Yeah, maybe Sandy Koufax didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur, but everyone works holidays now. Why shouldn’t the NBA?
This past Sunday, Bruce Jenkins, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote about his disdain for David Stern’s scheduling of multiple NBA games on Christmas Day. In his column he said that Stern “who celebrates Hanukkah, has no real feel for Christmas in the first place.” (Editors note: we would link to the column directly, but it has since been taken down. Here is Deadspin’s take on it.)
Jenkins followed this not-so-veiled anti-semitic remark (for which he has since apologized) with a quote from former Lakers coach Phil Jackson: “Your little kids are putting batteries in their new toys, all kinds of family stuff going on, and now you’re supposed to get focused on a game in the middle of the afternoon?”
There are many flaws in Mr. Jenkins’ and Jackson’s statements, least of which is the fact that the NBA has been playing games on Christmas since 1947, when the New York Knicks beat the Providence Steamrollers. It’s safe to assume that Mr. Stern’s Jewish-ness had no role in that game unless he borrowed Dr. Brown’s DeLorean and went back in time.
Secondly, I’m sorry, Mr. Jackson, but I find it hard to believe that professional athletes who play in front of thousands of people every night, and millions more on TV, get so discombobulated by hanging with their kids for a few hours that they can’t focus on their jobs.
Jenkins’ ill-conceived commentary does, however, highlight a relevant question. Should professional sports be played on religious and other national holidays, and has the recent trend of playing more and more games on holidays gone too far? And what if an athlete chooses not to play a game scheduled on a religious holiday?
Let’s take that DeLorean back to October 6, 1965, Game 1 of the World Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers are facing the Minnesota Twins and Sandy Koufax, cominoff what would be another Cy Young award winning season, is expected to pitch.
Only it’s Yom Kippur, the holiest of days for Jewish people, a day that Koufax never works. Game 1 would be no different—Koufax didn’t pitch. (Just imagine Justin Verlander refusing to pitch Game 1 of the World Series this year, although, come to think of it, maybe he should have.)
Koufax wasn’t the first (Hank Greenberg) or the last (Shawn Green), but if you’re Jewish like me, you learned about Sandy Koufax’s decision before you knew how to walk. You were reminded every Yom Kippur about his sacrifice when you whined that you wanted to go out and play ball with the other kids. And the story certainly wasn’t hurt by the fact that Koufax, despite not pitching the first game, went on to be the Series MVP, pitching Game 2 and throwing complete game shutouts in both Game 5 and 7, the last on TWO days’ rest.
Koufax—and athletes like him—should be commended for doing what he believed was important to his faith. That’s a lesson we can all embrace and teach our children. I’d like to believe that Koufax would make the same decision today, although given the salaries involved now and the beating he would take on Twitter, it would be a much different and more difficult scenario.
Either way, for Koufax and any other athlete, it’s their choice.
I must admit, however, that I don’t really understand the rationale for not holding sporting events on holidays, including Christmas.
First, above all, professional sports is big business, and it’s clear based on TV ratings and game attendance that there’s money to be made for any league scheduling games on holidays. As fans, we enable these games because we consume them like Cookie Monster in a bakery. If this weren’t the case, there wouldn’t be any games—case closed.
Let’s also recognize that times have changed since 1965 and holidays now are mostly commercial opportunities for large corporations. Big box retailers now open on Thanksgiving night (with minor protest), fewer and fewer stores seem to close on holidays, even Christmas, and new “holidays” pop up every year – witness the acceptance of Black Friday, CyberMonday and Superbowl Sunday. Even something as devastating as breast cancer has been completely commercialized when, during the month of October, the world, including football players’ cleats, armbands and any other convenient uniform accessory, turns pink. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, the commercialization of our holidays is here to stay, that is as long as we continue to consume what’s being offered.
Whether it’s football now three days a week, five NBA games on Christmas, baseball throughout the Hot Stove winter, two-days of televised coverage of the NFL draft, or watching 12-year old boys play baseball, we’ve demonstrated that, collectively, we crave to be entertained 24/7. We’re not just watching either—we’re playing fantasy, tweeting, and launching witty status updates. Our “always-on” society demands that people work on holidays to keep the machine running smoothly. If fire fighters, police, doctors, nurses, baristas etc. all work on holidays, it’s only fair that our favorite NBA players should have to do their jobs as well—and for a lot more money.
At the end of the day, sports are one of the ways many families bond. At some point during every holiday, we’ve stuffed our faces, we’re tired of Uncle Tony’s war stories, mom’s already nagged us to no end that we don’t come home enough, and sports offers us the perfect way to escape for a few hours and hear our father go on and on about how the games used to be played. That, my friends, is what holidays are all about.
Flashback to Christmas Day 1985. A 13-year old boy sits with his father and older brother in the last row of Madison Square Garden and watches an epic double-overtime win. His favorite team, the New York Knicks, defeat the soon-to-be world champion Boston Celtics. Led by rookie Patrick Ewing, the Knicks overcome a 25-point deficit.
The night before, Celtic Kevin McHale defies league orders and refuses to travel with the team to New York, choosing to spend Christmas Eve and morning with his family to open presents. He takes a 9am shuttle to New York and arrives in plenty of time to score 29 points and grab 14 rebounds.
McHale’s potential game-winning shot, however, is blocked at the buzzer by Ernie Grunfeld to seal the Knicks’ victory. (Grunfeld is Jewish, of course.)
Thank you David Stern.
Photo: Mark J. Terrill/AP