One (sometimes) overlooked aspect of training camp is the battle for the last few roster spots. Many fans don't know the player's histories, or even names for that matter, but these guys are fighting for their dreams and the stakes are of epic proportions.
Enter Dionte Christmas.
Christmas graduated from Temple in 2009 and went undrafted despite a slew of accolades. The former Owl led the Atlantic 10 in scoring three consecutive years and was conference first team and conference tournament most outstanding player the last two. He played in the Orlando and Vegas summer leagues that year for the Philadelphia 76ers and Orlando Magic, respectively, and even signed a contract with the Sixers, but was waived before the beginning of the season.
Dionte has traveled a tortuous road since then that has included the Israeli Basketball Super League, Sacramento Kings (summer league), Czech National League, Greek Basket League, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics (summer league), CSKA Moscow, Montepaschi Siena, Utah Jazz (summer league) and Phoenix Suns (summer league).
Dionte Christmas has yet to step foot on the court in an NBA regular season game. But that hasn't dissuaded him from pursuing his goal.
"I've been cut from two teams (Philadelphia and Boston). I've been knocked down a lot. People telling me that maybe the NBA isn't for me. Things like that help give me a bigger drive."
At 27, Christmas realizes that being in a situation like he is now, with a legitimate chance to make an NBA roster, brings him agonizingly close to bringing his ultimate aspirations to fruition.
"This is a great opportunity for me," said Christmas. "A lot of other teams wanted to bring me in just for another body. I know from talking with these guys and playing in summer league with these guys that they really like me and that they really thought I could be a piece of this team."
For his part, Dionte feels that he's been diligent in improving his game to prepare him for this moment.
"Coming out of college I was strictly a shooter, now I can create my own shot. I'm a much better defender. I'm smarter. I've matured in a lot of ways, especially on the defensive end and I've gotten better physically as well."
Christmas displayed these skills this summer in Las Vegas while playing for the Suns. Christmas scored 10.1 points per game and impressed the Suns enough to garner a partially guaranteed contract to join them for training camp. But Christmas has had a partially guaranteed contract before (with the Celtics) and knows that there are no guarantees that come along with that (except for the partial ones).
"Knowing how many people are on this roster and getting a partially guaranteed contract tells me that the Suns are really interested in me and that they are going to give me a chance," speculated Christmas. "Coming into camp it gives me a little security, but not full. So in the back of my mind I've still got to work hard and I've still got to come in here and show these guys what I can do because any day I can still be released."
Although Dionte is cognizant of the uncertainty hovering over his potential spot on the regular season roster he did speak with conviction about new Suns' GM Ryan McDonough.
"A lot of teams tell you one thing and mean another thing. When I went to Boston that was a great organization ran by great people and Ryan was one of those guys. All of those people were stand up guys and when they told you something they meant it. Ryan told me that he wanted me here and he wanted me here for training camp... and it happened. I've gotten teams that told me they wanted me but never called back, things like that."
"The last two years with Ryan everything he's said he's done and everything he's said he's meant it and it happened. My trust with Ryan is 100%. If he says he's going to do it, he's going to do it. As a man I respect that to the utmost. I'm a loyal guy and in the last few years I've come to realize that he's a loyal guy as well."
Christmas came across as genuine when he spoke of their relationship, even though a little bit of ingratiating oneself never hurt in this type of situation...
Christmas also did some scouting based on the Suns' September practices and pick up games. So who impressed Dionte?
"Bledsoe is a really good player. He's strong. He's physical. He's a very good defender."
"Plumlee has a motor. He doesn't stop and he's super athletic."
"Marcus Morris has gotten a lot better. He's a great post up guard. He can play (three positions) from the two to the four. He's been guarding Miles in practice and then he'll turn around and guard me."
Yesterday after the interview Christmas headed up the hill with the team to Flagstaff. He is prepared, he is confident, he is hungry... like burlap sack full of Snickers hungry. The man with the name synonymous with gifts knows that nothing will be given to him. If he's going to finally attain his lifelong dream he's going to have to step up and take that roster spot. This October Christmas will not be in the spirit of giving (yes, I'm still leaning on that angle... it's pathetic). He's focused on basketball, and finally stepping foot on that court during a real NBA game.