Jrue Holiday and a friend were driving to a Los Angeles Dodgers game in June 2013 when his agent at the time, Tony Dutt, called with concerning news. There were rumors the Sixers, fresh off a disappointing season and under the new regime of Sam Hinkie, were about to trade Holiday to New Orleans.
It didn't make sense. Hinkie hadn't called Dutt to give him a heads up that the Sixers might want to move Holiday. "Normally a team would call and we'd work together," Dutt says.
Holiday had just made the All-Star team. He was entering the first season of a four-year, $41 million extension that looked like a bargain -- so much so that, as they were digesting the signing, Holiday stared at Dutt and asked him, "Why don't you look happier?" Dutt thought Holiday could have gotten much more had he waited. Holiday thought $41 million was enough.
Holiday was getting married to Lauren Cheney, a soccer star, in two weeks. She was in New Jersey with her club team, looking at homes near Philadelphia. "I thought I would be there the rest of my career," Holiday says.
When news of the trade broke around the draft, Spencer Hawes FaceTimed fellow Sixer Evan Turner. "We were like, 'F---, it's over. Who's next?''' Hawes recalls.
They all were next. Hinkie tore the team down, piece by piece, in the most audacious rebuilding project in league history. Several Sixers were at Holiday's wedding in Malibu two weeks later. They stood atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, reflecting on the breakup of a team that had come within a game of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. "We knew we may never be in the same place again," Hawes says. Holiday's wife snapped a photo of the moment. Holiday still has it.
"Apparently we weren't that good," smirks Iguodala, the first to go in the 2012 Dwight Howard/Andrew Bynum mega-trade. "Because they got rid of us all."
"I see Philly fans all the time who say, 'Man, they never should have broken up that team!'" Holiday says. "I'm like, "You are preaching to the choir!'"
Holiday adapted. He grounded himself in family, faith and the joy of playing for his teammates -- values his parents, Toya and Shawn, both former college players, instilled in the Holiday siblings. He would rely on that perspective over the next four years, as injuries and health crises buffeted him. He relies on it now as the Anthony Davis drama swirls.
"Anthony is a professional," Holiday says. "He has to make a decision. I respect whatever decision he makes. But until that decision is made, I'll be hopeful. Why put anything else in my mind? Are we supposed to throw in the towel? Anything can happen."
When life is complicated, Holiday falls back on what he likes best: the challenge of shutting down a star.
In the Holiday household, defense was a normal dinner table subject. "We only talked about defense," Toya Holiday says. "We are old school. There will be nights when your shot is off. Go get some stops." Shawn demonstrated techniques at the local park -- slides, ball denial, how to run along diagonals to swerve back in front of opponents. "As long as I can remember, defense is all they talked about," says Justin Holiday, Jrue's older brother by 14 months and a member of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Justin and Jrue honed their defense playing one-on-one games on a portable hoop they rolled onto the cul-de-sac outside the family home in Rancho Cucamonga, almost an hour east of Los Angeles. For years, they could not finish one. Jrue would foul Justin hard. Justin would retaliate. They would end the game before things escalated. They knew that if their mother heard them fighting, she would drag them inside, pick a verse from the Bible, and force them to write it 100 times.
"There would be no strife in our house," Toya says. "If there was, 'OK, here's a Bible verse. I am going to make this painful. Hopefully these words go into your heart.'"
"Strife," Jrue says laughing, "is probably my mom's favorite word."
The brothers competed at everything. They lifted the portable hoop onto their trampoline and invented their own form of Slamball. When they moved into a house with a pool, their parents had to mothball the trampoline; they knew the boys would station it so they could jump from a second-floor balcony, land on the trampoline and catapult themselves into the pool.
"They were idiots," Toya says, laughing. "I was not going to jail for letting them do whatever they wanted."
Pingpong was another go-to. Justin and Jrue have tables at their homes so they can play when they are together. Aaron, a rookie with the Pacers, purchased one upon moving into his first place.
