LAS VEGAS – When he was in college, Dionte Christmas scored 2,043 points, sank a school-record 319 3-pointers, and won two Atlantic-10 championships, neither of which would have even been remotely possible were it not for his presence. But for his former coach Fran Dunphy, the only number that mattered was one.
Christmas was exactly one course shy of completing his degree at Temple and as he left North Broad St. to begin a well-traveled existence as an overseas professional basketball player, Dunphy put it to him straight.
“I was angry with him, to be honest with you,” Dunphy said. “I said to him, ‘You’re not welcome here as long as you don’t have that degree.’”
It’s hard to stay mad at the effervescent Christmas for long, however, so Dunphy made him a deal. Get that degree and he’d shave his signature mustache. Last August, Dunphy got a text message from Christmas that read: “Get your razor ready.”
The coach happily complied on local television, noting that it was time his former player got another chance at making the NBA. Less than one year later, Christmas is staring at a completely unexpected opportunity with the Celtics. He’s been impressive from the first game of summer league in Orlando and here in Vegas, showing the C’s that he’s not just a scorer. It’s a long shot of course, but Christmas has made a name for himself this summer.
“He deserves it,” Dunphy said. “He’s worked really hard at it. He has that one ingredient everybody wants and needs that’s the ability to make shots. He’s a hustle guy. He’s a great team guy. He’s got great energy and enthusiasm. I’m rooting like crazy for him.”
It’s a funny thing about pro basketball. There are only 450 jobs at most in the NBA and there’s more than enough talent to meet the demand. For players like Christmas who don’t find an immediate spot in the league, the journey can take them thousands of miles from home, but that siren song of opportunity keeps pulling them back.
“I’m just dream-chasing, man. That’s my motor. It’s a dream that I want to come true one day,” Christmas said. “If I keep playing well and keep playing the way I know how, that dream will come true.”
If the Celtics had their way, there wouldn’t have even been a chance for Christmas, no matter how well he’s performed in summer league. Their primary offseason plan involved re-signing Ray Allen and adding another veteran guard in Jason Terry. When Allen left for Miami, it left a spot open for someone to claim.
There are veteran free agents still out there and stiff internal competition, but Christmas is in the mix. He’s also savvy enough to understand the situation. He turned down an opportunity to play with Houston in Las Vegas and decided to ride out his chance with the Celtics for as far as it will take him.
“There’s a lot of guys that are good enough to play in the NBA, but it’s all about opportunity and who you know at the right time,” Christmas said. “Hopefully I’m at the right place right now at the right time.”
The closest he’s come to sticking in the league was 2009 when he was waived by his hometown 76ers at the end of training camp. Christmas thought he was ready back then, but now he knows differently. Those years overseas taught him how to be a pro, and that there’s more to the game than scoring.
“I thought I was [ready], honestly,” Christmas said. “As you can see, I wasn’t. I thought I was and looking back now and the way I’m playing now and the things I’m seeing now, I wasn’t ready. Those two or three years overseas got me prepared. Today, if I was to play in an NBA game I could be very productive.”
His confidence comes naturally and the Celtics have been impressed with his overall game.
“Every night he does something different,” said Ty Lue, the Celtics’ summer league coach. “He might have assists one night, he might score one night, he guards the best player every night. He does a little bit of everything. He’s always been a scorer. If you take away his scoring, what else can he do? He’s showing teams that he can do that.”
‘HE’S WHAT YOU CALL A GYM RAT’
In every city, there are certain tests one must pass. In Philadelphia, perhaps the biggest for a young player was gaining the approval of John Hardnett.
A legend in local hoop circles, Hardnett’s workouts were known for being brutal and exacting.
Not every player gained acceptance into Hardnett’s gym, but those who did quickly learned that their natural talent would only take them so far. Hardnett died in 2010, leaving a huge hole in Philly’s close-knit basketball community, but he was instrumental in developing Christmas from a frail, skinny shooter into a player.
“He stuck with John and worked out every day, worked out in the gym when there wasn’t nobody around but him,” his trainer Chuck Ellis said. “He always had the will and he always had the determination. Growing up, he got better and got better just by working hard. He’s what you really call a gym rat.”
Christmas also absorbed the lessons of older players like Aaron McKie, Cuttino Mobley and Alvin Williams. Philly basketball is one big extend family, but it’s a tough family. Nothing is ever given and respect is earned.
“He’s always played up and played with older guys,” Ellis said. “That’s where his heart comes from, getting knocked around, getting elbowed in the mouth, getting pushed around by those older guys. It builds character and builds you as a man in this sport.”
Christmas made his reputation in the Philadelphia Public League and then at Temple where he helped the Owls return to the NCAA Tournament after a seven-year absence. “He was instrumental in helping Temple win,” Dunphy said. “We rode his play in many ways in [2008 and 2009] when he dragged his team along.”
After going undrafted, Christmas had his training camp shot with the Sixers and then began his overseas odyssey in Israel. From there, he went to the Czech Republic and then two stints in Greece. When he returned home this spring, he immediately called Ellis and went to work. They did drills all day, every day. Shooting drills, footwork drills, motion drills coming around screens, all in preparation for another round of summer league competition.
Dunphy has kept a close watch over Christmas this summer, catching his games on NBA TV and he’s impressed by what he’s seen.
“He’s developed into the kind of guy who you would not really want to cover because he is constantly in motion and he’s learned how to use screens and come off them,” Dunphy said. “Once he comes off the screens and caught the ball, he’s making good decisions whether or not it’s a good shot or making the extra dribble or making the extra pass and helping his teammates.”
NOTHING IS GUARANTEED, UNTIL IT IS
The Celtics have 10 players under contract for next season and soon Jeff Green will make it eleven. That leaves potentially four spots open if they don’t add another veteran free agent or two and they also have non-guaranteed deals for E’Twaun Moore, Kris Joseph and Sean Williams. Fellow summer league teammate Jamar Smith has also impressed and will likely get a training camp invite. The competition never stops.
Christmas is a scorer, but his shooting touch has been inconsistent. He attempted 28 3-pointers in Orlando and made only six of them. He’s shot better in Vegas, but for a 6-foot-5 wing player who operates on the perimeter, he has to be able to knock down 3’s consistently to survive in the NBA. In many ways, he’s a classic good player who does lots of things well, but doesn’t have one specific skill that will help him cash that NBA check.
He’s shown an ability to do other things – namely rebound and play defense – and he’s done them well enough to attract the attention of overseas teams who could come calling with a guaranteed deal. All of which leaves Christmas with a difficult decision: Get paid or keep chasing that dream.
“There’s a lot of guys that made it coming through the backdoor, but it’s rare,” Christmas said. “I think some guys just give up. They say, ‘I’ll play overseas, the NBA isn’t looking for me, I’m not good enough.’ Once they get cut some of those guys they relax.
“This is my dream, man. Even if this doesn’t work out this year, you’re going to see me in summer league next year and the next year until I feel as though I’m done. I think I’ve got some years until I get in this league.”
He may never have a better chance than right now.