If you ask an Orlando Magic player about the first thing that comes to mind about the NBA on Christmas, you’ll get a variety of answers.
Some will point to the commercials, like the “Jingle Hoops” one that aired ahead of the 2013-14 Christmas games. Others will point to the Christmas edition shoes.
But almost every player brought up a specific game that stuck with them.
Heat vs. Lakers in 2013. Thunder vs. Heat in 2012 in a rematch of the previous season’s NBA Finals. Cavaliers vs. Warriors in 2016 in an NBA Finals rematch.
“Just trying to watch all the games,” Magic forward Franz Wagner said. “I remember watching Kobe [Bryant] against the Knicks [in 2012]. Some Knicks-Celtics too. It was always a fun time. We’d watch the family do their thing, but me and [Franz’s brother and Magic big man] Moe [Wagner] would always watch.”
Most Magic players have experienced Christmas Day games as a spectator — something they’re hoping to change in the near future.
Moe Wagner, Gary Harris, R.J. Hampton, Markelle Fultz and Bol Bol are Magic players who’ve been on teams who played on Christmas.
As a rookie, Moe Wagner played two minutes in the Lakers’ win over the Warriors on Christmas in 2018. Fultz was with the Philadelphia 76ers for their 2017 and ‘18 Christmas games but didn’t play in either.
Bol was on the Nuggets roster for their Christmas games in 2019 and ‘20, playing five minutes in Denver’s 2020 loss to the Clippers. Hampton, a rookie at the time, was also on the Nuggets roster during that aforementioned 2020 loss but didn’t play.
Harris has the most experience playing on Christmas, going for 35 minutes in the Nuggets’ 2019 Christmas loss to the Pelicans and 22 minutes in the ‘20 loss to the Clippers.
“It was cool just to experience it,” Harris said. “You grow up watching NBA Christmas games, so to be a part of it was definitely pretty cool. I don’t think you underestimate it kind of takes away from the whole day of Christmas. That was my first two Christmases with my son, so it was a little different for me but I enjoyed it.
“You understand the magnitude once you’re playing. If you have a Christmas game, that means you’re on an exciting team people want to see play. It’s definitely an honor and is definitely meaningful.”
Getting back to playing on Christmas Day is something the Magic strive for — individual players and as an organization.
The Magic have played on Christmas nine times over their 34-year history, going 5-4. The last time they played on Christmas came in 2011, Dwight Howard’s last season with the franchise.
The Magic once again will be spectators today, with the Christmas Day slate that was announced in August being:
- 76ers vs. Knicks (12, ABC/ESPN)
- Lakers vs. Mavericks (2:30, ABC/ESPN)
- Bucks vs. Celtics (5, ABC/ESPN)
- Grizzlies vs. Warriors (8, ABC/ESPN)
- Suns vs. Nuggets (10:30, ABC/ESPN)
“When they released the Christmas schedule for this year, I wasn’t expecting for us to be on there,” rookie forward Paolo Banchero said, “but I just wanted to see if we were on there and took that as a note. That’s a milestone for a team, player to get a Christmas game. To play on that day is special in the NBA and a goal we have — to elevate ourselves and gaining that respect.”
Despite winning eight of their last nine games, the Magic (13-21) have a lot of work to do before getting back to that level.
Christmas games are typically reserved for elite teams or ones in “glamor markets” — such as the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks.
Twenty-three teams have played on Christmas since the last time the Magic did. Most of those who played on Christmas made the playoffs the previous season or had a marquee trade or free-agent acquisition during the offseason.
“That’s just like a cherry on top of becoming one of those good teams,” center Wendell Carter Jr. said. “You want to give yourself the opportunity to play on those days.”
Added guard R.J. Hampton: “That’s something we all want to get to. The main goal first is getting to the playoffs. When you’re working hard and striving to be one of the best teams in the NBA, Christmas games will come with that. You’ve seen teams in past years go from bottom records to now playing on Christmas Day. That’s definitely something we look forward to.”
Teams such as the Grizzlies and the Hawks give insight into how the Magic can get back to that stage.
The Grizzlies, led by All-Star guard Ja Morant, made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons — including winning 56 games last year and falling to the Warriors in the playoffs’ second round — before playing in their first Christmas Day game today.
The Hawks, led by All-Star guard Trae Young, played on Christmas in 2021 after making the Eastern Conference finals the previous season.
Being selected to play on Christmas is a sign that a team has arrived — or is on the verge of doing so — when the league selects that team to play in the NBA’s showcase that unofficially puts focus on the regular season.
“Realistically, we have a long way to go,” Harris said. “I’ve been in the league nine years; I’ve only had two Christmas games. There are some people who’ve never had a Christmas game. It’s something you can’t take for granted. I’m not saying it’s not realistic but we definitely have a long ways to go. It’s going to start one game at a time.”
For the Magic to get back to playing on Christmas, they’ll need to start having more team success — making deep runs in the playoffs — first. Having star power will also help.
Banchero, the No. 1 pick in June’s draft, will likely be a significant factor when/if the Magic play on Christmas again.
“I [say] next year, but if not then for sure Year 3,” Banchero said when asked when he hopes to play a Christmas game. “Realistically, I’d say my third year.”
Added Fultz: “As soon as possible. Hopefully, next year. If not that, the year after that.”
This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Khobi Price at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @khobi_price.