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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Memorable Christmas Day games in sports

Revisiting the top Christmas Day moments across all sports in the 21st century

The holiday season is a joyful and important time for many. Although this year’s plans will be affected by the ongoing pandemic, there are still opportunities to continue traditions in a safe way. 

One of the long-standing traditions in sports has been the NBA Christmas Day games. Every year since 1947 (with the exception of the lockout-shortened 1998 season), there has been at least one basketball game played on Christmas Day. But this year, that tradition seemed unlikely, as the pandemic halted the NBA season in March, and they were unable to conclude it until October. Such a quick turnaround seemed unlikely–until it wasn’t. When the NBA decided to begin their season on Dec. 22, it gave the greenlight to continue their annual Christmas Day games. With Pelicans-Heat, Warriors-Bucks, Nets-Celtics, Mavericks-Lakers and Clippers-Nuggets on the schedule this Christmas, fans will be able to sit back and enjoy the tradition. 

When Christmas lands on a certain day, there are opportunities for more than basketball to be played. This year, the Vikings visit the New Orleans Saints on Dec. 25 in a matchup that could have playoff implications. Due to COVID-19, many leagues and sports are not on their normal schedule so this year might not be as active when it comes to sporting events. Nonetheless, in the spirit of the holidays, The Aggie looks back at the many memorable sports moments that have happened on Christmas Day this century. 

Former championship teammates square off in Los Angeles

Even after winning three straight championships together from 2000-2002, the fallout between superstar teammates Shaquille (Shaq) O’Neal and Kobe Bryant reached a breaking point in the offseason following their loss in the NBA Finals to the Detroit Pistons. Their storied and public feud led to O’Neal being shipped off to the Miami Heat, and on Christmas Day of 2004, the Heat and the Lakers were scheduled to face-off, the first time both Kobe and Shaq played against each other. 

The matchup was highly anticipated, and ilived up to expectations. In a thrilling overtime game, both teams battled it out among a rowdy Staples Center crowd that showed their appreciation for O’Neal, even cheering for him in pregame introductions. After O’Neal picked up his sixth foul late in the fourth quarter, his then-rising star teammate Dwyane Wade had his back, finishing with 29 points and 10 assists and eventually leading the Heat to a 104-102 win. Bryant had a game-high 42 points and six assists, but missed what would’ve been the game-winning three-pointer in overtime. 

The game lived up to the hype, and with the whole basketball world watching, both delivered a memorable game. 

Thriller in Hawaii

In a regular college football season, the end of December marks the start of bowl season. With the games starting around Dec. 20 each year, games usually progress from the teams that barely made a bowl game to the contenders, meaning that the earlier the bowl game, the “worse” the team. But in 2003, the Hawaii Bowl made everyone overlook the records, as they played an unforgettable triple overtime thriller. 

In what was a back-and-forth game of momentum between the Houston Cougars and Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, the teams entered overtime tied at 34. Both teams delivered punches, but neither refused to go down. In the first two overtimes, both teams scored touchdowns. In the third overtime, Hawaii’s Michael Brewster put them ahead, but failed the two-point conversion, giving the Cougars a chance to win. With everything riding on their last possession, Houston was unable to punch it in the endzone, giving Hawaii a bowl win behind Timmy Chang’s 475 yards passing and five touchdowns. 

Christmas Day Payback

The bitter rivalry between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers reached another chapter during the 2008 NBA Finals. As the two storied franchises faced off for the championship once again, the Celtics were the ones who would come out on top, winning Game 6 by 39 points and capturing their first championship of the century. On Christmas Day 2009, the two met again with a sour taste still left in LA’s mouth. 

The Celtics went into the matchup winners of 19 straight games, a franchise record, but the Lakers were set on breaking that streak. In front of a sold-out Staples Center crowd, the Lakers were able to pull away late, winning by a final score of 92-83. Bryant had a night of 29 points, nine rebounds and five assists. His running mate Pau Gasol added 20 points and five assists, as well as scoring seven points in the last three minutes that helped the Lakers pull out the win. 

Not only did the Lakers exact some revenge in that win, but history was made that afternoon as well. Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson achieved his 1,000th victory from the sidelines, the sixth coach to reach the milestone and the fastest to have done it. The Lakers would go on to win the 2009 NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic, and in 2010, their revenge came full circle, as they beat the Celtics in a seven game series. With some bad blood and history made, this game ranks highly in memorable Christmas Day games.

The Reach

Marking only the 19th time an NFL game was held on Christmas Day, the Baltimore Ravens visited the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers in a divisional matchup that would decide the AFC North. A Steelers win would clinch Pittsburgh their second division title in three years, but a Baltimore win would let the Ravens control their own destiny entering the final week of play. A lot was at stake for both teams, and on a chilly afternoon, they showed just how much it meant to them.

A tightly contested game throughout, the Ravens seemed to be on the cusp of a victory, scoring a touchdown with only 1:18 remaining in the game. Needing a field goal to tie, the Steelers quickly drove down the field, getting down to the four-yard line. With 13 seconds left and no timeouts, the Steelers decided to try for the endzone. Because they could not stop the clock, any tackle inbounds would almost certainly signal the end of the game. As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger snapped the ball, wide receiver Antonio Brown caught it and was instantly met by three tacklers. In a display of pure strength and determination, Brown managed to fight through the tackles and extend his arm out across the pylon, scoring the game winning touchdown and winning the Steelers the division.

Déjà vu in Cleveland

The 2016 NBA Finals will go down as one of the greatest of all time. Having been the only time a team blew a 3-1 series lead, it will be etched in the history books forever. After facing off in both the 2015 and 2016 finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors had split the two meetings. Following the 2016 loss however, the Golden State Warriors added superstar Kevin Durant to a team that already consisted of three other all-stars. The Warriors had basically stacked the deck, and this 2016 Christmas game would be our first look at these two teams facing off.

Trailing by seven entering the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers were once again able to come back against the Warriors, winning by a final score of 109-108. Down by three with 1:14 left, Kyrie Irving scored the last four points of the game, including a tough fall-away jumper with three seconds left to win. Irving had once again punished the Warriors in the clutch, as he had also drained the go-ahead shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals just six months earlier. This highly anticipated matchup lived up to the hype, as it was one of the most watched NBA Christmas Day games ever. 
Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org

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