The true Jrue Holiday

ASSOCIATED PRESS Sixers coach Doug Collins is leaning on point guard Jrue Holiday to be a team leader.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Sixers coach Doug Collins is leaning on point guard Jrue Holiday to be a team leader.
Posted: February 15, 2013

DOUG COLLINS, age 61, is an analog coach in a digital league, an association of players who best communicate in binary.

Jrue Holiday is one such player, as Collins quickly discovered.

In 2011, as the Sixers entered their first-round playoff series against the Heat, perhaps the league's best defensive team and easily its highest-profile squad.

Collins realized the Sixers' only hope lay in productive possessions. He also realized that his 20-year-old point guard would have to play as many as 40 minutes every night.

Thanks to creative eavesdropping, he knew the latest tech toy might motivate Holiday.

"Make you a deal, Jrue," said Collins the day before the series began. "No turnovers tomorrow night, I'll buy you that new iPad."

The Sixers hung within a point until the final 2 minutes. Holiday had 19 points, five assists, five rebounds, three steals . . . and zero turnovers.

And, the next day, one new iPad 2. "I love gadgets," Holiday said. "I still have that one."

Collins found his connection with Holiday. The team and the town are the better for it.

Holiday is a product of his generation, more comfortable texting than talking, loathe to trust, eager to excel. It works for him. He has spent the past two seasons trying to replicate that night in Miami. More often than not, he succeeds.

Holiday will play in his first All Star game Sunday in Houston. When the Sixers drafted him in the first round in 2009 they hoped he one day would be a star; perhaps even by now, his fourth season. All along, he expected stardom to come.

All he needed was the chance.

The Sixers now sit with Holiday where the Eagles sat in 2000 with Donovan McNabb, where the Phillies sat in 2007 with Ryan Howard. Both of them, like Holiday, came from solid families of modest means. Both of them, like Holiday, needed polishing.

Both of them led their franchises to their highest heights.

With some help, Holiday, 22, shows every sign of guiding the Sixers back to the top of the NBA.

Holiday is averaging 19 points, 8.9 assists and is shooting 45.2 percent from the field, all career bests. Holiday led the Sixers that night in Miami and, last season, he led their late-season push into the playoffs, all the way to the seventh game of the second round.

Holiday endured the hot mess coach Eddie Jordan made of Holiday's rookie season, which included a bizarre, midseason free-agency appearance by Allen Iverson. Holiday started only 51 games as a rookie. He hated it.

"That was probably the lowest point for him, so far," said his father, Shawn Holiday.

Collins arrived the next season. He gave Andre Iguodala, then Evan Turner, chances to fail as focal points. Finally, last year, Collins and the rest of the club realized their best chance lay in Holiday.

They extended his contract for 4 years and $41 million, traded impediment Iguodala for young center Andrew Bynum, sprinkled the lineup with offensive weapons and handed the keys to Holiday.

"We made the decision: We needed Jrue to run this team," Collins said.

Even without Bynum, veteran guard Jason Richardson and, now, without Thaddeus Young, Holiday has kept the Sixers in the playoff race.

Try to stop Holiday and he will find his teammates. The Clippers, Magic and Bucks focused on him, and he combined for 35 assists, 14 of them against Orlando, with one turnover.

"That's why he's an All-Star," said Magic coach Jacque Vaughn.

Defend Holiday with one player and he will light you up. He developed a post game, both high and low. He is as comfortable shooting threes over Chris Paul as he is sneaking lefthanded layups under giant Roy Hibbert.

Holiday scored at least 25 points 12 times this season, which he had done just seven times before. He celebrated his appointment to the All-Star team with a career-high 35 points in a win against the Knicks.

He is magnificent . . . when he's not giving the ball to the other team.

"When Jrue gets himself in trouble is when he tries to go a little bit too fast, and he doesn't see things, and he turns the ball over," Collins said.

He leads the league at 4.0 turnovers per game. Then again, the second, third and fourth most careless players - James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Kobe Bryant - all are All-Star guards, too.

Many of Holiday's mistakes are errors of exhaustion. One guard has played more minutes per game than Holiday's 38.3.

"How much of it is how much we've ridden him?" asked Collins, who admitted the Sixers have not had a real backup point guard all season until they signed Jeremy Pargo last week.

Holiday played 39 minutes in each of the two close games since Pargo arrived.

"There's times now," Holiday admitted, "when all I want to do is sleep all day."

Still at 22, playing a boatload of minutes every night can be easier than serving as sheriff on a leaderless team.

