IT WAS like the Mayan calendar.

The NBA knew exactly by what date it had to settle its differences with its players or face Armageddon for the 2011-12 season.

That's why after weeks of no-contact between the two sides, a hastily called meeting in late November accomplished in 48 hours what couldn't be done in the previous 5 months.

It wasn't a coincidence that the tentative agreement that effectively ended the NBA lockout was reached on Nov. 26, 2011. That left just enough time to get things in enough order to have the opening tipoff on Christmas Day.

That timeline was the drop-dead date for resuscitation.

Except for hardcore fans, a lot of people don't really get into the NBA until after the NFL regular season is done and all those fans whose teams didn't make the playoffs have time for another interest.

Even though the league typically has played games for a month, many look at the NBA's Christmas Day, nationally televised doubleheader of marquee games as the "unofficial" start of the season.

The league and the players knew that if they could salvage Christmas, they might have a chance of recovering from their self-inflicted wounds.

The NBA made the most of its chance to make a new first impression. Instead of the normal doubleheader, the league came out with a five-game, noon-to-midnight marathon of games across its television networks featuring the most high-profile teams.

The entire 2011 Final Four - Dallas, Miami, Chicago and Oklahoma City - was in action. The marquee matchups consisted of a Finals rematch between the Mavericks and Heat, the Lakers against the Bulls, the Celtics and Knicks, and the Thunder against the Magic.

"We were nervous going into Christmas Day," NBA commissioner David Stern said in his pre-playoffs media conference call on Wednesday. "What would the fan response be?

"But when the response was so positive with respect to the number of games, leaving aside some chatter about whether we should or should not play multiple games on Christmas Day on one side, another is saying, my goodness gracious, the NBA now has established themselves as a Christmas Day franchise.

"From that point on, it really was just building, and we felt a big sigh of relief after Opening Day."

As the NBA prepares to start its playoffs this weekend, the Association has done something I didn't think it was capable of - it has made most people forget there even was a lockout.

Unlike the 1998-99 lockout, which shortened the regular season to 50 games and wiped out the All-Star Game, the season's 66-game schedule was granted legitimacy by the fans.

Another big difference that Stern pointed out was that in 1998-99, the era of Michael Jordan had run its course and the next wave of stars had not yet established themselves.

That wasn't the case this season. Fans knew LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose, Dirk Nowitzki and Carmelo Anthony, and wanted to see them play.

Ironically, the success of the 2011-2012 season, and don't let haters fool you into thinking it has not been successful, is testament to the old saying that the only bad publicity is no publicity. Not too many people were saying anything good, but the entire time the NBA and its players were out, they were popular subjects of conversation through social networking. Players easily were able to keep in contact with fans through Twitter and Facebook.

Out of sight did not mean out of mind.

"There was no social media to speak of in 1999," Stern said. "In some ways, the bloggers, the social media, everything that was going on, our fans were out there.

"Whether they were saying we were stupid, bad, good, ignorant, blind, whatever they chose to say, they were talking.

"In some ways, our community, through social media, was staying engaged."

I'm not sure how far the NBA's offices on Fifth Avenue in New York are from 34th Street, but by opening the season Christmas Day, the Association got a miracle.

"I would just say that the season has gone better than we could have hoped for," Stern said. "Our fan response across everything we do has been terrific - from television to attendance to social media.

"Our sponsors are very happy with the way the league has charged back and we are looking forward to a very exciting playoffs."

Contact John Smallwood at smallwj@phillynews.com.
For recent columns, visit www.phillynews.com/Smallwood.