The annual NBA Jewish Christmas Day games tradition has been going since 1947, and it’s been a perennial favorite for all those just trying to get through the holidays. Jews and Gentiles alike.
There are five NBA games scheduled for Christmas Day 2021 on ESPN and ABC, details below.
So, what should we eat? And why celebrate this as a Jewish thing? Because it’s the only thing actually happening on Christmas? Well, kinda. But, no, more importantly, because basketball is pretty Jewish.
Read a little about the history below, and for now, let’s figure out what we want to eat.
And, yes, these are just some of the books.
The Hungry Fan’s Game Day Cookbook: 165 Recipes For Eating, Drinking & Watching Sports
BBQ Bacon Cheeseburgers with Fried Onions. And thick-cut bacon. And buttermilk to adhere the flour to the onions pre-deep frying. What, now? Christmas Day lands on a Saturday this year, meaning…if you’re watching on Shabbat, perhaps you’ll eat a bacon cheeseburger using a recipe from a Jewish footballer? I won’t, but this is a thing.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Enter The Hungry Fan’s Game Day Cookbook by Diana Falk. The daughter of legendary sports agent David Falk, who represented Patrick Ewing, Arthur Ashe, Boomer Esiason, Duke’s Coach K, Dikembe Mutombo, John Thompson, Charles Barkley, and tons more. Also, Michael Jordan, and for the entirety of His Airness’ career.
David famously changed the NBA’s relationship with players, negotiating the then-highest contracts in NBA history for Patrick Ewing and Danny Ferry, also a first in professional sports with the first $100 million contract for Alonzo Mourning. Falk’s company, FAME, “changed the entire salary structure of the NBA, negotiating more than $400 million in contracts for its free agent clients in a six-day period.”
In his heyday, every athlete of note wanted to be represented by David Falk, and Diana was his then-teenager daughter who came home to many of the best athletes of the era visiting her home.
For her cookbook, Diana looks to said famous athletes that her father represented and newer faces that she’s met from running her food website hungryfan.com, which Diana founded “to take the hassle out of game day entertaining.” The site specializes in big-game-worthy recipes and sells every manner of cookware, barware and food kits to make entertaining for said big game a breeze. Hence now, the cookbook.
Diana Falk is just a girl, sitting alone with so much food, asking for you to get the ketchup.
This all leads to BBQ Bacon Cheeseburgers with Fried Onions. LeBron James, Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, Boomer Esiason, Victoria Azarenka, and Dikembe Mutombo all contributed recipes, but there is only one Jewish entry, from a certain husky ex-NFL heartthrob, Geoff Schwartz.
In honor of, again, the one specifically Jewish-identified athlete highlighted, we get BBQ Bacon Cheeseburgers with Fried Onions. Oh, Schwartz.
You know Geoff, the player that credits both his and his brother’s size, second-round NFL pick offensive tackle, Mitchell Schwartz, as being so big because of an excess of matzah ball soup and latkes they ate growing up.
Geoff has always been clear, telling Sports Illustrated that he is “proud to be a role model to young Jewish kids and athletes, letting them know it’s possible for them to reach their goals.” Also, “I don’t keep kosher. I love bacon, cheeseburgers and pork chops.”
So, he doesn’t keep kosher. He would bring his hanukkiah with him on away games, presumably only during Hanukkah, not like every week, where he observed the holiday in hotel rooms by lighting it up the night before games.
Lastly, Geoff Schwartz has a podcast where he told the story about playing with the Kansas City Chiefs and gaining 17 pounds in three days. Starting weight was 332 pounds. Make a moment to listen to it. This guy is the best.
BBQ Bacon Cheeseburgers with Fried Onions
If you’re a New York fan, you may recognize Geoff from the New York Giants, for whom he played offensive guard. Duck fans may remember him from his time with the University of Oregon, where he started for three years at right tackle. He was selected by the Carolina Panthers in the 2008 NFL Draft and has also played with the Minnesota Vikings and the Kansas City Chiefs. Geoff and I share a couple of mutual friends, both of whom reached out to me to tell me all about him. “You have to meet Geoff! He’s a big foodie like you!” So from one foodie to another to you, here’s Geoff’s cheeseburger recipe.
