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Bah, humbug, Knicks on TV too early on Christmas

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant reacts after making

Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant reacts after making the game-winning basket during overtime against the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 16, 2009. The Lakers won 107-106. Credit: AP Photo/Morry Gash

Let's start by putting this in historical perspective:

The Knicks first played on Dec. 25 in 1947, at home against the Providence Steamrollers, and have done so regularly since, including 38 years in a row from 1950-87.

And there's this: Christmas games long have been an NBA tradition, often with a busy slate in the 1960s and '70s - a whopping seven games in '77 alone.

So there is nothing radical about the five games planned for Friday. Still, is it really necessary for the Knicks to be playing at noon against the visiting Heat in their first Christmas Day appearance since 2001?

Shouldn't people still be in their pajamas at that hour, opening toy trains rather than boarding real ones for the schlep to the Garden?

It's understandable that the Knicks don't rate one of those cushy late-afternoon slots they used to have in olden times, not with the Celtics and Magic at 2:30 and the Cavaliers and Lakers at 5.

But . . . noon?

It turns out the early hour is a function of - surprise! - TV. ESPN/ABC and the NBA agreed to fashion a holiday quintupleheader that must start by noon if it is to end by 1 a.m. or so.

There was a noon game on Christmas last year, too, but ESPN and TNT shared that quintupleheader, the busiest NBA Christmas since 1979. This one is all ESPN, which has Friday night rights.

John Wildhack, an ESPN executive vice president, said the NBA and the network mutually agreed to try to have the NBA "own Christmas as football owns Thanksgiving."

"They were receptive," he said. "Here's an opportunity for the NBA to really showcase itself."

But Christmas brings with it different considerations than do Thanksgiving and New Year's, which college football used to own but the NHL now has taken over.

Wildhack said "everybody is respectful of the religious nature of it," but he added the schedule still is fan-friendly given the long day ahead "after the kids open the presents."

That mostly is true for TV viewers, who have made Christmas games ratings winners in the past, but it doesn't do much for fans attending in person or people working at the games, including players.

Analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who will work the Cavs-Lakers game and has coached in Christmas games, said that although they are good for fans watching at home, they are a "tremendous burden" for the road teams.

He also said playing on Christmas "isn't as special as it used to be" because there now are so many games scheduled.

Fellow analyst Mark Jackson said: "You miss Christmas morning at home and opening up presents. At the same time as a player, you love the feeling of being on a national stage."

The Clippers and Knicks will get national exposure Friday. Jackson spoke much more highly of the former's talent level.

Has Jackson, who grew up in Queens and played for the Knicks, at least been impressed with the Knicks' improved play of late?

"I don't think that talent will be there when you look to revamp your roster in 2010," he said. "I think it's fool's gold when you look at bad teams and guys playing well.

"Somebody has to score. Somebody has to get baskets."

Ouch. So what is the appeal of dragging the Knicks, the Heat and the fans out of bed Friday morning? Other than the fact that the Knicks - who are owned by Cablevision, which also owns Newsday - are to wear green and the Heat red, a nod to the holiday color scheme.

"It's still the Knicks, and it is New York and it's Dwyane Wade," Wildhack said. "There are a lot of stories around the Knicks, and not all center on the 2009-10 season."

What are you getting at, sir?

"Sticking with the holiday spirit," he said slyly, before referencing the Heat's star free- agent-to-be, "Dwyane Wade may be on that wish list."

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