How Jrue Holiday found his voice as a leader with help from his soccer star wife

When Jrue Holiday was a teenager, he needed to make some extra money.

He had a knack for bagging groceries, arranging cans of soup alongside bags of grapes to maximum efficiency. So, he went to his mother, Toya, the athletic director at his school, Campbell Hall in Los Angeles, and asked if he could apply for a job at his local grocer Vons.

“I wanted to go to the movies and get something to eat and not look lame. I had to have a little extra chicken on me,” Holiday said. “So, I tried. But my mom was like, ‘No, school is your job.’ So I ended up not having a job.”

But, when the women’s tennis team was looking for a manager, Toya volunteered her son. At the time, Holiday couldn’t tell a drop shot from a kick serve.

Holiday was one of the best basketball players in the country, but this was a new experience. He was no longer a star player. His job was to grab sandwiches and pack bags. He learned to sacrifice and do the things no one else wanted to do for the betterment of the team.

“We got out of school early, we’d go to Santa Barbara all the time, and I’m around a bunch of women, so I’m not mad,” Holiday said. “I got a state ring out of it. It was fun.”

As tennis manager, Holiday wasn’t on the court, so he had to find ways to build bonds away from it. By the time he got to the NBA years later, it was natural.

Giannis Antetokounmpo remembers one night in Abu Dhabi when they sat on the team bus until the crack of dawn, watching the desert sun begin to rise.

“We were just talking about life,” Antetokounmpo told The Athletic. “He was really open in how they were dealing with some things and how they can help us not deal with that stuff. They had such good advice for me and my career and my life moving forward.”

That night, “they” meant Jrue and his wife, Lauren, former star of the U.S. national soccer team. Through their experiences in sports and life, the Holidays have gained a unique perspective and take time to share it.

“I’m just learning that basketball isn’t everything,” Holiday said. “I’m learning that sometimes people are going through things and you might not know because of how strong they are. Like Giannis is one of those types. Not just Giannis, but I feel like men in general, it’s hard for us to kind of open up and do all that. Building the chemistry and getting to know people and their life story, I feel like that opens up a gateway of sharing things that they might be going through at the time.”

Holiday’s Milwaukee Bucks teammates called him the missing piece of their championship run three years ago. It wasn’t just for how he defended. It was how he kept the locker room together and helped his teammates grow on and off the court.

After years of coming up short, the Boston Celtics brought him in to do the same thing.

But he doesn’t do it alone. When you trade for Holiday, you trade for Lauren too. He and Lauren welcomed teammates into their family, hosting dinners and doing community service. They sought to intertwine their lives away from the game.

“It’s almost synonymous. I don’t think of Jrue without thinking of Lauren,” former Bucks assistant coach Chad Forcier said. “Just two of my favorite people I’ve ever encountered, like, as humans. Whoever encounters Jrue and Lauren, you just come away feeling better about life, about humanity.”

What Holiday brought to Milwaukee was a sense of community. He helped build chemistry with his teammates.

“I don’t just look at him as a basketball player, man, he was a true friend of mine,” Khris Middleton said. “Off the court, he was able to make everybody around here comfortable by being able to talk to him, being able to hang out, being able to throw anything on him.”

For Holiday, he believes that trust is the foundation for any team sport — it’s difficult to win without it.

“For me, just knowing the person next to me, I trust them and they trust me just as much as I trust them,” he said. “Again, it just makes not only life, but it makes basketball, so much more fun to play.”

Jrue Holiday with Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Milwaukee Bucks. (Rocky Widner / NBAE via Getty Images)

Holiday understood empathy would be a crucial tool for success as he found his way in the NBA, but it wasn’t until he watched his wife’s career arc as a soccer star that it fully clicked. Lauren and Jrue Holiday met when they were both athletes at UCLA. She had seen a fan mistake him for his Bruins teammate Darren Collison and wanted to say something encouraging.

“He was like, ‘Dang, I really look like Darren Collison?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, you’re cuter than Darren,’” Lauren said.

By the time she left UCLA, she was already a starter on the national team and had become one of the top American players at the 2011 World Cup. When she sprained her ankle in the final and had to be subbed off at halftime as Japan went on to win on penalties, it became a defining moment in both of their careers.

“My wife is the winner in our family, which I’m not sure people know,” Jrue Holiday said. “I got to experience one of the best teams, one of the best players get to the top and not reach the goal they wanted. Just how she reacted, it made her even hungrier. (In) 2012, she won the Olympic gold medal and then she went on to win the 2015 World Cup and she retired. Seeing that competitive nature out of her, seeing how she bounced back, people don’t really know she’s that type of beast, and I think having that in my household, seeing it firsthand, helped a lot.”

“It’s funny because I feel like when I was going through the peaks and valleys, he was always my sounding board,” Lauren said. “So for him to say that he’s learned from me is interesting, because I feel like I was constantly learning from him.”

Lauren retired in 2015 to start a family, just as Holiday was trying to get healthy and bring his career on track with the New Orleans Pelicans. They became fixtures in the New Orleans community, founding the JLH Fund as Holiday donated $5 million to initiatives supporting minority communities.

As he entered his prime and started making All-Defensive teams, the Bucks came calling. While the spotlight shone brighter, Lauren was there to keep his ego and life in check.

“She was always there to keep me humble and just to know that in our household, I’m not the best,” Holiday said. “Then through the hard times, she was always there to steer me in the right direction. Helping me in stressful situations, ‘What do I do about basketball?’ She’s just always my support system.”

