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Jrue Holiday Is the NBA’s Best-Kept Secret

The Pelicans point guard is heading into this season as the leader and focal point of one of the league’s most exciting teams. It’s been a long time coming for a player who draws rave reviews from peers and coaches, but remains a mystery to the mainstream NBA fan.

Jason Raish

If you ever need to borrow $25,000, Jrue Holiday is your man. It’s a running joke between his wife, Lauren, a retired midfielder for the United States women’s national team, and her former teammates: If they were in a pinch—say, a quarter-of-a-hundred-grand kind of pinch—they’d just ask her husband. Holiday wants to help, always. Help you, help me, help his teammates on the Pelicans. He’d say yes in a heartbeat, the joke goes. Holiday is the mom of his friend group, the hype man for his family. “The supportive one,” Lauren said. A $25,000 loan is a bit hyperbolic, sure. At least, I’m assuming it is. That’s the joke. This is the point: Jrue, I’m told, will always come through. It’s his campaign slogan, should he ever run for office. But that’s the other thing about Holiday, the thing that assures me he’d never want to run for any office of any kind: Jrue Holiday does not want this—does not want anything—to be about Jrue Holiday.

“I like to assist people,” he told me in his backyard by the pool. It was August and 87 degrees in Santa Rosa Valley, California, where the Holidays spend the offseason. He leaned back into the patio chair, squinted at the sun, and smirked. “That was a pun. But no, I like to assist people.” Holiday is a starting combo guard for the New Orleans Pelicans. His game is often described in terms of what he does for others. Lobs and dimes, help defense and spacing, deflections and blocks. Assistance is where Holiday earns a living. And for the past six years, superstar Anthony Davis was his main beneficiary.

That on-court relationship is over now. In January, Davis told the Pelicans front office that he was done. New Orleans was about halfway through another substandard season, their 22-28 record at the time serving as the roux for what would likely be another early playoff elimination (at best). Davis requested a trade, despite having up to two years remaining on his contract. An unhappy star is the ultimate disappointment for a small-market team: That type of talent rarely comes to town voluntarily. In 18 years, New Orleans has never signed a truly elite free agent; all, like Davis and Holiday, came through the draft or through a trade, then re-signed afterward—if the team was lucky.

After Davis’s announcement, Holiday’s world changed. Slowly at first, then all at once, the Pelicans became unrecognizable. In February, the entire front office was dismissed. Former Cavaliers executive David Griffin replaced Dell Demps in the front office. Then in May, the Pelicans, one of the unluckiest franchises in NBA history, got lucky: They won the 2019 draft lottery. The odds of that happening? Six percent. Seven teams finished the 2019-20 season with worse records than New Orleans’s 33-49, giving the Pels virtually no chance at winning the lottery. Landing the first pick meant landing Zion Williamson, the Duke phenom, the gravity defier, the most highly anticipated prospect since at least Anthony Davis, and possibly since LeBron James. Suddenly, the thought of parting with Davis hurt slightly less. (Especially since the possibility of acquiring Williamson didn’t change the big man’s desire to stay.) Fans were ready to let go. The front office was, too: Griffin shipped Davis to the Lakers two weeks after New Orleans won the lottery. Los Angeles sent back a collection of young players, including Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Five days after the trade, the Pelicans drafted Williamson. He arrived as Davis left, two generational talents passing in the night.

Holiday is now in an unprecedented position. He’s 29, well into his prime, and coming off the best season of his career. (He scored a career-high 21.2 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting with five rebounds and 7.7 assists.) Griffin and coach Alvin Gentry have told Holiday, after years of his deferring to Davis, that he’s the face of this franchise. The timing is auspicious. We just witnessed what a healthy Holiday is capable of, after a career marred by bizarre injuries. His past diagnoses sound like they were picked at random by flipping through a med student’s textbook: a stress fracture in his right tibia in 2014, a right inferior orbital wall fracture in 2016, a strained abdominal muscle in 2019, etc. The health scares didn’t end with Holiday. In 2016, when Lauren was pregnant with their first child, doctors found a benign tumor on the right side of her brain. Holiday took an indefinite leave from the team through the beginning of the season to care for his wife during her delivery and postpartum brain surgery. In six seasons with the Pelicans, Holiday has missed 138 games.

