Well, for the first time in more than 20 years, we can say with absolute certainty when the Syracuse University men’s basketball season will come to a close. Three games are left on the schedule, with two road games sandwiching a home tilt against Virginia. Yes, this is a big game for Syracuse, and not just because the Orange are taking on one of the top teams in America on ESPN’s Big Monday. Monday night is even more important because it’s the last time that Rakeem Christmas will be taking the Carrier Dome floor. And I say that Orange fans need to give him the send off he deserves.
There haven’t been many players throughout the history of Syracuse basketball who have worked as hard both in the classroom and on the court as Rakeem Christmas. The 6-foot-9 senior from St. Croix, by way of Philadelphia, came to Central New York with a mountain of expectations, and only a foothill of results in his first few seasons. But the signs were always there. The athleticism, the occasional flashes of true basketball skill – they were always evident.
And then, when the 2014-2015 season rolled around, Orange fans, and college basketball fans across the country, were shown an entirely new Rakeem Christmas. Now, I’ve gone on record in saying that I don’t think his transformation was as monumental as others have believed, simply because I always saw the talent hiding just beneath the surface. It took becoming a senior leader, and channeling his energy toward being a tenacious, take charge player for a full 40 minutes to unlock his real potential.
The amazing thing is that he wasn’t just doing it on the basketball court, either. Christmas graduated in just three years – the first Syracuse basketball player to do so – with a degree in communications and rhetoric, and on top of that, he was a finalist for the NABC’s Allstate Good Works team for his off the court work in the community, as well. To put it another way, Rakeem Christmas is the walking epitome of a true student-athlete.
And that’s why he deserves one of the best sendoffs any Syracuse senior has ever received. It’s unfair that a player who has worked as hard as Christmas, who has become a role model in the community, should have his career cut short based on the mistakes of players who came before him.
This is a kid – no, sorry, “kid” doesn’t work. This is a man who has worked extensively with the Boys and Girls Club of Syracuse. He’s worked with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, as well as the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation. He’s also fought through a lot to get where he is right now, and it is just plain wrong that he’s seen his last chance at a postseason run snatched away from him based on infractions that much lesser individuals than himself committed.
Monday night games in the Carrier Dome are traditionally big events, particularly when you’ve got a national title contender coming to town. With no hope for postseason play for the Orange, and a down season for Jim Boeheim’s squad in general, it’s easy to imagine a smaller than usual crowd shuffling through the concourse at 900 Irving Avenue when 7:00 p.m. rolls around on Monday.
I truly hope that’s not the case, though. No player since Gerry McNamara has deserved the kind of sendoff that Rakeem Christmas should receive. That’s not meant as a slight against guys like Andy Rautins, or CJ Fair, or Baye Keita. Instead, it’s meant to highlight what a tremendous young man that Syracuse University is losing, and who has seen his career prematurely ended by the People Who Make Decisions.
If you live in the Central New York area, I really hope that you’ll make an effort to get to the Dome on Monday night, and give Rakeem Christmas the loudest ovation possible during the Senior Night ceremony. And if you feel particularly festive, go ahead and wear one of these for good measure, just to make it clear to Rakeem how much Syracuse loves him, and to let him know that he deserved a better end to his senior year.