Though Relatively New To The Sport, Sophomore Already One Of The Best Prospects In Philly
By Brendan F. Quinn, The Bulletin
Published: Friday, December 12, 2008
Philadelphia — The journey has been nothing like he ever dreamt.

In the beginning, he was timid, hesitant to explore his own skills and athleticism. But time has given birth to some confidence.

He’s almost there.

Rakeem Christmas is ready to blossom.

Having traveled a challenging road that led him from New Jersey to the Virgin Islands to Philadelphia, the North Catholic sophomore is about to take the city by storm. Those in basketball circles have uttered his name often since he arrived in town three years ago. “This kid has everything,” they’d say. And indeed he does.

Standing a hair over 6-foot-8 and checking in at 227 pounds, Christmas’ wingspan stretches more than 7 feet. Basketball coaches love to say that you can’t teach size and athleticism. Well, Christmas has both.

“He’s just starting to come into his own,” said North Catholic coach Mike McCarron. “When he does, I really believe that he will be one of the best players to come out of the Catholic League in a long, long time.”

Before we look to Christmas’ future, let’s go back to his past. Originally born in Irvington, N.J., he and his mother moved to St. Croix when he was 3 years old. While in the Virgin Islands, his mother, Landra “Jenny” Hamid, passed away due to renal failure at the age of 28. He remained in St. Croix and was raised there by his grandmother.

Through grade school, Christmas excelled in baseball. But as he became a better pitcher, he also grew taller and taller. That’s when the hardwood came calling. He picked up a basketball for the first time in seventh grade and never looked back. He was already 6-4.

At 13 years old, Christmas was too old to play as an eighth grader at his school in St. Croix. His adolescence was dotted with occasional trips back to the states to visit family. But it was clear that the time had come for a permanent visit. Christmas packed his bags and moved to Philadelphia.

Here, Amira Hamid was waiting. His aunt would take on the role of his legal guardian. Hamid’s first order of business was to enroll her nephew in the eighth grade at George W. Pepper Middle School. Soon after, high school basketball coaches got word of the kid from the Virgin Islands. Christmas could do two things — jump and run. He was void of any legitimate talent. But that meant nothing to area coaches.

“I just went with the flow and adapted,” Christmas said nonchalantly, referring to his game as an eight-grader.

His aunt quickly jumped in to clarify that statement.

“He was horrible,” she said plainly.

Christmas didn’t argue the assessment. His guilty grin said that he agreed.

According to Hamid, the high school recruitment of Christmas was “crazy, unlike anything I could have imagined.” In the end, North Catholic won due to its family atmosphere. Christmas became a Falcon, despite the hour-plus commute it takes from Hamid’s home near the airport to North Catholic’s home in the Juniata section of Philadelphia.

As a freshman, Christmas played sparingly for a team featuring seven seniors. Some games, he barely got on the floor, but he was always the kid everyone curiously pointed to and said, “Who is that?” He stood out like a peacock among pigeons.

“Everyone talks about his size, but he’s got the hands of a guard and he can run the floor with any guard or forward,” McCarron said. “He’s also very unselfish. There are two types of players — givers and takers. Rakeem is a giver. He loves to pass the ball and has really developed good court vision.”

The North Catholic coaching staff has set a firm goal for Christmas’ sophomore season. They want the 17-year-old (he was held back a grade while in St. Croix) to develop three “unstoppable post moves by the time the playoffs roll around.”

It’s odd for Christmas to think of himself as a dominant player in the Catholic League. When he arrived in the United States, the gangly teenager was leap years behind the competition.

“At first, I used to be scared to play with other people,” he said last week, lounging in an empty North Catholic cafeteria. “I could dunk and all, but people would push me around.”

Just a few years later, the kid who was intimidated on a daily basis is now the most highly sought after sophomore prospect in Philadelphia. Nationally, his profile has exploded. ESPNU has him ranked as the No. 7 player in the Class of 2011 and raves that he is

“developing before our eyes into a true force nationally.” Additionally, the folks at ESPNU scored him a 97 out of 100 and state that he is considering Florida and Memphis, though Habin and Christmas wouldn’t comment on specific schools they’re looking at.

“I didn’t think this would happen,” Christmas said. “I just came (to Philadelphia) to live with Amira and play basketball. I didn’t think any of this was possible.”

This season, Christmas will team with returning starters Woody Redding and Bob Makor, along with transfer Jack O’Neill, who led Episcopal Academy in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore, to try and claim North Catholic’s second straight Catholic League title.

Like his journey from Jersey to St. Croix to Philly, Christmas has gone from an apprehensive eighth-grader, to a little-used freshman, to Philly’s top sophomore.

At long last, Christmas is in full bloom.

“When I was in eighth grade, I realized if I played basketball, I could get a free education,” Christmas said, the disbelief still fresh on his face. “All I plan on doing is working hard to do that.”