New Orleans hasn’t been on national TV often in the past few years. (“That would be a minor understatement,” Gentry said.) The mainstream NBA fan doesn’t see much of the Pelicans. And in the few appearances they have made recently, Holiday was sitting in the passenger seat, playing the role asked of him. That is, if he played at all. None of that applies anymore. This season, the Pelicans will play 30 nationally televised games. (Last year, they played 13.) Call it the Zion effect. Williamson may be the predestined Hall of Famer in New Orleans, but Holiday has his own ultra-rare opportunity. With new exposure and maximum on-court control, Holiday could finally rise to superstardom, more than 10 years into his career.

When Griffin was hired in April, he asked to meet with Holiday in the Pelicans practice facility. Griffin recounted the meeting to me, over the phone in September. “I think you’re the most underrated player in the league,” he told Holiday. “And you can either stay that, or you can become that dude. I want you to want to be that dude.” Three months later, during an interview with SiriusXM NBA Radio, Griffin said that he thought Holiday—a onetime All-Star, way back in 2013—was capable of winning MVP this season. “Sometimes you need to be given permission to dominate people,” Griffin said on-air. He said it in private, too, during that initial meeting in April: “This is on you now,” he told his MVP. The Pelicans are one of the youngest, most inexperienced teams in the league. To have any success this season, New Orleans will need Jrue Holiday to make this about Jrue Holiday. For the first time since he arrived in Louisiana, being a little selfish is the most selfless thing he can do.

“Jrue’s not going to do this for the greater glorification of Jrue,” Griffin told me. “Jrue’s doing this for us.”

When I pulled up to the Santa Rosa Valley house, the red front door was already cracked open. The Holidays rented this property for the summer, a tan-brick-and-yellow estate with stables out back, while their own ranch was being renovated just a mile away. They’re out in the country, or as “country” as it gets 50 minutes northwest of Los Angeles.

The area does have bucolic charm. Only one road leads to the house, dotted by occasional yellow signs warning drivers to watch for crossing horseback riders. The Holidays refer to this as their land; residents there speak in acres, not square footage. It’s not the kind of place you’d picture when an NBA player says he’s spending the offseason in Southern California, as many do. But the Holidays love being laid-back, love the space, love the idea of growing avocados in the back. And a handful of pros did frequent the area this summer to train. It’s become an annual thing, walking through the Holidays’ open door.

Odds are you’ll never run into just one Holiday. So when I met Holiday in the kitchen, I also met Lauren; their daughter, Jrue Tyler; Holiday’s dad, Shawn; and Holiday’s two cousins. (Naming his first kid “Jrue,” J.T. for short, might be the one example of Holiday making it about Holiday.) It’s always been this way. In 2009, Holiday was drafted 17th by the Sixers. As he left California for Philadelphia, his grandma did too. The family had decided that she’d stay with him that year. I’d never heard of a rookie’s grandma tagging along. Neither has he. “Not yet,” Holiday said. “It’s been 10 years, so.” But his family knew the transition to Philly would be a difficult one. Holiday was born and raised in Los Angeles. He was the second-youngest player in his draft class at 19 years old. So Nana moved in. Which he was grateful for, especially when it came to her cooking. On the nights Holiday came home at 2 a.m., she was up and ready to fix a meal. Was he hungry? she’d ask. Did he want some food? “I’m like, ‘No, Nana. We can just go to sleep. It’s OK.’”

The head count under the Holiday roof has grown each season. Pelicans sophomore Frank Jackson has stayed with them full time the past two summers. This year, Jahlil Okafor, Stanley Johnson, Rajon Rondo, and, yes, Anthony Davis were regulars. Holiday designed a dream workout facility in the backyard years ago, transforming a tennis clubhouse into a weight room. There are two such rooms, plus a tennis court and a couple of things he didn’t have to touch. A grass field for open exercises, a hill for sprints. Ask his trainer, Mike Guevara. It is “the most perfect training ground that anyone could have.”

Of course Davis wanted to return for another summer. And if you really want to know, Holiday told me sitting in patio furniture by the pool, the entire fiasco didn’t affect their friendship. Holiday snacked on apple slices and nut butter while we spoke. He dipped one and waved it around as he explained that “it’s a business.” The time had come in the interview for some habitual athlete-speak, and Holiday strung together a couple of NBA clichés like charms on a bracelet. The second cliché: Everybody should put themselves in Anthony’s shoes. The third: He made the best decision for him. A fourth: Why is it OK for front offices to have that kind of power, but not players? (This one the players should keep repeating until it sticks.) Then back to one, to knot and double-knot the point: It’s a business.

