut down for the first day of Hanukkah, or any other day. I've known players of Muslim faith who fasted from sunup to sundown -- on NBA game days -- during their holy month of Ramadan. National holidays, likewise, routinely are sporting feasts, and thus excellent business days.
It isn't even really a controversy. Sports ought to be agnostic; it keeps things simpler for what is, ultimately, simple entertainment. If people in their homes at Christmas choose to leave the television off and spend the afternoon in family conversation or holy observance, then the NBA's ratings gurus will understand immediately that programming games that day is a lousy idea. Instead, it is an advertiser and fan bonanza.
Most NBA players and coaches understand that dynamic. For every Jackson or LeBron James, who'd rather be at home unwrapping gifts, there is a Doc Rivers, who considers it an honor for his team to be good enough to draw a Christmas Day assignment, or a Carmelo Anthony, who told reporters he always wanted to be on a team that got such high-profile treatment.
A Christmas Day game as a reward? What a concept.
Perhaps the most striking thing from Phil Jackson, in the end, was his apparent amazement at being asked these days to "just go out and play and entertain the TV." Gosh, just absolutely. That's the entire rubric, right there.
If you don't understand by now that you are coaching a team that plays for my amusement, inspiration and enjoyment, then there's no hope for you. Not that I would suggest such a thing this week. It's Christmas.
Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His work, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. His next book, "The Voodoo Wave," will be released in 2011 by W.W. Norton. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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