Hometown: Ardmore, Pa.
Heralding a new wave of youth and diversity, he's the third-leading scorer for the No. 5 Cavaliers
You can't miss John Christmas. Whether he's zigzagging toward goal at breakneck speed or making behind-the-back feeds as if tossing car keys to a valet, the Virginia attackman can elicit gasps from crowds and tantrums from opposing coaches. Take the last of his three goals in the ACC tournament final at Duke on April 21. Christmas, who had awakened that morning with symptoms of strep throat, beat his defenseman on a blink-quick inside roll off the left pipe to stuff in the score that put the Cavaliers ahead 13-12 with five minutes left. (The Blue Devils eventually won 14-13.) The dazzling play silenced the raucous home crowd and caused one rabid Duke dad to choke on his hot dog. As Christmas had already proved by erupting for a total of seven goals and five assists in early-season victories over Top 5 teams Johns Hopkins and Maryland, the tighter the game, the more electric he becomes.
Christmas will provide some of the spark for the fifth-ranked Cavaliers (10-3) when they head into the 12-team NCAA tournament that begins this weekend. His 25 goals and 15 assists ranked him third on the team in points, and last month he was one of a league-high five Cavaliers named to the all-conference team. A couple of things, however, separate Christmas from the crowd. He's a freshman—the first Virginia rookie to be named All-ACC since Michael Watson in 1994—and he's African-American. "I have to catch myself from saying that John can be one of the best black players to ever play the game," says Cavaliers coach Dom Starsia. "The fact is, he can become one of the best players, period."
White kids from Greater Baltimore and New York State have dominated lacrosse's upper echelons for the past half century. Now, though, players like Christmas, the son of Trinidadians who settled in southeastern Pennsylvania before John's birth, are updating the profile of America's oldest team sport. Thanks in part to the efforts of U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's governing body, to establish youth leagues in uncharted territories (most recently the Deep South and the West Coast) and conduct clinics in urban areas, this longtime cult sport is gradually becoming more competitive and diverse from the ground up. Since 1995 participation nationwide has increased 10% to 15% each year.
As proof of the rising level of young talent, college coaches point to the growing number of freshmen—like 2001 national attackman of the year Michael Powell of Syracuse and 2002 ACC goal leader Joe Yevoli, one of Christmas's linemates—who have made an immediate impact in Division I. And while U.S. Lacrosse has yet to chart participation in the sport by race, coaches and players agree that diversity among collegians, which didn't exactly skyrocket in the decades following Jim Brown's reign at Syracuse in the 1950s, has been creeping upward for the last decade. The best player for defending national champion Princeton is arguably junior defenseman Damien Davis, an African-American who has started every game since he was a freshman. First-year Johns Hopkins middie Kyle Harrison, whose father, Miles, led a predominantly black Morgan State team to an upset of top-ranked Washington & Lee in 1975, paces the Blue Jays with 66 ground balls.
"I've noticed one or two [African-Americans] on almost every team, but there should be more in a sport as fast and exciting as this," says Christmas. Especially rare are African-Americans who play attackman, lacrosse's limelight position. "Coaches have always tried to make me a midfielder because that's supposedly where the best athletes play," says the 5'10", 179-pound Christmas. "It was important for me to show mat a young black player can have the stick skills and field sense to score."
Christmas was a second-grader in Ardmore, Pa., when he took up the sport, and his interest in the finer points of ball handling soon bordered on obsession. "We used to go to sleep to the sound of John thwacking that ball against the wall of his bedroom," says his mother, Margaret, a private housekeeper. She and her husband, Fitz, a tailor at Philadelphia's Saks Fifth Avenue, had never heard of lacrosse until their oldest son, Jason, joined the Lower Merion High team to keep in shape for football. When John started playing, he got some grief from friends. "Lacrosse is a big deal at Lower Merion, but basketball was the cool thing in my neighborhood," says Christmas, who stood in packed bleachers at the school to watch its star, Kobe Bryant. "My friends would say, 'Why are you playing this white-boy sport?' "
They quieted down when Christmas began to draw similar crowds to muddy youth-league fields and then to games at Lower Merion, where he scored 322 points and was Pennsylvania's first three-time lacrosse All-America. In the spring of his junior year he committed to Virginia—upon Starsia's promise to play him on a forward line that included All-America senior Conor Gill.
Working alongside Gill, one of the nation's best setup men, and Yevoli, a quick dodger with a nose for the goal, Christmas has exceeded the expectations heaped upon him as the nation's No. 1 recruit. "I heard the hype and was hoping that he'd live up to it," says Davis, who saw Christmas score two goals and assist on two against his Princeton defense earlier this season. "It's still not easy to be a minority in this sport. You know that certain behavior, like excessive celebration, will just play into black stereotypes. John and I are watched more closely than other players."