Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday opens up about the most challenging time of his life

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4622/" data-ylk="slk:Jrue Holiday">Jrue Holiday</a> has been huge for the Pelicans this season. (AP)
Jrue Holiday has been huge for the Pelicans this season. (AP)

The most arduous moments for Jrue Holiday had come inside gyms while sharpening the work ethic that established him as a professional, and as players go, he knows they cede so much of life’s control to the sport. Then came the moment when Holiday felt so futile, relying on doctors and prayers during the treatment for his wife Lauren’s brain tumor during her pregnancy with their baby girl, Jrue Tyler, in 2016. He was also dealing with the pressures of the NBA with the New Orleans Pelicans — entering a contract year, no less — and he admits now that it had become time to hit pause on the professional stresses and focus on the deepest, most important aspect of life.

“There was a lot of stress that I felt, a lot of pressure there,” Holiday told Yahoo Sports. “I think how my family dynamic is built, how my faith is built, we persevered through that. Always praying. My family praying, especially for my wife. My wife going through that — being pregnant and having a brain tumor — that was the point where I had to rely on other people.”

Holiday pauses as his daughter is yelling for her dad in the background on this evening at their home, a moment he cherishes.

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“As a man and as an athlete, you always feel you can handle things by yourself,” Holiday said. “You feel like, ‘I got to the league, I did it by myself.’ You thank and serve people along the way — but I put in the work. That was somewhat in my control. But my wife’s situation, it really wasn’t in my control. So to bounce back from that has been pretty cool, pretty special to me.”

Holiday stepped away from the game in September 2016 to stay with his wife, returning 12 games into last season, signing a five-year contract to return to the Pelicans in July and is now in the midst of one of his best NBA seasons. New Orleans had lost five of six games after losing All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins for the season because of a torn Achilles tendon in a victory over Houston on Jan. 26 and proceeded to win 10 of 12 to compete for home-court advantage in the Western Conference at 38-28. Anthony Davis has played MVP-caliber basketball during this recent stretch, and Holiday has served as his co-star, scoring 20 points or more in the first eight games of the Pelicans’ recent 10-game winning streak, including two 20-point, 10-assist games and a 19-point, 17-assist performance. It’s Holiday whose performances can serve as a barometer of this team’s success, with averages of a career-high 19.2 points, 5.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds in playing all 66 games entering Tuesday’s matchup against Charlotte.

The Pelicans finally started meshing and winning games with Cousins at the center of it all, and it took several games to revive their spirit. Cousins and Davis had dominant stretches together this season, and Rajon Rondo and Holiday supplemented their All-Stars’ play while finding their own chemistry. Together, they had the strut of a contender in the West. Apart, Holiday, Davis and Rondo needed to recalibrate their games and messages as leaders, and needed to sit down with coach Alvin Gentry to ensure the Pelicans would find purpose again.

“A.D. and I had a big conversation, including Rondo and Gentry, and we talked about staying positive,” Holiday said. “We really felt like we lost a big piece in DeMarcus. We’ve been rolling right now, but with him we started to get in a groove. That Houston game was a real important staple, showing us we can compete against anyone in the league with DeMarcus. We’ve had a lot of challenges over the years, dealing with injuries in previous years and this year with Solomon [Hill] and our rookie, Frank [Jackson]. We dealt with challenges just coming into the season with different players, and even though we finished the year well with DeMarcus last season, we had to figure ourselves out again.

Jrue Holiday is averaging 19.2 points this season. (AP)
Jrue Holiday is averaging 19.2 points this season. (AP)

“At this point, we all know the Western Conference is a beast. Just a couple games between the third and the [ninth] spot. There’s an understanding, but we’ve had fun. Maybe this will be the challenge we needed because we persevered through it for now.”

Cousins’ injury was out of the Pelicans’ control, and so they’ve found methods to cope and succeed. New Orleans acquired forward Nikola Mirotic last month and has had Holiday and Rondo pushing the tempo.

“We’re moving faster, pushing the pace more,” Holiday said. “Rondo has done a great job with that from the jump, having better starts to games. By him doing that, it gets me, E’Twaun [Moore] and Anthony to run because we know he’s going to look for us.

“When Rondo first came in, we grew so close, so fast. Me growing up, I watched him play. Once we got to be around each other, that respect gained more and more. I love playing with Rondo, and he’s one of the best point guards I’ve ever played with. They said to me that they wanted Rondo to put me off the ball and put me to playmake off that position. I’ve been a combo guard my whole life, so I had to get acclimated to it and having two dominant scorers [in Davis and Cousins]. I had to figure it out and see what they want. Having a point guard like Rondo, who has such a major position with our team, keeps everybody happy.”

When Holiday remained in North Carolina with Lauren to be by her side during the final stretch of her pregnancy, half of the Pelicans’ roster, Gentry and general manager Dell Demps visited in the fall of 2016. Davis, Hill and former Pelicans Tim Frazier and Dante Cunningham were among the players who made the trip in which team workouts also took place. Most say the lasting memory was their taste buds awakening over Lauren’s famous rib dishes during a Monday Night Football game. Lauren had a successful procedure to remove the tumor late in 2016 after her pregnancy.

“The guys enjoyed each other’s camaraderie, and it was beyond basketball for us,” Demps said. “We always felt Jrue’s best basketball was in front of him, and we’ve seen him evolve so much as a man, a husband and a father. We couldn’t be more proud of Jrue as a person.”

Holiday was an emerging guard for Philadelphia and an All-Star in 2013 before a draft-night trade to the Pelicans, but the past several seasons brought some injuries and a cloud over his impact for New Orleans. Through it all, Holiday stayed firm.

“I’m sure people were doubting me and my play,” Holiday said, “but I don’t really look into the negative thoughts. Negative things can impact your game, so I usually stick to positive vibes and positive people. I never doubted.”

Holiday, like so many pro athletes, had become accustomed to controlling his own fate and helping the lives of those closest to him. However, so much had come in a wave — his newborn and wife’s condition, changes across a roster facing pressure to win, and an unknown free agency — that steeled him for arguably his best pro year. “It was out of my hands and it was stressful,” Holiday said. “I’m so lucky to be here and make it on the other side.”

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