Some of my best childhood memories have always been the Christmas holiday season of basketball in New York City during the 1990s. The competitiveness, grit, and flashiness of NYC basketball were so much ahead of its time that many of the top players from the era have gone on to fame not only in the NBA, but also internationally (representing Team USA in global competition) and digitally via social media (AND1 mixtape tours).
The documentary titled Point Gods was a great compilation of the global impact of the lineage of NYC point guards whose mastery of ball-handling skills became an international phenomenon that inspired future generations of players. Fortunately, I am not limited to grainy mixtapes and documentaries as I grew up during this time in NYC and had direct access to the best high school, college, and NBA teams playing at the world-renowned Madison Square Garden (MSG). Basketball in New York City is amazing during any time of the year, but add in the holiday spirit of Christmas time and a legendary location like MSG, and you have a recipe for an iconic, unforgettable December experience, which forever shaped my interpretation of sports and society.
NYC Hoops Was Once a Secret
Between the giant 82-foot Christmas tree at 30 Rock (Rockefeller Plaza) and the holiday-themed window decorations at Saks 5th Avenue, Hollywood’s Tinseltown and Disney have nothing on the magic of New York City during this time of year. The snow would be falling quietly outside, but the basketball arena at MSG was always rocking during the holiday season, with basketball being played at the highest levels of competition.
Watching NYC basketball in the 1990s over the holidays always made me feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself. It was like no matter how popular the Knicks, St. John’s Basketball, or nationally-ranked parochial high schools such as Rice, Christ the King, or Bishop Loughlin would be, it was a secret only known to New Yorkers—and specifically basketball aficionados (true hoops connoisseurs). The only time we shared our secret hoops obsession with the world was during the holiday season, when nationally-televised games would pull back the curtain, allowing the world to marvel at the amazing spectacle of high-level basketball players competing in NYC. Today, the NBA is broadcasted across the globe in hundreds of countries, and the Christmas Day games have been a major part of the league’s global marketing and promotional efforts since 1947. While I can appreciate the global growth of the NBA, I do miss the simpler days when I was one of the insiders who truly knew the world of NYC basketball.
Christmas as a Promotional
I truly believe the reason every major sports league in the United States has its league offices in NYC is to maximize the depth and breadth of the media landscape. The marketability of basketball as a sport has made the NBA one of the most successful professional leagues in the entire world. The golden age of the NBA centered on rivalries such as the Boston Celtics v. Los Angeles Lakers (via Larry Bird v. Magic Johnson) in the 1980s to the 1990s, and Christmas Day games played a vital role in fueling these fires and gaining new viewers. Matchups between the Chicago Bulls v. New York Knicks (Michael Jordan v. Patrick Ewing) at MSG saw the NBA’s viewership grow, and the league truly set the pace for global innovation in marketing and promotion to a global audience. In New York City, the world’s largest media market, the NBA’s use of the Christmas Day games, starting at noon Eastern time and running all day until after midnight with the West Coast games, has been a marketing and promotional achievement that rivals the Nielsen ratings for the NFL’s Super Bowl.
Patrick Ewing Made Christmas Feel Special
For me, when the New York Knicks were led by NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing, there was always something special about getting to see them compete on Christmas Day. As a Jamaican-born immigrant, Ewing resonated both with the Caribbean diaspora of the city as well as with the mainstream die-hard basketball fans, thanks to his toughness and grit on the hardwood. I always felt close to Patrick Ewing and loved everything that he brought to the game of basketball. At 7 feet tall and weighing 240 pounds, he played with such tenacity and ferocity that it made me inspired to bring that same type of energy onto the court when I played. This translated to broader life skills for me—whenever I had doubts about my own abilities, I would think, “what would Patrick Ewing do” (WWPED) and would redouble my efforts (since I knew the answer: he would work harder.) Watching Patrick Ewing play basketball made me want to be a better person, someone who was great at whatever I put my mind to.
To New Yorkers, Ewing was our native son—the embodiment of what it meant to represent NYC basketball. The name “Knick” is short for Knickerbocker, the name given to Dutch settlers who first visited the island of Manhattan during the colonial era. Considering the origins of NYC, the fact that Patrick Ewing was the face of the Knickerbockers and essentially New York in the 1990s speaks to the early stages of the manifestations of diversity, belonging, and inclusion. During my pre-adolescent years, it was a treat to share Christmas Day and the holiday season cheering on the Ewing-led Knicks.
Holiday Hoops are Personal
My parents are both Jamaican immigrants, and I was born in NYC. To my family, the holiday season in NYC represents an opportunity for nostalgia and an appreciation of life’s blessings. Watching a basketball game in the Garden (or MSG) during the holiday season brings a profound sense of comfort. Reminiscing about the exploits of the Knicks of the 1990s with Patrick Ewing, Xavier McDaniel, John Starks, Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason, while being coached initially by Pat Riley and later by Jeff Van Gundy reminds me of simpler times, back when all I cared about was whether or not the Knicks were going to bring home the victory.
These days, I’ve got a thousand other different things to think about as we near Christmastime—and not as much time for basketball as I would prefer. I long for those old days, and look forward to sharing a Christmas Day game in NYC with my son. I love sharing this tradition with him, which, to a great extent, shaped me into the person I am today. Though times may change, there still truly is nothing like holiday hoops in NYC.