Contributor: Geoff Schwartz
- 2 pounds 90/10 ground sirloin
- 1⁄2 teaspoon dried parsley
- 1⁄4 teaspoon garlic powder
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8 slices thick-cut bacon
- 2 onions, sliced into 1⁄4-inch-thick rings
- 2 cups buttermilk
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- Vegetable oil, for frying
- Your favorite barbecue sauce
- 4 Cheddar or Colby Jack cheese slices
- 4 brioche buns
- Mayonnaise, for serving, optional
1. Preheat your grill to 400°F or a grill pan over medium-high.
2. Mix together the ground sirloin, dried parsley, garlic powder, and salt and pepper to taste in a large bowl. Use your hands to form the ground meat mixture into 4 even patties.
3. Arrange the bacon on the grill rack. If using a charcoal grill, be sure to place the bacon around the edge of the grill so that the grease does not start a fire. If using a gas grill, place the bacon to one side over lower heat. After the fat has slowly dripped off, you can move the bacon toward the center of the grill to finish cooking, about 10 minutes. When the bacon is nice and crisp, but not burned, remove it from the grill, and set it aside.
4. Meanwhile, in a large shallow bowl, soak the onions in the buttermilk for 5 minutes.
5. Add the burgers to the grill. While they are cooking, place the flour in another large shallow bowl, and season with salt and pepper. Remove the onion rings from the buttermilk, and coat them in the seasoned flour.
6. Heat about 4 inches oil in a large Dutch oven over medium until it reaches 375°F on a deep-fry thermometer. Test the heat of the oil by adding a small onion ring. If it burns, your oil is too hot. Place the onions in the oil, and fry for 3 minutes, until golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer them to a plate covered in paper towels.
7. Keeping an eye on the burgers, flip them after 5 minutes. When they are nearly cooked, after about 10 minutes total, brush the top with the barbecue sauce. Let sit for 1 minute, then flip again, brushing the other side with barbecue sauce. Add the cheese, and remove the burgers from the grill. Add the buns to the grill to quickly heat them.
8. To build the burgers, coat the bottom buns with more barbecue sauce, top with the cheeseburger, 2 slices of bacon, some fried onions, as well as any other desired condiments. (Geoff likes mayo.) Add the top bun, and enjoy.
Tasty Tidbits: Geoff’s brother, Mitchell Schwartz, also plays in the NFL as an offensive tackle with the Cleveland Browns. Geoff and Mitchell are the first Jewish brothers to play in the NFL since Ralph and Arnold Horween in 1923.
NBA Christmas Day Tradition
The five NBA games on Christmas Day 2021 are being split, and sometimes shared, between ESPN and ABC. The Hawks play the Knicks in New York at noon EST, in a rematch of the first-round playoff series from last season, only shown on ESPN.
While the Knicks have played more Christmas Day games than any other team, 53 total, they have both won and lost more Christmas Day games than any other team (22–31), which feels right. It also quickly gets to the pain of wasting half my life as a Knicks fan — although loving Patrick Ewing and Amar’e Stoudemire is for life.
Games continue on either, or both, ABC and ESPN. The Celtics visit the Bucks at 2:30 pm EST on ABC, then the Suns host the Warriors at 5 pm EST, also only on ABC. The Nets visit the Lakers at 8 pm EST on ABC and ESPN, and the festivities end just on ESPN with the Mavericks visiting the Utah Jazz at 10:30 pm EST.
Here’s hoping the Laker’s win this year, and no one gets injured. And by no-one I mostly mean LeBron James.
My last Christmas before I converted I flew across a few countries to spend the holidays with family. For the big day my brother’s in-laws again took priority, resulting in cancelled plans, again, for my parents.
After fiercely trying to not appear totally brokenhearted, my mother couldn’t keep it up and took to her bed, anguished by late-afternoon.
My father and I carried on. We watched Blazing Saddles and a basketball game, both beloved activities. Basketball and Mel Brooks films.
I have since come to learn that not only was that my last Christian holiday, but it was actually my very first Jewish Christmas. My papa will be happy to hear that him having Blazing Saddles on standby for my visit has been deemed an excellent use of December’s PVR hours in any Jewish home (or any month).