After the win over the Magic, Holiday chastised center Spencer Hawes for passing on a shot. A few days later, after the Pacers bullied the Sixers into a second-half blowout, Holiday acknowledged that the Sixers "didn't fight back."

They were words Collins wanted to say, but, as Collins recently told Holiday, "It has to be your voice. We just paid you to be our franchise guy."

Holiday's is the lone voice that can demand accountability.

"I don't try to cut deep, but I speak my mind," Holiday said. "It doesn't bother me."

There is little that bothers Holiday, and for good reason.

He was born to this stage.

Toya DeCree, a ferocious forward from the Valley, met sweet-shooting Pasadena lefty Shawn Holiday in the airport as they prepared to make a trip to Taiwan for Los Angeles high school stars. A few months later they saw each other again at Arizona State, both high-level recruits; Toya, the most accomplished of three collegiate sisters, an eventual Pac-10 Player of the Year.

They began dating as sophomores then transferred back to California schools. She hated ASU. He was buried by the new coach.

She dominated at United States International in San Diego, where she dropped 36 in her collegiate finale. He became an all-conference defensive stopper at Division II Cal State-LA.

Either might have been a professional in a different time. Instead, she became a teacher; he, a 7-Up merchandiser.

They married in 1988.

They had Justin, then Jrue. They wanted another "J" name, but she loved the name Drew, so she compromised. Then came Lauren, and there went the J's, but names were the least of their problems.

Shawn hated his job. Jrue had asthma that gave him pneumonia and made him a hospital kid the first 2 years of his life. Justin had alarming food allergies.

Worse, part of their support system had shifted South. Her family had gone back to Louisiana. Should they quit their good jobs in California, where they had affordable COBRA health insurance at $500 a month, which they needed for sickly Jrue? They prayed, and then they moved.

Five years of faith in little Ruston, La., formed a foundation for the Holiday clan to which they added a third son, Aaron. Now, it is a family as free of pretense as it is of tattoos (forbidden).

"Shawn and I learned how to be parents there," Toya said. California called them back.

Shawn, now a manager for a stainless-steel sink company in Louisiana, took a transfer to Rancho Cucamonga, and the Holidays prospered.

Toya, a teacher, joined her sister Vonda at Campbell Hall, a posh private school in North Hollywood, 60 miles away. She was ninth-grade dean and the girls' basketball coach. It was a 90-minute, one-way commute by train. She loved her life.

They sent their children to art lessons and music lessons and dance and acting lessons. Both Jrue and Justin play piano, guitar and percussion; not just a drum set, either. They played timpani and xylophone and bass drum in jazz and concert bands.

When they weren't immersed in arts they rode their bikes through the neighborhood, and jumped on the backyard trampoline; and, yes, they played basketball.

The Holidays lived on a quiet cul-de-sac at the end of Tapia Court. Shawn put a portable hoop in the street outside their house. An accommodating neighbor across the circle put up another, which gave the neighborhood kids a full court.

At the end of the day, Shawn Holiday would drive up his street and see Jrue and Lauren, as aggressive as her mother, playing Justin and Aaron, blazing back and forth across the cul-de-sac.

"One thing: Lauren used to kill Aaron," Shawn said, laughing.

Not for long.

When Justin hit ninth grade, he and Jrue began commuting to Campbell Hall, now a 45-minute drive. The next year, the family moved to North Hollywood. The next year, Jrue also won the first of his three state basketball titles, two of them with Justin, who later played at Washington.

Lauren - coached by Toya - last year won a title at Campbell Hall as a senior, then followed Jrue to UCLA.

Aaron, a sophomore, is "a beast," said Shawn.

"He starts playing better defense, he could be better than all of us," Justin said.

Aaron has the advantage of three siblings' experience, not to mention a more privileged existence. Until Jrue hit the NBA jackpot, the modest Holidays were the exception to the Campbell Hall rule.

"I knew kids whose first car was one of those exclusive Range Rovers, where only two of that model would be made in the world. I would visit my friends' houses, and they'd be as big as this whole gym," Jrue said, sitting in the Sixers' practice facility. "And then I'd go home, and me and Justin would be sleeping together. On a pull-out couch."

Logically, then, the first splurge Holiday allowed himself, and the only splurge his family accepted, was a bigger house.

"Yeah," said Shawn, "now everybody has their own room."

So does Jrue's fiancée. It's that kind of family.

"I'm not allowed to stay with her in that house. I respect that," Holiday said.

Often, Toya Holiday gets her own room, too.