New Orleans Pelicans v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

In 2017, Holiday re-signed with New Orleans because of Davis. “He’s like, 90 percent of the reason that I stayed,” Holiday told reporters in January after Davis’s trade request. (The contract, a five-year, $132 million maximum deal, also played a tiny part.) But that was then, and Holiday has a way of accepting the way the world moves around him. Besides, he said of New Orleans, “I’m getting paid pretty well, and my family’s comfortable here.”

Comfortable seemed to be Holiday’s resting state. I had noticed earlier the nail polish on his fingernails—light pink, and severely chipped—and asked whether it was J.T.’s handiwork. The then-2-year-old had darted across the yard to loot her father’s apple slices, and Holiday swung her onto his lap. “We went over this yesterday,” he told his daughter. “You supposed to do my nails over.” Last December, he posted a similar picture to Instagram. Holiday is asleep in the photo, nails freshly painted turquoise. He captioned the picture “#dadlife.” One comment read, “kinda like people sleeping on you,” and another was an anti-LGBTQ response. The pressure for professional athletes to be masculine is slowly dwindling, but it’s still alive and well in the comment section on Instagram.

“I don’t care. This is more for my daughter, and it means more to her,” he said, resting his left foot on the other knee and leaning back. “When it comes down to it, if a dude wants to wear nail polish, go for it. I mean, people talk about it, but I’m like, ‘All right. Well, do you, bro.’” Plus, he added, come on: “She’s actually really good for a 2-year-old.” He held his hand up, nails facing me. (Though Holiday admitted that J.T. isn’t skilled cosmetically across the board. “She’s not good at my makeup,” he said. “I haven’t put any of those up.”)

It’s pretty common to hear the term “family man” thrown around in the NBA, but it means something different in Holiday’s case. On the Google result page for “Jrue Holiday,” the search engine suggests a few shortcut questions, the ones people most often ask about Holiday. The first of those questions is: What happened to Jrue Holiday? There are a couple of acceptable answers, though Google links only one article. So what happened to Jrue Holiday? For one, he accepted a role. “Anthony is a generational talent,” Holiday said, “and I was there to support … I was there to accent Anthony.” Again, not that he minded: “I like to be there for people on the court.” What happened to Jrue Holiday? Injuries. Countless, countless injuries. To himself, and to his Pelicans teammates. Each season, it felt like the injury list was longer than the bench. What happened to Jrue Holiday? The life of his wife and his first child were at risk.

The actual article Google links to from that “what happened?” question is an AP report from September 2016. Doctors discovered that Lauren, who was pregnant with J.T. and due in six weeks, had a benign brain tumor. Holiday was with his physical therapist—a family friend—in New Orleans when he picked up her call. Holiday put Lauren on speakerphone. After hearing the news, the therapist told him, “You got to go to the airport.” Holiday booked the first flight, taking off in a little over an hour. Because of how far he lived from the airport, Holiday should’ve missed the flight. He shakes his head. “I sped. I was like Speed Racer going to the airport.”

Holiday, heading into a contract year, stepped away from basketball. The delivery was to be induced a couple of weeks before Lauren’s due date so she could have brain surgery as soon as possible. “My biggest fear,” Lauren said, “was Jrue losing both of us.” She mentioned this to Holiday regularly, who always said the same thing, over and over: It’s not going to happen.

“That never crossed my mind,” he said that day in Santa Rosa Valley. Holiday paused, watching J.T. blow bubbles to Lauren in the grass. We sat in silence for a little while. “I always thought that, at the end of the day, I’d have both my girls with me, and we’d be living perfectly fine on our ranch.”

Because of the size of her tumor and the risk of seizure, doctors put Lauren under general anesthesia for the delivery. She missed the birth. Her first memory of a world with her daughter in it was of her husband, right after she woke up, telling Lauren how great she was, how beautiful and perfect their baby is. For seven days, J.T. was in the neonatal intensive care unit, and after that, Lauren had successful brain surgery. It took her weeks to walk again. “Jrue was not only my sole caretaker, but he was also taking care of our daughter. To me, at the time, it felt like he had it all together.”

All the while, Holiday was attending his daily workouts with Guevara, who has never figured out how his client conjured the energy each day. “I don’t know how you do that,” he said. “I don’t know mentally how you prepare for that or get through it. I’ve actually never even talked to him about it, like, how did you do that?”

“Jrue’s kind of a mystery,” Frank Jackson told me.

