When Rakeem Christmas left his home in St. Croix and arrived in Philadelphia prior to the eighth grade, no one would have imagined he’d quickly become one of the most sought-after basketball recruits in the country.
Long and athletic, Christmas was admittedly out of his element on the basketball court — a place where he had spent little time while growing up on the same island that NBA star Tim Duncan spent his childhood.
“He wasn’t very good,” Amira Hamid said of her nephew. “He was clumsy and didn’t know the rules. He’d just run up and down the court.”
“He was very athletic,” added Rob Brown, who first saw him in the eighth grade and has coached Christmas the last two years in the spring and summer with Team Final. “But he had no clue how to play.”
After a freshman season on the JV team at North Catholic High, the former baseball pitcher began to pick up the nuances on the court — and also started to catch up to those who had been playing the sport their entire lives.
“It was hard at first,” Christmas said. “I’d go to the park with my uncle and just get pushed around.”
Now, just about three years later and at the Academy of the New Church, the 6-foot-10, 230-pound Christmas has turned the tables on the competition and has moved into Scout.com’s Top 10 nationally in the Class of 2011, which has resulted in Friday’s commitment to Syracuse.
“I had a lot of great options, but I fell in love with Syracuse,” said Christmas, who took a visit to the school earlier this week. “I know a lot of the guys on the team and that made a difference in my decision. I also felt that I could fit in well with their system.”
Christmas ultimately chose the Orange over Georgetown and Florida International. He also considered Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and Rutgers.
Christmas’ recruitment has been unique.
After moving in with his aunt, Hamid, when she was 21 and had just graduated from Drexel University, Christmas has had little to no contact with college coaches throughout the process.
“I trusted my aunt to help me through the process,” he said. “My aunt is basically my mom now.”
“I admit I’ve been overprotective,” said Hamid, who runs her own public relations firm.
There were rules set in place. If any colleges went around Hamid and tried to contact Christmas through his phone, e-mail, Facebook or Twitter, they would be knocked off the list.
“No one tried,” Christmas said.
“That’s not true,” Hamid laughed. “There was one.”
And they were out of contention. But it all makes sense.
Christmas’ aunt, along with his grandmother, has taken care of him since his mother died of kidney failure in 1998 when he was five years old. His father lives in North Carolina, but Christmas speaks to him every so often.
“We were extremely close,” Hamid said of her sister. “And I wanted to make sure I took care of Rakeem.”
“We don’t allow him to fall,” she added. “We catch him before he does. I realize I have to learn and get better at that.”
“She took control of the recruiting process for the right reasons,” Brown said. “Rakeem was fairly introverted, and it also allowed him to be a kid and not worry about all the distractions.”
Christmas has grown as a person and a player over the last few years — since his grandmother finally granted him permission to live with Hamid in Philadelphia.
He’s become more outgoing, and this past season, he averaged a double-double for Kevin Givens at the Academy of New Church.
“When I first saw him a couple years ago, he didn’t play a lot,” Givens said. “It’s amazing the progress he’s made — even since he got here last year. People don’t realize how new to the game he is.”
Brown, who has coached NBA players Andrew Bynum and Tyreke Evans and also coaches the top-ranked player in the Class of 2011 in Michael Gilchrist, said Christmas is right there with all of them.
“He has as much potential as any of them,” Brown said. “His potential is to excel at the highest level.”
And just a few years ago, he was more comfortable on the pitching mound.