By James Nosek
The entrance was rather clandestine, like he was a scout ready to watch a prospective player. A straight face and methodical march to his seat was in order, perfectly routine for him. The 6’3” slim frame of Semaj Christon, wearing a white-grayish shirt, navy blue shorts, hat, and running shoes, took the role of many of the other spectators who came to Woodward High School on this Saturday in late June to enjoy another installment of the Deveroes-City Gear Summer League. He grabbed a seat in the stands, next to his girlfriend, Myriah, placing his gym bag beside them. Who was this guy? And why did he blend in so well?
A little later Christon made his way down the stairs slowly, as adults, teenagers and little kids said hello and gave him a handshake, the arcane of his being at the gym was no more. When he made his way towards the bottom of the bleachers, many other people wanted a piece of Christon. Did they know him? Were they family? Friends? Or did they just want to greet Xavier University’s leading scorer and first ever A-10 Conference Rookie of the Year from last season?
The summer has been soothing for Christon, a time to enjoy the company of family and friends and get away from the hectic lifestyle of being one of the emerging stars and leaders on XU’s basketball team. Relaxing and spending time with friends becomes the companion to his basketball game, as he finds ways to prepare for the intense season of travel and sweat that is not far away. He loves being able to enjoy the offseason. But he knows the summer is a time for improvement: Working out, competing in open gyms, playing for Deer Park Roofing in the summer league. He was even invited to LeBron James’ Skills Camp in early July. Christon knows when he goes back to school; he’ll be off his vacation and back to work.
After escaping the crowd, Christon finds a spot behind the bleachers and leans against the wall: Arms crossed, that blank stare on his face, watching the game before his Deer Park team hits the floor to play the SLATS team in his fourth game competing in the summer league. Of course, a few more people come up to say hello. Christon engages in conversation, despite his apparent disproval of all the chatter. He’s not very talkative. At least until his buddies show up. Now, back in the stands, he is having a good time with them as he puts on his XU-colored low-top shoes. He then leaves his bag with his girlfriend and heads back down the same route as earlier—this time, there are no interruptions—and retreats into the locker room to get his jersey.
In the cafeteria area just outside the gym at Woodward High School, Christon shows off his right elbow with amusement: A thick scar of a few inches jumps off his body in contrast with his healing skin. “Last fall at practice, right before the first game, I split it open and it got infected,” he says. “I tried to spin and someone’s tooth caught my elbow and gashed it open—it even knocked out his tooth.” Christon had to get the elbow operated on: “They had to open the gash, clean it out and I ended up with stitches,” he added.
The injury was a minor setback, as his anticipated XU debut at the Cintas Center was postponed until the next week—against Butler University. And although they were missing Christon on opening night, the Musketeers managed to defeat Fairleigh Dickinson University, 117-75. The Bulldogs of Butler were no match the next Tuesday—XU won, 62-47—but at the demise of Christon coming off the bench and having a sub-par first game in a collegiate uniform: Two points, five turnovers in 27 minutes of work. “I actually reopened my stitches that game,” he says, countering the ugly stats. “I was bleeding everywhere.”
Once again the stitches, which were there to help with his healing-process, were exposed, just like his season, blood and all. Game by game he made small steps towards fulfilling a positive foretelling that fans, media personnel and basketball junkies have raved so much about. He couldn’t start his XU career like this. So finally, on a Saturday in early December, he did what most Cincinnati natives expected from him. He busted out for 25 points to defeat the University of Purdue at Mackey Arena. XU saw its Cincinnati-bred boy finish strong in the second half, a hopeful tease of more to come from the young Christon.
XU capped off the season with a 17-14 record. Wins against the number-19 University of Memphis and the number-16 Saint Louis University were quality resume builders for the blooming new Musketeers. “Last year went pretty well,” he recalls. “Coach gave me the ball and I tried to get wins.” He logged over 1000 minutes as a freshman, averaging 15.2 points per game and nearly five assists per game. The scoring accolade was good enough to take over second place on XU’s all-time freshmen scoring list, with 456 points. But the long season proved to be a little too much for Christon. XU was bumped from NCAA Tournament contention when they lost to Saint Joseph’s University in the first round of the A-10 tournament—Christon only had 10 points, off 3/14 shooting. XU made seven consecutive NCAA Tournament runs before the loss.