When Jrue entered the draft, Shawn quit his job at FedEx so he could manage his sons' affairs full-time. Typically, he will spend a few weeks in Philadelphia, a week or so in Idaho with Justin, then a few weeks at home.

Shawn Holiday doesn't meddle with their money. He ties up loose ends. He is there for a ride home from a late airport landing. He monitors their diets and their workout schedules. He spends all day in the apartment to let in the cable guy.

He helped Jrue secure his first apartment in Philadelphia, around the corner from the team's practice facility, where, as a 19-year-old rookie, Jrue lived with Toya's mother, Ruthann DeCree.

"I needed her," Jrue said.

She fried catfish. She boiled shrimp. She cleaned his clothes. And, of course, she shuffled in for those sly, old-lady bed-checks when she heard him finally slip into his room.

"Hungry, Jrue?"

"Ah . . . no, Grandma. Go to sleep. It's 3 a.m."

She left after his first season, her job done. Jrue stayed in that spot until this season, when he moved downtown.

He might be a Center City prince, but he does not affect the same sort of airs as his peers. Indeed, his humility cloaks his talent.

It is hard to remember that he exited high school the No. 1 guard in the country; that he projected as a lottery pick out of college. It is hard to envision him, soft-spoken and unassuming, as an All-Star.

Not for Shawn.

"I don't mean this to sound arrogant, but I knew he was going to be an All-Star," Shawn said. "Ever since he was 2. He's been dribbling with both hands since he was 2. He's been blessed. With a gift."

Blessed with many gifts.

During his NBA-mandated, 1 year of college basketball, Holiday often attended UCLA women's games. One night, as he made his way down the bleachers at Pauley Pavilion, an overexcited fan cried at him:

"Yo! Darren Collison! Can I have your autograph?"

Politely, Holiday explained that he was not Darren Collison; just a teammate. Then, from behind him, Holiday heard this:

"It's OK. You're cuter than he is, anyway."

Holiday turned and saw Lauren Cheney, the UCLA and Team USA midfielder, fresh off her Olympic gold-medal win in Beijing.

They shared friends for a year, then dated.

They shared pedicures for the past 3 years.

They shared her gold-medal moment in London last summer.

They will marry in July, and they will share the rest of their lives.

Why so young?

"She's it. I know it's her. I mean, I see what my parents have," Holiday said. "I want that."

Wow. Imagine the offspring; a set of DNA that would titillate the tentacles of any geneticist.

Whoa. Imagine the pressure; a set of expectations that would stimulate any psychologist.

"My parents never pressured us. I didn't even know how good my mom and dad were until someone told us," Holiday said. "Lauren and I - we veer away from the highlight. We send our medals and stuff back to our dads. Lauren says she wants nerds for kids. She wants them to play music, and know three different languages."

A different sort of pressure, then. Always, for the Holidays, there was sibling pressure.

Justin always was a couple of inches taller than Jrue, who is 6-3, but Jrue almost always was better. Justin's 7-1 wingspan helped Jrue develop a nearly unblockable shot. Justin played last year in Belgium, then with the Sixers' summer league team, and now in the NBA Developmental League, in Idaho.

He is a good enough shooter to compete in the D-League three-point contest during All-Star Saturday, when Jrue will compete in the NBA Skills Challenge. Toya and Shawn could not be more thrilled.

They were expected to land in Houston on Thursday night, where they will join Jrue and Justin. Lauren and Aaron, whose teams play Friday night, arrive Saturday.

Having watched Jrue wait at UCLA, then in Philadelphia, they will relish this moment as validation as a family.

"I knew what I could do," Holiday said. "I have a lot of confidence in my game. I'm not the flashiest guy, not the most athletic. I'm just solid. And I've always tried to do everything right."

In 2010, before Collins abandoned his broadcasting career for a final shot at coaching, he studied the Sixers roster. He was glad to see Jrue Holiday on it. Collins was an assistant at Arizona State when Shawn and Toya played in Tempe, so he knows the quality of Jrue's pedigree.

"I've always had my greatest successes with players who come from that kind of family," Collins said. "Normally, they're relationship-oriented people. And my strength is relationships. The stronger bond I can create with you, the more I feel you can trust me.

"Now, with Jrue, I've realized you have to take the time to show him every single day that he can trust you."

More often than not, that means Collins must squint down at a smartphone and peck out a digital text message - a message he would rather deliver in an old-fashioned, analog conversation.

"Well, I've had to learn how to communicate effectively this way," Collins said.

Lesson learned.

The night Holiday was named to the All-Star team, Collins was warmed to receive Holiday's heartfelt gratitude.

It came almost immediately.

Via text message.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

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