Off Campus: Another Philly player survives Boeheim's boot camp

Posted: March 22, 2012

BOSTON - Game to game, his minutes nearly vanished. Two minutes. Four minutes. One minute. That's all Syracuse freshman Rakeem Christmas got. Over the last seven games of Syracuse's regular season, he was on the court for 17 minutes, total.

You'd assume those were garbage minutes, except for this little twist: Christmas started every one of those games.

Staying out there obviously was the issue for the Academy of the New Church graduate. If Christmas leaned in the wrong direction on the opening tip, a substitute was headed to the scorer's table. Orange coach Jim Boeheim always found a reason to make a move. It was as if he was looking for any reason.

If Christmas didn't make the correct slide to a shooter, a sub got up, even if it had been the first shot of the game.

"If I messed up, they were bringing in an older person who knows how to do it," Christmas said Wednesday.

All that's history now. Forced by events, Boeheim's boot camp is over. Christmas will start Thursday against Wisconsin in the NCAA East Regional semifinal at TD Garden, but with center Fab Melo off the team, ineligible for the NCAA tournament, Christmas will stay out there, and will be a huge key to Syracuse's staying in this tournament. In 34 minutes of Syracuse's second-round victory over Kansas State, Christmas had eight points, 11 rebounds, and three blocked shots.

Until he got to Syracuse, the 6-foot-9, 230-pound Christmas had never played zone defense. He called the transition rough, especially since he was expected to cover the sides of the zone, suddenly going up against guys his size, with his athleticism but with veteran savvy, many of them top shooters.

Boeheim preferred that the transition take place in practice. Late in December, the coach said of Christmas: "He's not a finesse player. He's not a shooter. He's got to be a physical player. He's got to get stronger and he's got to be a warrior down there. And right now, he's a nice kid."

Through this process, Christmas didn't lose his teammates. They'd all been through various forms of the boot camp.

"Even when he got pulled, I was always the guy who said: 'Keep your confidence, no matter what. It can change,' " said Syracuse point guard Scoop Jardine, the Neumann-Goretti graduate. "Look, it changed for him, and he's actually ready because of us. We helped him out through all that. He was playing two minutes, then sitting down, not playing the whole game."

He's back playing his more natural inside position. He knows Wisconsin will be a test, realizing their big men will be taking shots from all over the floor (if not necessarily making them).

"I just need to do the things I've done in practice," Christmas said.

He's used to making transitions. He was raised by his grandmother in St. Croix after his mother died of renal failure when he was 5. In reality, an entire family raised him. His mother, Jenny, who had been sick for two or three years before she died, "was like the beloved one in the family," said his aunt, Amira Hamid. "Everybody overcompensated to make sure he had what he needed. If he wanted one pair of shoes, we would get him five pairs. He was our last tie to her."

He was a terrific pitcher in baseball - the big game on the island - but kind of outgrew the sport. When he was in eighth grade, the family decided he should move to Philadelphia and live with his aunt, who had stayed in Southwest Philadelphia after graduating from Drexel.

"I was getting taller - they didn't have any teams down there," Christmas said.

As he got bigger, the island got smaller.

"To be honest, he was bored - the island is 21 by 7 miles," his aunt said. "He'd come visit me and not want to go back."

He began at North Catholic, then switched to Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn, turning into a top D-I recruit. Talking about her nephew, Hamid describes him as "my everything . . . my nephew, he feels like my son, sometimes my best friend."

"You can always depend on him being him," said Hamid, who runs a public relations agency in Philadelphia.

Like Jardine, she would tell her nephew, "Never allow someone else, regardless of what that person may be, to take your confidence away."

And his response to all this?

"He was his cool-cucumber self," Hamid said. "And now he's doing what he was born to do."

If there's ever a team that can ignore the outside world and keep playing ball, Syracuse may be it. The real question is how well. This isn't about chemistry, but X's and O's. Christmas keeps his part of the equation simple - "just do the things I do in practice," he said Wednesday.

If some believe that Christmas needed to play with more of an edge, "I think he's got that," said teammate Dion Waiters, the third member of Syracuse's Philly triumvirate. "You won't tell with him because he's a nice kid and all that. Come tomorrow, he'll show it."


Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489, or mjensen@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @Jensenoffcampus. Read his "Off Campus" columns at www.philly.com/offcampus

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