By eighth grade, Jrue's coaches at Campbell Hall, a school just north of Los Angeles (where Toya is the ninth-grade dean), realized they had a different sort of prodigy -- fiercely competitive, but focused on the right things: the emotional wellness of teammates, and the grittier aspects of the game.
In overtime of one rivalry game, Holiday stole the ball and dished to a teammate on a two-on-one. The teammate missed a layup. The opposing coach called timeout. Holiday's teammate was distraught, recalls J.J. Prince, who coached Holiday's eighth-grade team. Holiday wrapped his arm around the player and told him: Don't worry. I'm going to steal the ball again, and I'm going to make that same pass, and you're going to make it.
"And he did it," Prince says. "The kid made it. It is my most vivid memory of Jrue. He only wanted to make the people around him happy." (Holiday doesn't even remember this. "It sounds like something I would do, though," he says.)
As he entered ninth grade, the coaches warned Holiday and his family that Jrue -- like all freshmen -- would have to play on the junior varsity team. Toya laughed. She knew there was something Jrue cared about more than playing varsity: playing with his friends and eighth-grade teammates. "I wanted to play JV," Holiday says, "because that's where my friends were."
He did not stay on JV long.
In one varsity game, Keegan Hornbuckle, a teammate, became fixated on dunking three times. He had only one at halftime. He was despondent. Holiday assured Hornbuckle he would get him two dunks in the second half. He did.
Holiday is quiet around the media with a low Q rating, but behind closed doors, he is ebullient and kind. Toya calls him the family therapist. "I'm a little more gentle when it comes to people's feelings," Holiday says. Stardom never inflated his ego. Holiday worked as the manager for the Campbell girls tennis team. He was friends with everyone. "He hung with the nerds," says Graham Bousley, a Campbell teammate who now coaches at Siena.
On road trips, Holiday's hotel room became the nexus of team activity: video game competitions and chats long into the night. He welcomed everyone -- deep bench players and team managers. "He is magnetic," Prince says, echoing a word several people used to describe Holiday.
Even then, he lived for defense, and for showdowns with local high-wattage guards -- including DeMar DeRozan. In practice during Holiday's senior year, the coaches often pitted four starters and one reserve against Holiday and the bench -- and watched as Holiday, snarling, led the bench to wins.
"He has been special since he was very young," says Ben Howland, who coached Holiday during his one year at UCLA.
Campbell coaches ran them through a game called Sevens: four-on-four to seven points, only with a scoring system under which drawing a charge earned two points. The losing team ran sprints. "Jrue would fly around taking charges until his team won," Bousley says.
Nothing has changed. "I love the challenge of defense," Holiday says. "Guarding Kevin Durant -- that's fun for me. Kawhi [Leonard]? That's fun for me. Guarding Russ [Westbrook] and switching to Paul [George]? That's fun for me. I play myself to total exhaustion."
He is told that most stars do not list these things first when someone asks what is fun about basketball. He is not done. "Kyrie? Man, I love that. You have to stay aware at all times. Marcus Smart -- I love playing against him because he takes defense as seriously as I do. I don't flop, though. People are always telling me I need to learn to flop. Nah. You see some of that flopping out there? I'm not with that."
When he saw Jamal Murray had scored 48 points against Boston, he told coaches he wanted to play against Murray when New Orleans faced Denver in 12 days, says Alvin Gentry, the Pelicans' coach.
Holiday sometimes becomes so obsessed with his matchup, he forgets to switch when the Pelicans game plan calls for it, coaches say. When he got into foul trouble in high school, he objected when coaches tried to shift him onto lesser players.
He's not exaggerating about the exhaustion thing. If he's totally spent, Holiday sometimes takes more than an hour after games to decompress: he sits in silence at his locker for a bit, takes a long hot shower (some have recommended cold showers, but Holiday doesn't like cold water), and uses a massage gun on sore areas for 30 minutes or so. When he goes home, he sometimes falls asleep within minutes. "I gotta find a way to cut his minutes," Gentry says.
