Years of Working, Waiting Pay Off for Dionte Christmas

by Matt Petersen

Athletically speaking, simultaneously holding one’s breath while working as hard as possible isn’t healthy. Yet that’s exactly what Dionte Christmas has done – repeatedly – since declaring for the 2009 NBA Draft after a record-setting college career at Temple.

The memory of that draft night has burned itself into Christmas’ memory, to the point where he can bring up the date and time elapsed since then without prompt or help. June 25, 2009 – the day that came and went without his name being called at Madison Square Garden.

Unfortunately for Christmas, that night was just the first chapter in his personal NBA version of “Survivor”, where it seemed his torch was taken from him time and again before he ever had a chance to light it.

Since that fateful draft night, Christmas has played for seven international teams, six NBA Summer League teams and been cut from training camp twice. His one opportunity in the regular season – the very end of the 2011-12 campaign with the Houston Rockets – ended without a single minute of playing time.

“There’s no words that can really explain the feeling of the GM and the coaches telling me congratulations. It’s something I’ve been waiting for all my life.”

— Dionte Christmas

Each brush with his NBA dream took the same toll: a lot of work and little certainty, usually ending with a depressingly similar phone call to his hopeful parents.

“They’ve been there for all of the rejections, all the times I’ve had to make the phone call saying ‘I’m on my way home. I’ve been cut,’” Christmas said.

So forgive Christmas for needing extra assurance when Suns General Manager told players on Saturday, “these are the guys.”

“I’m looking around like, ‘okay, so no more cuts are being made?’” Christmas laughed. “I asked P.J. [Tucker], and he was like, ‘You’re good man. Just chill. Relax.’ I went over and asked [assistant coach] Jerry [Sichting] and I was like, ‘so…no more cuts being made?’ He said ‘congratulations’ and tapped me on the chest. I walked through and I saw [Suns General Manager] Ryan [McDonough] and he pulled me to the side and said ‘Congratulations. I know it’s a big time for you.’ I was like, ‘oh shoot, it’s here. I really made it.’”

As anxious as Christmas was to get that assurance, Phoenix players and staff were just as eager to give it. The well-traveled veteran earned the respect of new head coach Jeff Hornacek and many of the Suns for his performance and attitude in the 2013 Summer League.
His trademark jump shot showed well in Las Vegas, but so did a sincere confidence. When the team needed a pick-me-up in effort, Christmas provided it. When an extra ball-handler or added defensive pressure was needed, he stepped up.

Teammates and fans responded well to him, and outside support and well wishes came heavy and often through social media.

Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough, who was with the Celtics during Christmas’ summer league and training camp stints in Boston, wasn’t surprised at the feel-good reaction to him making the team.

“I think Dionte’s a guy who’s worked for it,” McDonough said. “This has been a long time coming for him. He’s been close in a number of different places…he’s paid his dues and put in his time. He’s kept at it and kept working.”

“One of the things we love about Dionte is his confidence,” McDonough continued. “He’s a guy that never really gets down or discouraged, even if he’s not playing a lot of minutes or not playing at all. He’s a guy that I think coach Hornacek feels confident in that if he calls his number, Dionte will be ready to go and give him all he has.”

The fact that he has a number to be called, a team for which to be ready, is still hard for Christmas to accept. The waiting and uncertainty is over and, for the first time, he is still here.

“There’s no words that can really explain the feeling of the GM and the coaches telling me congratulations,” Christmas said after a pause. “It’s something I’ve been waiting for all my life.”