Deck the halls! The Celtics are (finally) home for Christmas

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BOSTON — “You want the real story? Like the legit story?” Boston Celtics team president Rich Gotham asked as a bit of a mischievous, Grinch-like grin formed.

Sixty-nine years after the Boston Celtics played their first Christmas Day game, the most decorated franchise in NBA history will finally host its first holiday tilt when the Washington Wizards visit TD Garden on Monday evening (ABC, 5:30 ET).

For decades, theories have been bandied about in regard to why Boston has never played a home game on Christmas. It has become legend that Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach staunchly refused to make team staffers and Garden employees work the holiday. Others are adamant that the potential for winter weather has routinely scared off the league.

“It all started a year ago, on Christmas Eve 2016, and Danny Ainge was in a deep winter slumber, and he was visited by the ghost of Christmas future, who looked eerily like Kyrie Irving.”

 

Celtics team president Rich Gotham

 

But these theories were quickly debunked, and a search for firm answers turned up a lot of shoulder shrugs. No one from those around the team in the early days its inception to more modern times seemed to know with certainty why the Celtics have played 30 seasons worth of road games but never hosted.

The quest for answers led this reporter to Gotham, one of the members of Boston’s front office who has a hands-on role in working with the NBA to determine the team’s yearly schedule.

“It all started a year ago, on Christmas Eve 2016,” Gotham said with the sort of gusto typically reserved for a holiday reading of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” “Danny Ainge was in a deep winter slumber, and he was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, who looked eerily like Kyrie Irving. The next day, Danny came to [Celtics chief marketing officer Shawn Sullivan] and I with an urgent plea to give Celtics fans the gift of a nationally televised home game at TD Garden. And we sprung into action.”

Turning more serious, Gotham explained that for much of the past two decades, the Garden simply wasn’t available on Christmas Day. You can blame the Disney On Ice program that often took up a late December residency at the Garden. But with the Celtics returning to basketball prominence in recent seasons and having alerted the league to their desire to host on Christmas Day, the two sides moved quick to bring holiday basketball to Boston for the first time.

Gotham is amused by the theories and admits that he can’t speak for much before his tenure, but he left this reporter with one final note.

“Just to be clear,” he said, “being visited by a spirit is not tampering.”


The Celtics so frequently played on Christmas Day in the infancy of the franchise that Red Auerbach’s youngest daughter, Randy, said it practically felt like a holiday tradition watching her father on television.

YEAR OPPONENT RESULT
1948 at Phila. Warriors L, 80-77
1949 at Rochester Royals L, 88-79
1950 at Rochester Royals L, 90-77
1951 at Minneapolis Lakers L, 100-93
1952 at New York Knicks L, 97-84
1953 at Fort Wayne Pistons L, 108-79
1954 at Milwaukee Hawks W, 108-99
1955 at Minneapolis Lakers W, 115-112
1956 vs. Phila. Warriors* L, 89-82
1957 at Phila. Warriors L, 115-105
1958 at New York Knicks W, 129-120
1959 at New York Knicks W, 123-119
1961 at Syracuse Nationals W, 127-122
1964 vs. Detroit Pistons* W, 118-106
1965 at Baltimore Bullets W, 113-99
1967 at New York Knicks W, 134-124
1969 at Phoenix Suns L, 127-116
1970 at L.A. Lakers L, 123-113
1971 at Cincinnati Royals W, 99-94
1974 at Phoenix Suns L, 110-96
1980 at New York Knicks W, 117-108
1985 at New York Knicks L, 113-104
1991 at Chicago Bulls L, 121-99
2002 at New Jersey Nets W, 117-81
2008 at L.A. Lakers L, 92-83
2009 at Orlando Magic W, 86-77
2010 at Orlando Magic L, 86-78
2011 at New York Knicks L, 106-104
2012 at Brooklyn Nets W, 93-76
2016 at New York Knicks W, 119-113
*Game played at neutral site

Auerbach coached the Celtics from 1950-1966, and Boston played on Christmas in 13 of those years. Even after Auerbach hung up his whistle, his duties as general manager often meant that he spent the holiday season scouting the college tournaments that played on or around Christmas.

Since Auerbach’s death in 2006, the tale about him not wanting to make others work on Christmas has grown and became gospel. The only trouble is it wasn’t exactly true.

“If it’s a good myth, I’ll go with it,” Randy Auerbach said with a laugh from her Los Angeles home. “I’d love to say, yes, of course. I remember I’d always watch him on Christmas Day on TV. But I don’t know that it was anything he could specifically do within his powers. I think it was really more about scheduling.”

A deep dive into Boston’s Christmas history confirms the hunch of Auerbach’s daughter. The NHL’s Boston Bruins routinely skated at the Garden on Christmas Day, playing 34 games at home between 1928 and 1971. The Bruins, who own TD Garden and have priority, were home for Christmas during each of the Celtics’ first 19 holiday games starting in 1948.

That means the Celtics didn’t even have the opportunity to play at home on Christmas until 1972 — at the earliest. Despite Boston’s status as a perennial championship contender, the Celtics didn’t get an invite to play on Christmas again until 1974, when, having claimed their 12th NBA title during the 1973-74 season, Boston traveled to Phoenix for one of the NBA’s three games that day.