My mother taking to her bed in agony over my sister-in-law and missing her grandchildren to the point of heartburn was, to me, par for the course and very house of WASP. But the people have spoken, and that too was very on point. Mazel tov, mama.
And lastly the basketball game.
The Lakers ended up clobbering Golden State, but an injury caused LeBron to miss significant time, which later contributed to the Laker’s missing the playoffs.
A year later, also in Los Angeles, I was newly Jewish and looking for food. And now all I think about is that I should have eaten this cheeseburger when I had the chance. All the cheeseburgers.
Get The Hungry Fan’s Game Day Cookbook from wherever it is you like to get your books from.
Falk, Daina. The Hungry Fan's Game Day Cookbook: 165 Recipes for Eating, Drinking & Watching Sports. Birmingham: Liberty Street, 2016.
And Now a Little Jewish Basketball History
The NBA started in 1946, under a different name, when the New York Knickerbockers and the Toronto Huskies met, at the beloved and fiercely missed Maple Leaf Gardens. Fun fact: I am both from Toronto and my high school’s mascot was the Huskies. It’s all coming together. Alas, I digress.
Among the visiting players that first game in 1946 was Ossie Schectman. Sports journalist Jeff Eisenband explains that Schectman, “a Queens native born to Jewish immigrants from Russia, scored the first official basket of the BAA, as the NBA was known at the time.” And although he only played that first season, “he started a Jewish legacy that is still present today.”
Ari Sclar wrote his dissertation on basketball’s impact on American Jewish culture and identity in the first half of the twentieth century. In Basketball and the Jews, Ari writes that by the 1930s, “mainstream press began to focus on a specific playing style of New York schools based on constant motion, quick passing, and deliberate cuts to the basket. Both Jewish and non-Jewish commentators connected this style to the mental acuity and lack of size of Jews,” continuing that “this style challenged Western teams who played with the more open, fast-breaking style.”
“The rise of Jewish basketball reflected American Jews’ larger story during the first half of the 20th century,” Ari continues, “from immigrant neighborhoods, Jews sought out opportunities to join the mainstream. Success in basketball is just one story of achievement during a time of adjustment, stress, and occasional anti-Semitism. At the same time, Jews made a lasting contribution to the game.” Adding that while “few Jews played at the highest levels, the sport owes its development to its roots with the Jewish neighborhoods teams.”
I could look at photos like those above all day.
The photo on the left is dated from the 1930s and is of the SPHA team (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), while the bottom image was taken at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House in Pittsburgh in December 1929. I assume there were Jewish men in other cities in the United States at this time, but perhaps those guys preferred baseball?
And the man deftly appearing to taunt a Jewish basketball line formation is Inky Lautmen, circa 1930-1935. Sidney Goldstein is Inky’s nephew, who wrote of his uncle, “Inky started to play pro ball in the Jewish League for the Philadelphia SPHAA’s (South Philadelphia Hebrew Athletic Association) around 1930. His parents made him quit high school in 10th grade (age 15) to earn money playing basketball during the Depression.”
That noise you just heard was the collective sound of modern-era Jewish parents in Philadelphia and beyond, as they simultaneously plotz at the idea of a 15-year-old quitting school to play a game.
Read more about the long and compelling history of Jews and basketball, starting with:
Landesman, Dovid. There Are No Basketball Courts in Heaven: Essays on Jewish Themes. McKeesport, PA: Jewish Educational Workshop, 2010.
Stark, Douglas. When Basketball Was Jewish. Voices of Those Who Played the Game. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
Stark, Douglas, and Lynn Sherr. The Sphas: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011
Rosen, Charley. Chosen Game: A Jewish Basketball History. University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
Read Sports Illustrated Ten Random Facts About being A Jewish Athlete.
Photo credits from top to bottom, right to left: Clutchpoints mash-up of NBA players; book covers compliments of the listed publishing houses; hungryfan.com; ESPN, The LA Times; www.mrbasketball.net; Digitized by the Gruss Lipper Digital Laboratory at the Center for Jewish History – www.cjh.org