He knows he will not win every possession, or even most of them. "I don't need any accolades," Holiday says. "I don't like being famous. But I can always tell people I used to defend guys like Kevin Durant, and they respect my defense. Maybe he likes my offense too. But I know one thing: He'll remember how I played defense on him. That's the only accolade I want."
Is he right? "No f---ing doubt," Durant says. "He causes more problems for me than guys my own size. I don't even want to give him that because he'll use it to his advantage."
Some stars buy rest on defense. The Pelicans do not have that luxury with Holiday. He would not allow it even if they did. "I've taught myself to take breaks on offense," he says. "Just give the ball to Anthony."
Holiday has probably never scored as much as he could, on any level. High school teammates remember pleading with Holiday to look for his own shot when scouts were in the stands. They knew he could score at will. During warmups, Holiday would go around the 3-point arc sinking shots lefty.
"I love the challenge of defense. Guarding Kevin Durant -- that's fun for me. Kawhi? That's fun for me. Guarding Russ and switching to Paul [George]? That's fun for me. I play myself to total exhaustion."Jrue Holiday
He couldn't bring himself to hunt points. "All he wanted to do was pass and play defense," Hornbuckle says.
That approach endeared him to Sixers veterans right away when the team drafted him No. 17. (The Suns debated drafting Holiday three spots earlier, according to Gentry, who coached Phoenix then, and David Griffin, the former Cavs GM who worked in the Suns' front office. They picked Earl Clark instead because they believed they had a deal with Golden State to acquire the No. 7 pick -- Stephen Curry -- and didn't need another point guard, Griffin says. Larry Riley, then the Warriors' GM, has maintained they never came to a verbal agreement.)
"He loved contact," says Aaron McKie, a 13-year NBA veteran who was on the Sixers' coaching staff during Holiday's first few seasons. "When he hit me, it would jar my whole body."
"I had to double-check his age," says Turner.
Iguodala remembers dribbling full speed at Holiday during one practice. "At that time, no one was gonna stop me at full speed," he says. "I was LeBron-esque. I hit Jrue with a move, looked down to dribble, and the ball was gone. He just took it. It was crazy. He is the best defender in the league no one will ever say anything about."
Philly higher-ups knew early they did not have to worry about Holiday's off-court habits even though he was barely 19 -- the youngest player in the league. His parents sent Toya's mother, Ruthann DeCree, to live with him. She would wait up after games, with fresh fried catfish ready. His parents had talked to him about the temptations of nightlife.
Holiday had always shown discipline. As the Campbell team ate at a restaurant near a tournament site, an older woman approached Holiday, described herself as a big fan, and handed him an envelope stuffed with cash. He returned it on the spot.
As his star rose in Philly, he always passed credit to his teammates. "He would tell the coaches or the media, 'Evan is really our go-to guy,' and I would be like, 'What the hell are you talking about?'" Turner says. "He is the most humble person in the NBA."
"I don't think you will find a guy so accomplished who keeps a lower profile," Hawes says. He has never asked for team security to accompany him anywhere, or for any input into the scheduling of shootarounds and practices -- typical star perks, Gentry says. "His main interest is his family," Gentry says. "That's his posse."
He leaned on family, and a lifetime of lessons about what really matters, as injuries to his right leg and right eye socket robbed him of parts of three NBA seasons starting in January 2014. Later that year, surgeons implanted a titanium rod to repair a stress fracture.
"Were there times I felt my career might be over?" Holiday asks. "That I might never be the same? That I'll never feel the same just walking around? Sure. But I had my wife for support. I had my family."
He worked his way back with the help of Mike Guevara, an outside trainer the Pelicans subsequently hired. He felt strong ahead of the 2016-17 season -- a contract year for him.
