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Shaun Powell

Playing games on Christmas Day more important than ever

Posted Oct 21 2011 9:03PM

There are some things the NBA just can't do without: sneakers, Charles Barkley on TNT, laser pregame introductions, a half-dozen timeouts in the last two minutes and most of all, games on Christmas Day.

Once the presents are opened and the eggnog is finished, there really isn't anything left but to watch four or five (or six?) games on a day that exclusively belongs to basketball while the rest of the sports world takes a quick timeout.

For the casual basketball fan, Christmas Day represents Opening Night, all the more reason why the owners and players are pushing the limits of the season, and the patience of the fans, with a labor squabble that took a turn for the disastrous Thursday night.

Right now, Christmas could deliver a lump of coal, courtesy of NBA owners and players, at this rate. It's only the biggest day of the regular season, arguably even more visible than All-Star Sunday, and a day that suddenly appears shaky at best.

Originally, David Stern backed off a threat to cancel Christmas if a labor deal wasn't reached Tuesday. Well, Tuesday came and went ... and went ... and went into the wee hours Wednesday. Without a cancellation. There was hope. But then came Thursday, when talks broke off and the two sides resumed their sniping after a brief cease-fire ordered by federal mediator George Cohen. And now, nothing is presumed safe. Not the remaining November calendar, not Christmas, maybe not the season.

Perhaps Stern was on to something when he first raised the possibility of a no-basketball Christmas, even though there's still two months between then and now. Conceivably, the lockout could continue through Thanksgiving, and Christmas Day games would still be in play. It was far too early to pull the plug on unquestionably the NBA's most important day of the regular season, and it made you wonder if Stern was merely "negotiating" when he said that, or if he was serious and knew something we didn't.

Apparently, that was the case. He knew the labor fight, even with the intervention of Cohen, was much more acrimonious and standoffish than we thought. And the sides are miles apart from a deal, based on the mud-slinging from the latest stalled talks.

So where do we stand? The immediate goal of the owners and players should be to salvage those Christmas Day games, which loom larger than ever. If the league is trying to get forgiveness from the public, playing on Christmas would be a great start. The public mood would be holiday-ish, the games would involve the best teams and most appealing players, and a good showing would serve as a desperate reminder of what the NBA is all about.

By then, all the rancor and bitterness from the lockout would be left behind if not completely forgiven by the public, and the game would move forward. That's how important Christmas Day has become for the NBA. The games stretch from early afternoon until close to midnight and is the only drama worth watching on TV.

In these negotiations, then, that should be the driving force, the one thing both sides agree on, the checkpoint that should be stressed if at all possible. The first two weeks are already history, and while deputy commissioner Adam Silver wouldn't say an 82-game schedule is impossible, it will be if the two sides maintain their staredown and refuse to engage in productive discussions next weekend. Because then we're talking about a lost November.

The big deadline to have a deal in place is December 1. If that date isn't met, then the league is flirting with a big loss. The All-Star Game would be in jeopardy, a full season would be a dream, and Christmas Day suddenly comes into play. Or rather, out of play.

Just study the habits of the casual basketball fan. He's not terribly concerned about the lockout right now. He's distracted by the NFL. As for the NBA, he'll focus first on Opening Night out of curiosity, then check back on Christmas, and then lock in the day after the Super Bowl. If the NBA lockout isn't settled by Christmas, the league runs the risk of the casual fan completely tuning out the NBA all season. He may never "lock in," excuse the pun.

These are dire and sensitive times in the negotiation game, not because a deal hasn't been struck, but because an end doesn't appear to be in sight. Strangely enough, even with the latest setback, the season can be salvaged. But it'll take both sides to change strategy and place greater importance on saving the season first and foremost. Right now, as we see, that's not a common goal.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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