Over several of the past few seasons, Holiday’s body and family needed his attention. Circumstance threw off his early-career trajectory. Now Griffin and Gentry insist that it’s his time, that Holiday is the best thing on a team of next best things. Holiday is no longer at the beginning of his career, like so many of his current teammates. He’s three seasons into his third contract, long removed from the days of his rookie deal. The Pelicans expect Holiday to make another leap this season, years after most players have found their ceiling. “Usually, [players] tend to peak, and are pretty consistent for the next three years,” Gentry said over the phone, “but I don’t think you go on an upward trend like he’s going. He’s playing like he’s 24 years old.”

A decade before Griffin became Holiday’s general manager, he was scouting him for the 2009 draft. Griffin was the vice president of basketball operations for the Suns, who had the 14th pick. Gentry, coincidentally, was Phoenix’s head coach at the time. After a couple of workouts and interviews, both were sold on Holiday. He had played only one year at UCLA, but showed more maturity than most young players do, and an unconditional devotion to defense, which most young players don’t. Griffin’s instinct proved correct there. Holiday is one of the best disruptors in the league, and has been voted to the All-Defensive team twice.

The Suns ultimately passed on Holiday at the last minute. Whenever Gentry faced Holiday in the following years, he’d tell him, “We should’ve picked you!” In 2013, his fourth year in the league, Holiday became the youngest player in Philadelphia franchise history to make an All-Star team, at 22. He was on the superstar trajectory, until he became a sacrificial lamb to the Process.

The following June, the Sixers traded Holiday and their second-round pick to the Pelicans. In return, Philadelphia received New Orleans’s first-rounder in the 2013 draft, which turned into the sixth pick, which turned into Kentucky product Nerlens Noel. Holiday had just finished his rookie contract, but then-Philly general manager Sam Hinkie wanted to tear the team down to its studs. New Orleans presented a new opportunity for the then-23-year-old. Davis had been drafted the year before, in 2012. Suddenly, Holiday was playing next to the next big thing.

Seven seasons later, Holiday and Gentry are at a new beginning. “We’ve been around for a while,” Gentry said. “I said the other day, they say, ‘Well, it’s a new chapter.’ I feel like it’s a miniseries, and we just finished up the first week of it.”

This is a roster that screams rebuild. Trade the vets, accumulate assets, get the kids ready to take over. But Griffin never considered trading Holiday, whom he sees as an accelerant to the Pelicans’ timeline. The GM assured Holiday during their initial conversation that staying in New Orleans would be up to the player. And Holiday still doesn’t think he’ll be traded “anytime soon.”

“Maybe in the back of my head, it was like, ‘Man. These dudes are young, and I am 10 years in.’ … My little brother played with Lonzo.” Williamson is touted as the league’s next instant-cook superstar. Not long ago, Ball and Ingram were, too. Nevertheless, Holiday recognized that this season is an enormous personal opportunity for him to return to the forefront, like his early days with the Sixers. “I haven’t been in this type of situation in a long time. I think there was one year there in Philly where that’s how it was, and it was an All-Star year for me.”

Still, Holiday isn’t sold on being the centerpiece of the team. “I don’t know if it’s my time to be that and somebody accent me,” he said. Yet the fit next to Ball in the backcourt automatically accentuates Holiday. Part of the frustration so far in Ball’s fledgling career has been his hesitancy to shoot. Next to Holiday, who excels in the off-guard position, that’s no longer such a pressing issue. “With Lonzo Ball handling the ball some, Jrue’s going to have so many opportunities to have the ball pitched ahead, and then have him play on the wing one-on-one,” Gentry said. “Now, if that’s the case, I like our chances.”

This might not have been how Holiday saw his career going when he became the youngest All-Star in Sixers history, but this is where he is now. An in-his-prime veteran on a team of up-and-comers, still somehow an up-and-comer himself, full of potential. He’s seen a lot come and go in New Orleans—executives, franchise players, coaches—and now, finally, he can build something of his own.

About that. Holiday visited Italy for the first time earlier this year on vacation. We talked about the architecture in Rome, and the many lives those structures lived. He was fascinated with the way Rome maintained and reinvented its historical legacy. Ruins that tourists visit even today were built from materials used in previous incarnations; spolia, which translates to “spoils” in Latin, is the Italian word for recycled stone. When a new ruler would come to power, he’d tear down the structures erected by the previous leaders. The point was to show dominion. Eventually, the practice ended. The structures Holiday visited were their final iterations. After being wrecked and fractured and redistributed time and time again, those monuments were rebuilt a final time. Those were the versions history remembers. They were the ones that lasted.

If Holiday can be the version of himself that Griffin and Gentry and many of his peers expect him to be—if he can assemble something new out of his experiences, from both on and off the court—this will be the Holiday that we remember.

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