As the 2016 offseason wound down, Holiday worked out with Justin and Turner at the Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, California. Jrue and Lauren walked in one day. They had just come from a doctor's appointment and had news. Lauren, who was pregnant, had a benign tumor behind her right eye. She needed surgery. She and the baby were at risk.
Turner was devastated. "They are young, enjoying themselves, and have this baby that is made from their love -- and they find out she has a brain tumor," he says. "That would rock so many people."
It did not rock them -- not completely. After delivering the news, Lauren joked that she would try out for the WNBA when she recovered. Holiday went on with that day's workout. "She is a million times tougher than me," he says of his wife. "She kept me calm. And having Evan there to share that day -- my brother from another mother -- that was comforting."
Turner tries to channel their resolve whenever he faces a setback. "I think back to that day," he says, "all the time."
In the interest of time, doctors induced Lauren; she gave birth to a girl, Jrue Tyler, in September 2016. Lauren had surgery at Duke University the next month. Holiday missed camp and the first 12 games of the season to be with his family. Gentry recalls Holiday wondering if it would be possible to fly from North Carolina to New Orleans on game days. Gentry dissuaded him.
Doctors warned Lauren it would take her at least a week to regain enough strength to walk again. She was up walking two days after surgery, Holiday recalls. "Honestly, she helped me come back to the Pelicans as soon as I did," he says. New Orleans faced Portland -- and Turner -- in Holiday's return game. Holiday scored 21 points. Turner asked if he could have Holiday's jersey -- and if Holiday would sign it. Turner still has it.
Between the stress of Lauren's recovery, the normal challenges of a newborn, and an uncertain future in New Orleans, Holiday's mind was divided. "I didn't sleep that whole year, basically," he says.
The Pelicans sputtered. After one crushing late-season loss in which Holiday missed two crunch-time shots, he approached teammates one-by-one and apologized, people within the team recall. He still does that if he feels he lets the team down, he says.
Years of struggle made last season's playoff run, and Holiday's personal demolition of the Blazers, extra satisfying. During the last week of the season, the Pelicans scanned the standings and concluded they wanted Portland in the first round. "We felt it was a series we could get," Holiday recalls.
Holiday averaged 28 points per game in the sweep, on 57 percent shooting. He hounded Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and produced several defensive highlights -- including a last-second block that preserved Game 1. Those close to him were both elated, and unsurprised.
"That's Jrue," Toya says of her son. "I had to tell people, 'You guys -- he always plays like this.'"
Iguodala watched, knowing the Warriors would play the winner in the next round. "Some coaches don't believe it," he says. "But you get Jrue in a heavy dosage -- like Portland did -- and it's like, 'Holy s---. He's a monster.'"
Turner and Holiday had dinner together with friends and family twice during the series -- once at Turner's home in Portland and again at Holiday's place in New Orleans. They reflected on their time in Philadelphia, on how far they both had come as people and players. "Look at all we had acquired, and yet we are still the same people," Turner says. "Some people switch on you. He's the same."
Even as Holiday decimated the Blazers, Turner found himself thrilled for his friend's success. "I was pissed we were losing and it wasn't fun, but I love that man," Turner says. "I was literally guarding him and looking at him and thinking, 'This dude is performing. You're killing, bro.' No one deserves it more."
Golden State eliminated New Orleans in five games in the next round. The Pelicans are three games out of the playoffs now. Holiday hopes New Orleans can stay healthy, and make another run -- and, one day, contend with the NBA's superteam.
"Let's put the pieces together and beat them," he says.
If Davis leaves, Holiday could be stuck in NBA purgatory -- or eventually on another team. There is no guarantee Holiday makes another All-Star team, or lands on a title contender. He knows that. He knows what he really values about the NBA. It is the same thing he valued in ninth grade, when he didn't want to play varsity and leave his friends.
"Those dinners with people like Evan -- those are the times I cherish more than the actual basketball moments," he says. "They are the things I will remember most. Coming from where I came from, it's all a blessing."