“I’m focused for this upcoming year, I really want to win something big for Xavier and Cincinnati,” he says, looking forward. “I want to take my team to at least the Elite 8, everything after that can fall into place later on.” That’s how much this summer means to him. And as for that scar: He still has to live with it. But it’s healing and getting better everyday.
It looks like he’s not even trying, breaking a sweat or caring at all. But Christon is doing his thing. There he goes down the court, his head up, with a slow, light jog. He examines the floor in front of him, his teammates cutting and getting open. He’s barely moving, as is the ball. Now for his defender, he might ease up when he sees Christon in this state. But most defenders know what’s coming. They just don’t know when it will be unleashed. Out of nowhere, with such speed and ferocity, he does a double behind-the-back dribble move—the ball perfectly going back to his right hand—and then does a low and quick crossover back to his left as he explodes forward with his long arms and legs stretching his body and the ball closer to the right side of the basket. A help side defender appears. He changes speeds and does a rapid spin move back to his left, gathering himself to scoop the ball in off the glass for a lefty lay-up.
There goes Christon on another possession. This time a teammate runs the point. Christon runs down the court to get open. He finds an opportunity on the left block. He posts the defender up and without saying a word, calls for the ball by putting his right arm in the air. As he backs down the defender, he gains the advantage. The defender is now off balance. Christon picks up his dribble, fakes to the right and goes back left, fading backwards with the ball reaching its highest point, his arms fully extending in the air. Then, the soft touch of his shooting motion guides the ball into a tight backspin. Swoosh.
The smooth play of Christon doesn’t seem fair. Here’s the easy going Cincinnatian going to work on the SLATS team. And it’s not to say he’s not working hard on the court. It’s just to say he knows how to do it a different way—a serene way. Throughout the game against SLATS, everyone in the gym hears the announcer continue to yell: “Semaj for two…got it.” They should have put that sound bite on repeat. He would score 32 points by the end of this game.
And there’s something else you should know about Christon when he’s playing: Don’t expect to see his pearly white teeth very often. His blank face is present for a majority of the game. Every once in a while you’ll see him show a little frustration towards his teammates. But that doesn’t last long. Or maybe you’ll see him go up to the referee to dispute a questionable call. But it’s not enough to see those pearly whites.Why is his smile so coveted? He is put-off for a second as he looks down at the ground, a small laugh bursting out: “I don’t know, on the court I don’t really smile because it’s business for me—I take it very seriously and don’t really like playing happy,” he says with a smile.
Myriah Hutchings, Christon’s girlfriend, starts to laugh. “He’s really nice and sweet, but is a quiet and reserved person,” she says, her face glowing as she leans forward. “Because he doesn’t really talk much, people think he comes off as mean, but he’s the type of person that will open up more if he feels he can trust you.” R.E.A.L., Realize Everyone Ain’t Loyal, is an important motto that Christon lives by. It’s not just talking about old stragglers who are trying to hold him down as he rises to the top of the college basketball world. It goes for everyone he comes in contact with. “I like to have loyal people around me,” he says. “My boys and I say ‘L.O.E., Loyalty Over Everything.’”
His true friends, who have been there for him since the beginning, come from all over the place, but mainly from basketball. Some of his buddies who he played with at Winton Woods High School are currently on the Deer Park squad in this year’s summer league. It was a fun time playing in high school, he says, although his junior and senior year ended with heartbreaking losses. Ironically, the losses took place in the Cintas Center. “It was tough losing there back in high school, but it’s in the past,” he says. “I’m just trying to learn from it and make sure it doesn’t happen in college.” After he graduated from Winton Woods, he received a full-ride scholarship to go to Brewster Academy prep school in New Hampshire. “I really didn’t want to go because it was far away from home, but it was something I had to do,” he says. And it turned out to be a sound decision. He met his good friend, Jalen Reynolds, who he now plays with at XU, and won the 2012 National Prep School Championship at Brewster.
