KIERAN SHANNON: Even Santa stops to watch holiday hoops

These people who draw up the season schedule: Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?

The other day Jurgen Klopp entertained and informed the media as always, providing them with lines and laughs regarding the challenges of being a Premier League manager as opposed to one in the Bundsliga or virtually anywhere else in Europe.

“How do you prepare for this?” he asked rhetorically at one point about his team’s schedule over the coming fortnight. “Everyone is asking why England is not too successful in big tournaments. Ask what other big countries are doing at this time — they have their legs on the sofa and are watching English football.”

As well as conjuring up an image of Lionel Messi plopping his feet up to see how Sergio Aguero fares on a wet night in Stoke, Klopp’s comments seemed to be spoken by a man who used to enjoy doing precisely the same, even if it meant having to put up with Gary Neville dissecting the inadequacies of some goalkeeper who just cost his team two critical points.

Tonight Klopp’s old club Borussia Dortmund play their last game of 2016. They don’t play again until January 21. That’s a 32-day gap. Liverpool are down to play five league games and two Cup games before Dortmund kick another ball. But England’s folly is the rest of Europe’s amusement, in more ways than one, and so as Klopp somehow tries to make sure Roberto Firmino doesn’t join Philippe Coutinho on the injury list, Messi and the rest of us will observe and enjoy the madness.

Mind you, it could have been worse for Klopp, a devoted family man. His team could have been asked to play on Christmas Day, as the NBA routinely does of its top players.

It’s been an NBA tradition since the league’s second season in 1947. In those early years they were more family conscious, with teams usually playing their nearest geographical rivals to reduce the amount of travel and time away from their families. Dr Jack Ramsay, who coached the Portland Trailblazers to the NBA title in 1977, was certainly one was happy with the arrangement. Eleven times he coached a team to victory on December 25. “Christmas meant being at home with the family and having a game we always won,” Ramsay would say. “That was a perfect Christmas to me.” In 2008 his number of Christmas Day wins would be equalled and surpassed by the legendary Phil Jackson, who would eventually win 11 NBA titles as well. Jackson though wasn’t as enamoured with the fixture. Every year he coached in the NBA from 1990, his team was scheduled to play on Christmas Day, often on the other coast of America.

“I don’t think anybody should play on Christmas Day,” Jackson would say in 2010 before his LA Lakers squared up to LeBron James’s Miami Heat. “It’s like Christian holidays don’t mean anything anymore.” James wasn’t too pleased either. “If you ask any player in the league, we’d rather be with our families. It’s not just a regular holiday. It’s one of those days that you wish you could wake up in the morning with the kids and open up presents.”

Other kids all over America, meanwhile, have become accustomed to watching James on Christmas Day. This year in particular they’ll be glued to their screens. This Sunday LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers host the Golden State Warriors, the side they’ve met in the past two NBA finals and are very likely to clash for a third next June. The NBA don’t just put on games on Christmas Day: They put on the biggest box office match-up they can get. That’s something that hasn’t been lost on other NBA figures. As kids they all dreamed of some day playing on Christmas Day on nationwide television, just like LeBron and Jordan and Magic Johnson before them. “As a kid, you wanted to be on Christmas,” Doc Rivers, coach to the LA Clippers, has said. “I tend to look at it (playing or coaching on Christmas Day) as a reward.”

Of course they’re handsomely rewarded and compensated in other ways. John Amaechi, the Briton who played in the NBA for 10 years, understood the dynamics that financed his salary. The NBA is as much entertainment as it is athletic endeavour. People, families, want to watch it, even — especially — Christmas Day.

“Of course it’s not nice for the players sometimes,” he has said. “It meant I had a sort-of ‘team’ Christmas rather than a family one. But players adapt. You just move the day that you celebrate with your loved ones to either the day or Stephen’s Day.”

In England they haven’t yet started playing games on Christmas Day, but St Stephen’s Day games sometimes mean training or staying away in an hotel on December 25. Irish footballer Graham Cummins, who has carved out a career in the Scottish and lower English leagues, has made the point it depends on whether you have children or not. As a single man, he can tolerate working on Christmas Day. For fathers, it must be different.

In many ways the American pro sports are hugely anti-family. In baseball it’s common to play five games on the road in a week. The NBA likewise involves lengthy road trips. The Christmas schedule merely compounds it. Jackson is now on his third marriage. That might not necessarily be directly because of the NBA’s desire to have him coach on Christmas Day, but it might partly explain his dislike of such scheduling.

But that’s the business they’re in. These games aren’t played in front of empty stands.

On Christmas Day, 20,000 will leave the Christmas fire and file into Madison Square Garden to see Jackson’s latest NBA team, the New York Knicks that he’s general manager to, play the Boston Celtics.

On St Stephen’s Day, hundreds of thousands will flock into stadia all over Britain.

Meanwhile, the likes of Messi and millions more like us will be in front of the fire, putting the feet up like Klopp use to relish, watching the likes of LeBron and Zlatan do their thing, away from their families, for their families.

Call it madness. Call it entertainment.


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