Even as the Celtics assembled their new Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, Boston played only one time on Christmas (1980) in the next decade.

Jan Volk took the general manager reigns from Auerbach in 1984 and does not recall any firm decree from Red about avoiding Christmas home games.

“I wish I could say yes,” Volk said. “Red loved the game of basketball, he loved the Celtics, and he loved playing to win. But Red was not adverse to any of us working seven days per week. He was in it for keeps.”


For NBA players and coaches, being one of the teams selected to play on Christmas is a badge of honor, considering how the day has become maybe the league’s marquee regular-season date. With the way football tends to dominate the sports conversation through the fall, many like to say that Christmas is the unofficial start of the NBA season.

Christmas is just another work day for most of these Celtics.

“I mean the hoopla on Christmas, I don’t really get into that,” Kyrie Irving said. “I don’t really necessarily think of Christmas as a holiday. I’m just happy that I get to be with my family. I’m looking forward to playing in front of the [Boston] fans and just playing against a high-level Washington team and going against great guys and then, of course, opening presents and that whole thing.”

Those in the Celtics organization with young children are happy to not have to reroute Santa Claus this season, and an early evening tipoff affords an opportunity for an honest-to-goodness Christmas morning. But being on the road wasn’t as much of a hardship as some might think.

This is the T-shirt TD Garden employees will wear on Christmas. Courtesy: Boston Celtics

“We thought it was a neat experience [being in New York] last year,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who has two young children. “I’ve done Christmas in Honolulu, Christmas in New York City, now Christmas in Boston and Cleveland and Indy. It will be nice to be with my family. I don’t really care where we are. I just want to be with them.”

With an early tip time last year against the Knicks, the Stevens family postponed the morning’s typical present-a-thon. All of the kids of the coaching staff piled on a team bus and spent Christmas morning gleefully roaming Madison Square Garden like updated versions of Kevin McCallister. They even got some national TV time during the broadcast.

For TD Garden, finding willing workers for a Christmas home game has been a bit more challenging. Building management tried to offer as many incentives as possible.

“We came up with a theme of it’s Santa’s last stop. So we’re doing raffles, we’ve got TVs, headphones, all sorts of stuff,” said Amy Latimer, president of TD Garden. “And then we’re giving away an exclusive T-Shirt that day for anybody that works. … It’s very cute. We’re trying to make it fun for our associates to come in and work that day.”


When the Celtics were given a Christmas road game in 1985, the news did not go over well with the team. Despite Boston’s loaded roster during that original Big Three era, the Celtics hadn’t been on the league’s Christmas schedule for four years, and Volk said the team’s return was met with heavy resistance from players.

“The voice that was loudest was Kevin McHale’s. He was very, very disappointed and did not come down [to New York] until Christmas morning,” Volk said. “He got on a plane on Christmas morning. And that was an issue of some concern for us.”

McHale elected to spend Christmas Eve with his family and take a Delta shuttle flight to New York on Christmas morning. His tardiness angered some teammates and the league, which fined him. As Volk noted, the Celtics played that game like they were angry about having to work the holiday and built a monster first-half lead, only to cough it up and lose in double overtime.

The NBA has worked with the Celtics to make more recent Christmas Day games more palatable.

After assembling their most recent Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, the Celtics agreed to play the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day 2008 in a rematch of the previous year’s Finals. Both Pierce and Garnett had homes in Southern California, making it a bit of a home game for them, and the Celtics allowed the entire team to bring their families west.

For Christmas Day in 2009 and 2010, the Celtics played in Orlando, affording an opportunity for former head coach Doc Rivers to be home with his three school-aged children. The Rivers family hosted Celtics players around the game, and extra days off before the Christmas tilt meant some downtime for families.

The Celtics are hoping that this year’s game could be the start of a new holiday tradition of playing at TD Garden.

“Now that we are sort of a national TV draw again, we’re getting invited every year to play on Christmas Day, which is an honor, but it’s nice to be able to do it at home,” Gotham said. “We can let the players, the coaches, the whole travel staff be at home with their families [during the week of Christmas], especially after this kinda crazy road schedule [to start the year.]”

The NBA doesn’t like to reveal too much about its scheduling process, but it confirmed that Boston’s lack of a home game essentially boiled down to arena availability. For nearly the entirety of this seven-decade stretch of playing on the road, the date simply wasn’t ever on Boston’s list of available dates.

In recent years, the Disney On Ice crew would load in on Christmas Eve and set up the staging for its extended holiday run that typically kicked off with an afternoon show on Dec. 26. The tour made its final late December visit in 2012, and Christmas has been an available date to the NBA in each of the past four years.

Once Stevens and the Celtics quickly navigated an on-the-fly rebuild, Boston became a team worthy of a Christmas game again. And now, finally, after seven decades, Boston will play a Christmas home game.

Keeping with tradition, Randy Auerbach will be watching her dad’s favorite team from afar.

“Are you kidding me? It’s my extended family. It’s part of my life,” she said. “I’ll definitely be watching.”

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