His short but successful career at Brewster helped Christon get recruited by schools such as: Georgetown University, the University of Louisville, Florida State University and the University of Cincinnati. Because UC didn’t really recruit him, he says, XU was the perfect choice, a place where he could have a great college basketball career while staying close to home in Cincinnati. “I grew up in Cincy,” he says. “I’ve been here so long—it’s all I know.” Christon says he didn’t really go back home much when he was at school, maybe a drive up on the weekend every once in a while, but now in the summertime, he lives with his mother, Toni-Carr. His parents are divorced, but both of them went to every XU home game, and some away games, he says. “I love that Semaj is very family oriented, because I am, too,” Myriah says. “My little brother always comes first, too.”
Christon has six brothers—all younger—to go along with three sisters. “They are always around,” he says of his siblings. “And now that my brothers are older, all they want to do is play basketball, so we go to the Winton Woods gym to shoot…F.O.E., Family Over Everything.” On his Twitter—@SemajChriston, if you’re thinking of following him—there is a picture of “a shirt my mommy made for me,” a special gift from a very special person in Christon’s life. The shirt reads: As long as there is SOMEONE in the sky to protect me, there is NO ONE on earth who can break me. “She’s my mom,” he says. “She’s been there for me my whole life, she’s the only lady I really know.”
A man, wearing a Cincinnati Reds shirt, stands on the upper floor of the Woodward High School gym, overlooking the basketball court. He is waiting for his son to get back from an informal autograph session with some of the players of the Deveroes-City Gear Summer League. The little boy approaches his father, holding a pen and spiral notebook that was open to a page full of cherished signatures. “Hey, how about you get some more,” he says to his son. “I see some more guys over there.” And off the kid ran towards the bleachers—towards where Christon is.
Christon sits in the crowd with his father, William, and Myriah after the SLATS game. But he’s pretty busy. There is a young boy waiting for Christon’s autograph, his trusted notebook and pen ready to go. “It’s cool, I’m getting pretty used to it,” he says about giving out autographs. “Even if I don’t feel like it, I still do it because I like putting smiles on other people’s faces.” There was a great turn out of XU fans—from college kids to alumni—at the game. They were there to watch the Deer Park Roofing team, that showcases many XU players, including: Junior Remy Abell, sophomore James Farr and freshman Brandon Randolph, to name a few. But the main player these XU fans were interested to see was Christon—their own hometown Musketeer.
“Sometimes I like the spotlight, but not really,” he says. “I like to stay in the back, let everyone else have the shine on them—I’m not the type of guy to be in the front.” Why is that? “I have always been that way,” he answers. “I’m just a quiet, laid back guy.” But don’t think Christon isn’t up to taking on one of the top leadership roles again this year as XU encounters its first year in the Big East Conference. “I don’t really feel any pressure,” he says. “It’s just basketball, I have to show what I can do and play my game.” Making it at XU isn’t his only goal. As his journey endures, so will his ambitions. “I want to make it in the NBA one day, that’s the goal,” he says proudly. “I want to help my family have a better life—I don’t want my mom to work.”
After the game, Christon meets up with his friends and Myriah outside the gym, a flurry of talking ensues. Then Christon gets up and starts chasing one of his friends, laughing hysterically. It’s OK if his 32-point effort against SLATS wasn’t good enough to get the win. He got to see his father and his friends, and have a good time. Christon will eventually leave the gym with Myriah and eventually make it home, to the place he can’t live without. And in a few months he will once again wear his number zero XU jersey and hopefully fulfill his goal to win for the school and city that loves him.
Back on the court an hour before, Christon was in his element, the court being his canvas. He catches a back door pass near the baseline. He has a wide-open lane to the basket. He takes off, soaring in the air, his legs swinging. As he continues to rise, he moves the ball to his right hand and begins to cock it backwards. With the ball being at least a ruler’s length above the rim, he slams it home. Everyone goes nuts. “Ahhhhhhhhh, Semaj has hops,” the announcer beckons throughout the gym. “He couldn’t do that last year.” Sooner or later Christon has to come down, back to reality. When he drops down from the sky, Christon let’s out a loud roar, enough emotion to see a booming smile and those perfect white teeth.