With the holiday season upon us, get an inside look at the festive traditions of Kings players and coaches.
A 10-year-old Marcus Thornton and his younger brother, Jonathan, sheepishly grinned as they unwrapped gifts on the morning of Dec. 25, feigning surprise at finding a copy of the video game “NBA Live ’97.”
“We opened the present two days before, and we were playing the game the whole night,” reveals the Kings guard with a chuckle. “We always snuck into the presents the day before Christmas and opened them without my mom knowing. When my mom woke up, we hurried up and put it back under the tree like we hadn’t touched it. That was our thing every year, and we never did get caught.”
Although the rigorous NBA schedule leaves precious time to enjoy the holidays, Thornton – whose family is flying from Baton Rouse, La. to Sacramento – and his teammates hope to carry on numerous longstanding traditions and maximize time with loved ones during the season of giving.
“It’s a lot different (now) … but it’s also kind of the same – everybody getting together,” says Isaiah Thomas. “You don’t really see each other throughout the year like you want, but Christmas is one holiday when everybody gets to see each other – nieces, nephews, cousins.”
As a child, No. 22 enjoyed convening for dinner and exchanging gifts with both sides of his family.
“I basically had two Christmases – going to my dad’s house and being with his family and going to my mom’s house and being with her family,” he says. “It was fun for me – I was excited to get new presents, (especially) any of the new shoes that came out.”
Jason Thompson recalls his younger brother waking him up hours before the alarm was set to ring at 9 a.m. and anxiously waiting upstairs while the aroma of his mother’s cooking wafted from the kitchen.
“Christmas Eve, we’d go to my aunt’s and uncle’s house and all the family would come out there,” he says. “Then, Christmas Day, they’d usually come to my house at 11:30 or noon, we’d have brunch and then we’d still have food for dinner time, too.”
No. 34 says he’ll always treasure special holiday memories, from the time he received a Michael Jordan jersey to when he found an unexpected surprise in the driveway.
“I remember getting my first basketball court outside,” he says. “My mother said, ‘Look outside,’ and my brother said it was snowing, even though there wasn’t one bit of snow on the ground.”
Tyreke Evans fondly remembers waking up at 8 a.m. as a child, thrilled to find out what his mother had in store on the special day.
“Christmas was one of the best moments for me, just knowing I was getting something new,” he says. “I always wanted to see what my mom had ready for me. (She’d give me) a couple of games, shoes and clothes that I wanted. She made that happen and that was a pretty exciting time.”
After being allowed to open one present on Dec. 24, Jimmer Fredette made sure to get to bed early and always ended up being the first person wide awake in his house.
“I was up at 7 a.m. and my brother and sister wouldn’t get up until around 10,” he says, reminiscing being ecstatic to receive a Spalding Infusion basketball one year. “I was always like, ‘Come on, hurry up!’ because I’d see all the presents sitting there and I just wanted to open them up.”
From ornaments to multi-colored lights, the Fredette household was always one of the most festive in the neighborhood.
“My mom decorated in the house (a lot) – we called it the ‘Winter Wonderland’ because she would decorate so much stuff,” he says. “We’d leave them up until like February because we used to love them so much.”
Similarly to his backcourt teammate, Aaron Brooks reveals his family permitted unwrapping a single gift early, after which he’d eagerly lay awake in bed.
“I don’t even recall going to sleep because it was so hard to do,” reflects Brooks smiling. “I used to wake up at like 5 a.m. to see what was there (and) if we received everything (we wanted). I never could crack the mystery of Santa Claus.”
Growing up with seven siblings, James Johnson describes a “hectic” holiday, while also adhering to a unique practice.
“We open all of our presents on Christmas Eve at midnight, so really early Christmas (morning),” he says. “Fortunately, I found a wife who has the same tradition. We have a blast – it’s crazy and there’s a lot of trash to be picked up.”
While No. 52 says the best gift he ever received was a basketball, coming from a family of martial artists, he was also once given a customary karate weapon.
“I did get some wood nunchucks. They teach you on their own – they’re their own instructor,” says Johnson with a chuckle. “One little slip-up is going to hurt, so we learned how to use those pretty quickly.”
Rookie Thomas Robinson discloses he never put together a holiday wish list, coming away content no matter what he received.
“I think every year my mom bought me this little sports package – it came with a basketball, football, soccer ball, a baseball bat and a baseball,” recalls No. 0.
“But it didn’t matter if I’d get a lot or I didn’t – it was just Christmas,” he continues. “I would be up at 7 a.m., but of course, the whole house didn’t wake up until probably 10 or 11, so I’d try to make all these extra noises to wake my parents up early.”
While the Washington, D.C. native says he enjoyed the merry atmosphere and decorations, nothing could compare to the annual home-cooked meal.
“Dinner was the best part – anything you’d name, we had it,” says Robinson smiling. “Christmas dinner is just like Thanksgiving part two.”
After months of traveling on the road, his teammates unanimously agree a sit-down feast, typically featuring a turkey or ham centerpiece, is a holiday staple worth the wait.
“Macaroni and cheese, yams – my mom, she makes that good soul food,” says Evans. “When she cooks, it’s always seconds for me.”
Head Coach Keith Smart – who recalls wishing for a G.I. Joe action figure with the Kung-Fu grip as a child – says his household remains the center for family gatherings to this day.
“You’re obviously going to have the turkey, the ham … but you have the candied sweet potatoes, green beans – everything that’s good, we’re going to have,” says the Kings leader. “My mom and dad always cooked more than enough because they always took food to other people.
“I think that attitude stuck with my brothers and me – (we) didn’t look to go buy some expensive gift but made sure we’re able to give to someone.”
Kings players likewise feel fortunate to be in a position to bring happiness to parents, siblings and children.
“It’s a blessing,” says Johnson. “Just seeing my little brothers open up gifts is a gift in itself.”
Now a dad, Chuck Hayes appreciates spending time with loved ones and close friends more than ever.
“(As a child), you didn’t really soak in the whole fact it was a family atmosphere – it was more about the presents and the food,” says No. 42, who recollects receiving a stylish leather coat in seventh grade.
“I value family time a lot more now – they’ve been supporting me and they’re most important to me,” he says. “I don’t have a greater joy than watching my son open up his presents.”
While players and coaches are active in local communities throughout the year, the holiday season presents an opportunity to spread cheer to underprivileged families during an especially meaningful time.
“It’s very important (to give back), because growing up, I wasn’t a fortunate kid,” says DeMarcus Cousins, who recently treated 50 local youth to a shopping spree. “(I’m) not really looking for credit – (it’s) just the type of person I am.”
Veteran Francisco Garcia has traditionally donated and distributed “Holiday in a Box” dinners to Latino families at a neighborhood church.
“My fiancée and I talked about it, and it’s something we want to do every year for our foundation,” said the Louisville product. “I know there are lot of poor people out there who really need a hand, especially this time of year.”
Thompson – who plans on hosting charity events through his foundation, as well – has annually visited kids at Shriners Hospitals for Children, distributing Kings gear and prizes in addition to dancing and singing with young fans.
“I’ve done it since my rookie year,” says the Kings forward. “It’s a sad situation that the kids are in, but what a way to try and brighten up their time there. We just try and cheer them up, hoping they can get healthy and able to get out of there.”
While Kings players and coaches celebrate the holidays in a variety of ways, it’s clear that brightening the lives of those they care about remains the most rewarding gift of all.