V.I.'s Christmas having a 'good time'

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ST. THOMAS ­- With all of the attention and accolades being poured onto the Syracuse men's basketball team, it comes as a bit of a shock that it is St. Croix's Rakeem Christmas - not Michael Carter-Williams, James Southerland, or C.J. Fair - who has been the subject of a student's carol and the recipient of text messages from comedian Jimmy Fallon.

"He has this innate spirit about him, and he's always had that. He makes friends very quickly, he's just really easygoing," said Christmas' aunt, Amira Shiraz. "I think people can sense that type of energy."

Last week, a Syracuse student video titled "We Wish You a Rakeem Christmas" was released online, a few days after "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon - who went to college near Syracuse University - stated his support for Christmas on the air, pointing out: "His name is Christmas, and he's Number 25. How cool is that?"

Speaking with the Daily News on Wednesday, the affable Christmas called Fallon "a funny dude."

"We've just been texting and talking, just goofing around. He's been supportive," said Christmas, a communications major.

Aside from Christmas' likeable personality and laid-back demeanor, it can't hurt that the 6-foot-9 sophomore is the starting forward on a Syracuse team that is in its first Final Four appearance since 2003 - when the Orange won the championship. Now, all that stands in Syracuse's way to another national championship appearance is a showdown against Michigan in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

For the 21-year-old Christmas, who averages 5.1 points per game and 4.6 rebounds per game on the season, the match-up against the rebounding-deficient Wolverines could prove to be particularly advantageous.

"I've got to rebound, try to stop them from making shots, and play my zone - the way we play all the time. Do the same thing we do in practice every day. If we do that in the game, then we'll be fine," said Christmas. "We've been holding teams to low-scoring games, and key players to low-scoring games. So we've just got to do the same things."

Christmas added that the team has been using last season's disappointing loss to Ohio State in the Sweet 16 as motivation for this year's tournament.

"We all came together and said that we we're going to do it," said Christmas.

No matter the outcome of Saturday's game, Christmas believes that his development into a starting-caliber basketball player can be inspirational to all Virgin Islanders.

"It shows that anyone can do anything that they put their minds to," he said.

Born in New Jersey, Christmas moved to St. Croix when he was just a few months old with his mother, Jenny Hamid, to join other family members. His father remained in New Jersey.

When Christmas was 5 years old, his mother passed away from renal failure, and the young Christmas subsequently moved in with grandmother, Evelyn Hamid.

Christmas spent his formative years on St. Croix, attending Arthur A. Richards Junior High School, in Frederiksted, until the summer before his eighth-grade year. By that point, Christmas was begging to move in with Shiraz, who was at the time a 22-year-old recent graduate of Philadelphia's Drexel University.

Shiraz agreed, and by the end of the summer, Christmas was in Philadelphia.

Shiraz acknowledged that while she was indeed quite young to take in a budding teenager, for her it was a matter of sticking by family.

"When it comes to family, regardless of how old you are - I was a little bit younger, taking in a 12, 13 year old - it's just something that you do. I loved my sister, and I still love her very much, and he's our last connection to her. At the end of the day, I just want his happiness."

Around the time he moved to Philadelphia, Christmas experienced a huge growth spurt, shooting up to 6-foot-6. After that, he became much more serious about basketball, playing at the the Academy of the New Church in Philadelphia.

He credited his toughness on the court to his time in Philadelphia.

"In Philly, everyone just tried to bully people around. So I had to get used to that," Christmas said.

Since committing to Syracuse, Christmas's life has been a whirlwind, filled with celebrity shout-outs and viral YouTube tributes.

As a result, he hasn't had the chance to visit St. Croix too much during the years, although he is looking forward to going back this summer, where he will get to see old friends and relax on the beach.

Christmas, for his part, never envisioned the level of success he is experiencing today.

"I had no idea. I thought I was going to come up here, play basketball with my aunt, go to college somewhere just to get an education. But it blew up, and it's great. It's been a good time."

Leave it to a Virgin Islander to call playing in the Final Four "a good time."

Virgin Islands Jaguars, who Kopko has been coaching since 2011.

According to Kopko, finding ways to get his kids more exposure has been a consistent challenge.

"I think athletically we have some very good kids, and we have some kids that are very interested and play a lot. The unfortunate part about being on an island is they don't get a chance to compete like the mainlanders do. In Chicago, there were 50 to 100 teams we could play. The kids down here don't get that opportunity, and that hurts them in their development. But I think that there's definitely Division I talent existing on the island," said Kopko.

Kopko has certainly been around Division I talent in his lifetime; his son, Tom, played for the University of Notre Dame from 2007 to 2011.

For now, Kopko is focused on building the talent base in the territory, and ensuring that these young players have the best possible equipment to aid them in their development.

"Will we ever get a 50-team tournament? I don't know. But I'd like to see us get to a 10, 15 team tournament," Kopko said. "It's going to be a process."

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