Christmas is special day for NBA; this year it’s even more memorable for Pelicans’ Alexis Ajinca, John Salmons

by Jim Eichenhofer

The NFL has Thanksgiving. Major League Baseball has July 4. For the NBA, there may be no more special day on the regular season calendar than Christmas, when the league and its broadcast partners select 10 teams to play in front of a nationwide audience. For many hoops fans, Dec. 25 marks the date when it’s time to take stock of how teams and players are faring through the first third of the 82-game schedule.

That’s part of why even though it can take players away from their families for part of the day, playing on Christmas is a coveted honor. New Orleans has played only once on Dec. 25 in its 13-season franchise history (losing to Orlando 88-68 in 2008), but three current Pelicans have appeared in the holiday games, including forward Ryan Anderson (three times), center Omer Asik (three times) and forward Dante Cunningham (once).

For Anderson, who played on Christmas with the Orlando Magic every year from 2010-12, being selected is a great sign for an NBA club.

“It means that you’re one of the better teams and one that people want to see,” Anderson said. “A Christmas game is definitely a huge compliment. That’s how I took it when I had Christmas games – I knew we were one of the most exciting teams. It’s fun because it’s a high-profile game and something a lot of people watch. It kind of feels like a playoff game, almost. The energy’s a little bit higher and people are a little more excited.”

Due to the travel schedule, even if a team doesn’t play on Christmas, if it has a Dec. 26 road game, as 11 teams do on Friday, it means flying to another city on Christmas night. That’s one reason Anderson would rather be on the court on Christmas than in the midst of a road trip.

“Playing on Christmas really is not that different (from any other day mindset-wise), because most of the time you have practice anyway (on Christmas),” Anderson said. “Even in the years I haven’t played a game on Christmas, as a player you’re in the middle of your season, so you’re still heavily involved with basketball in some way. I’d rather play on Christmas than not and just be in some random (road) city. There has only been one year where I’ve been able to spend Christmas Day with my family.”

Although it can be a rarity, for two Pelicans players, 2014’s holiday schedule brought a fortuitous break, the one-time-only chance to be with their newborn sons on Christmas. Alexis Ajinca’s wife gave birth to a boy on Oct. 12, while John Salmons’ wife gave birth in early November. With the Pelicans playing Dec. 26 at home vs. San Antonio, both men cherish the opportunity to be with their families.

“I’m looking forward to it very much,” said the 7-2 Ajinca, who proudly noted that his 2-month-old son is already 25 inches in length. “It’s going to be very special, the first Christmas with my little man. So I can’t wait. And I have family coming into town, so it’s going to be great.”

Salmons was planning to fly to Philadelphia to be with his family and baby boy on Christmas, even if it was a relatively brief stay due to Friday’s game against the Spurs. The forward in his 13th NBA season, but somewhat improbably has never played on Christmas.

“I was always fortunate enough to have Christmas Day off (from a game),” Salmons said, before discussing the challenge of seeing family as much as possible during the season. “You definitely try to make the best of it. It’s part of the business. We travel a lot; we’re away from our family a lot. It’s something your family accepts. It’s just what it is.”

Asked if his children call him during the holidays wondering when he might be able to come home, Salmons smiles.

“That’s every day, period,” the 35-year-old said. “Whenever I talk to them, they ask me when I’m coming home. I just tell them I will be home soon. It’s tough, but it’s what you have to do.”

“It’s definitely a big advantage this year to be able to have Christmas with the family,” said Ajinca, a first-time dad. “In the past, I didn’t have many chances. So I’m very happy.”