From Temple to Israel, will the NBA be Dionte Christmas’ next destination?
by Tracy Weissenberg / @basketballista
In the NBA, most of the time we hear about the dreams of the players after they’ve already achieved them. The challenges they talk about are the ones they face while navigating the ups and downs of an NBA season. What we don’t know is the path they had to navigate to get there.
Sometimes the NBA seems like a league of fate, as if the players that make it were destined to be there. Other times, it seems painfully arbitrary.
During the summer, there’s a slew of names mentioned in transactions–most that won’t be remembered once the season starts. Teams continue to narrow down an enormous pool of potential to fill a few roster spots. And once the rosters are formed, the season’s story lines begin to take shape. But sometimes the most interesting stories do not begin at the destination–but rather at the journey, even if it’s still incomplete.
Here’s Dionte Christmas’s story, in his words.
The Philadelphia native played college basketball at Temple University, leaving a legacy that included two straight A-10 championships and becoming the first three-time scoring champion in conference history. In a 2009 interview, Temple head coach Fran Dunphy called Christmas an “NBA-caliber jump shooter” who needs no time to get shots off. After going undrafted after his senior season in 2009, Christmas played for the Sixers, Clippers and Hawks’ summer league squads before receiving an invitation to the Sixers training camp.
And with training camp comes media day, a flaw in the NBA’s timeline in that it occurs before final cuts need to be made. Christmas would don his hometown team’s uniform and pose for photos only to be cut on the last day of training camp.
Asked what the media day experience felt like, Christmas said, “It felt great, especially being part of all that and being with the Philadelphia 76ers, my hometown team. I’d go and watch those guys so for me to represent them and wear a uniform with my name on the back, it felt kind of unreal.”
“Just getting that taste of the NBA was great,” he said, “And it was a small taste, but I had a lot of fun. I thank the Sixers for giving me that opportunity, but this year I’m definitely trying to make it further than just training camp.”
Does he use any of those photos for motivation? “Yeah I actually have a lot of pictures in my phone,” said Christmas, “I was actually joking with some of the Sixers last year saying, Would it be alright if I took some pictures? They’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ I didn’t want to feel like a little kid man cause I was always taking pictures and stuff.”
Asked to rewind back to the last day of training camp, what goes through a player’s mind when one is eliminated from the race with the finish line only steps away?
“It was depressing, man it hurt, it crushed me,” he said, “I thought I was doing pretty well and even the guys on the team thought I was going to be the guy to make the team. You know, when the coach at the gym called me in the office, he’s just like, he would love to keep me, him and the coaching staff, but it wasn’t his ultimate decision, it was the people upstairs above him. So you know he said it had nothing to do with my play, I guess it was money issues, cause they ended up not keeping anybody. So that right there kind of made me feel a little better knowing it wasn’t my play because I was doing everything I could possibly do on the court to make that team.”
“I just wanted to lay low for a couple of weeks, which I did,” he said, “I didn’t want to make no decisions off emotions because it hurt me cause I came so, so, so, so close to making the NBA.”
Christmas said, “After that, man, I just had to get back on my grind…but everything that had been going on with me before that as far as not getting drafted and going through all the minicamps and summer leagues and things like that and then for me to get so close to making the League and not making it, I just thought it just wasn’t meant to happen.”
Christmas decided to spend the ‘09-10 season playing professionally in Israel. One of the deciding factors was a conversation he had with Kings forward Omri Casspi (23rd pick in 2009), who became the first Israeli to play in the NBA.
“I actually met Omri Casspi during the Draft and we had like a good 30-, 40-minute conversation about Israel and I remembered that and I gave him a call and he said it’s great over there. That kind of pushed me to go toward Israel. When I went there, they accepted me there with open arms,” he said.
Christmas said he fit right in, especially since the majority of Israelis speak English, including all his teammates. “It was really fun like I was back in America in Israel, just like I was in another state. It was real nice over there, I loved it,” he said.
Christmas said his experience playing in summer league and with the Sixers made his transition on the court smooth as well. “It was a little different, a lot tougher than college basketball, a lot more open, the game is a lot faster, things like that but I kind of adjusted to it…playing in the NBA for those couple of months I did kind of helped me a lot going over there,” he said.
Asked if the year of professional ball added a new dimension to his game, Christmas said, “Yeah, definitely…Americans are expected to do a lot overseas. I averaged about 19.5 points a game over there and I had to definitely find a lot of ways to score, not just coming off screens and shoot jump shots because those guys adjust to that well over there. So I had to get the ball, create for myself a lot in Israel.”
Christmas is now back in the states with the Sacramento Kings summer league team. Owner Joe Maloof said in an interview with NBA TV that the team is looking for a “pretty dynamic 2-guard.” Asked for his reaction, Christmas said, “I think I can fit that mold…hopefully the coaching staff, the GM, and the people that represent the Kings could see that I could be a great fit for their team next season.”
Christmas said that the majority of players in summer league are trying to get jobs so he needs to find a way to separate himself. “I think I’m a big guard, big body that can shoot the ball off of the screen, that can put the ball on the floor…I think that kind of separates myself from a lot of people,” he said.
“I think Sacramento has given me a great opportunity here…I think the coaching staff is giving everybody a fair shot, and I think they’re definitely giving me my chance and with that, I’m gonna just use it to my advantage,” he said.
Asked if summer league gives players a legitimate opportunity to make a team, Christmas said, “Definitely, I definitely think the summer league gives you a lot of opportunity.”
“I’m playing for myself and other teams as well,” he added, “There’s a lot of teams out here watching guys, not just watching their players, they’re staying to watch games, seeing other guys play.”
With everybody watching, what’s the one thing Christmas wants people to take away after seeing him play? “That I just go hard man,” he said, “I’m relentless and I leave everything on the court…even though I shoot the ball 0-20, I want everybody to say even though he didn’t make a basket he still went hard and did everything else besides score. I just want everybody to know I go hard and that I’m a winner, I always want to win.”
Instead of his career coming full circle in Philadelphia, Christmas had to circle the globe. He now faces the task this summer of trying to prove his game is NBA ready in limited minutes on the floor. Whether he is wearing a Kings jersey this upcoming season or logging minutes in Israel, Christmas is still determined to see the culmination of his dreams. And if you ever see his name on a roster, you now know his story.