Holiday’s perspective on life shifted when Lauren faced her biggest challenge. In 2016, a few months before the due date of their first child, doctors discovered Lauren had a brain tumor that would require surgery.

Holiday asked himself, “What do I do about basketball?” The answer was to pause, staying home for the first three weeks of the season to take care of Lauren and their newborn daughter, Jrue Tyler.

“I think Jrue just followed his heart. He was like, ‘I’m absolutely taking time off, and I’m going to be with you,’” Lauren said. “Watching him navigate that, I think he grew tremendously in that time and being able to be like a rock for so many people, I feel like it’s just the epitome of what Jrue is.”

When Holiday joined the Bucks, Donte DiVincenzo was in his third season and coming into his own as a full-time starter. He was the first player Holiday took under his wing in Milwaukee.

“That’s my big brother,” DiVincenzo said. “The second I got to Milwaukee, he embraced me and helped me grow off the court. It’s helped shape who I am now. …Everything escalated so quickly with our friendship.”

As the Bucks’ backcourt partners formed their bond, Lauren was part of the package. When DiVincenzo, who had played on several teams, had to decide his next stop in free agency he reached out to Stephen Curry and Holiday. Both players had become mentors, but it was Lauren who provided good counsel.

“Everybody made a big deal of Steph, but Lauren was a huge voice,” DiVincenzo said. “She is very well respected (by) his closest friends because she’s an athlete, she understands everything and she’s done it herself.”

As DiVincenzo laid out his options to Holiday, the Celtics guard was listening and analyzing every potential outcome.

“Donte called Jrue at midnight and we were in bed. I just said, ‘He has to take the contract,’” Lauren said. “Jrue was like, ‘My wife has spoken.’”

According to Lauren, Holiday is more laid back, while she is more vocal. It’s no surprise then that she took to Instagram to voice her frustration when Holiday was suddenly traded by the Bucks to the Blazers last offseason before landing in Boston.

“What made the decision for me to speak out about it was seeing my daughter cry,” Lauren said.

“I saw how crushed she was. I knew that she would be OK, but I saw the guilt in Jrue’s eyes, that it was almost his fault that she was so devastated.”

Holiday knew the trade was out of his hands. They wanted more of a heads-up from the Bucks, but that’s not how business in the NBA usually works. Seeing his daughter and realizing the toll the trade was taking on his family was hard.

“When you have kids and they’re the most important thing to you, you want to protect them at all costs,” he said. “Sometimes when you feel like the reason somebody is hurting is because of you, especially my daughter, I was heartbroken.”

For the first time in his career, Holiday was not being brought in to reshape the team. In Boston, Holiday’s willingness to adapt would be tested more than at any other point in his career.

In Milwaukee, he was often the Bucks’ primary creator. He guarded the best opposing player almost every night.

But Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla had made it clear in preseason that Derrick White would be the Celtics’ point guard. Holiday’s role would be whatever the team needed it to be. He could go from playing shooting guard to power forward to point guard in a single quarter.

“He finds so much joy in seeing other people succeed that, for him, he understands what that balance is like,” Celtics assistant coach Charles Lee said.

That’s something Al Horford has done in Boston for years. He’s the center whose role was to move the ball, taking the shots whenever he’s open. When Holiday arrived and people wondered how he would adjust to being away from the ball, Horford knew it would work.

“He’s like the ultimate team guy. Like, he really is here to win,” Horford said. “There’s no nonsense with him. But he also knows that we’ve had some success here and the way that I perceive it is he doesn’t want to come in and necessarily step on people’s toes. But he will speak his mind.”

Jrue Holiday has become an integral part of the Celtics this season. (Brian Fluharty / Getty Images)

Holiday has found a home on and off the floor in Boston. When his four-year, $135 million extension was agreed to by the Celtics, he received word while was out at dinner with Lauren and DiVincenzo, now with the Knicks.

“Witnessing that gives you motivation and gives you perspective,” DiVincenzo said. “It just shows you during those moments, what is important to him is his family.”

Unlike DiVincenzo, Holiday has never been a free agent. The league has always chosen his next stop, but he and Lauren have always found a way to make it a home. So when it was time to take a pay cut and sign an extension or test the free-agent market, the decision was simple.

“When it came down to it, he was like, ‘I feel like I’m supposed to be here,’” Lauren said. “Even though it’s different and he’s obviously playing a different role, he was like, ‘I’m not a quitter. I want to be here and I want to see how far we go.’”

Lauren said the second he signed the contract, they discussed how they could help the community. She asked her husband where they wanted to plant their roots, “Because I think for Jrue and I, it feels like home when we’re serving others.”

Then as the playoffs began shortly after his extension, Holiday was scoring in the single digits, but Boston was still rolling. It didn’t matter.

“As long as I’ve known Jrue, he couldn’t care less about accolades,” Lauren said. “It holds no weight for him. I think the only thing he cares about is how his teammates feel about him.”

Most of his teammates refer to him as their brother. He’s garnered many fans among his teammates — past and present — in the league.

“His positive energy in the locker room, his talent being able to play both sides of the floor, put us in a position to be successful,” Antetokounmpo said.

“I wish him the best in his journey with Boston. They got a good one.”

The Celtics brought him in to win the title. Playing to win and sacrificing for the team, is what Holiday has built his career on.

“I think championships are going to be important to him, but I think it’s how has he made other people better and seen their success?” Lee said. “There’s no phony to him. That’s the best part. … He’s just so confident in who he is and it’s hard to find.”

So when he eventually retires and moves to the next phase in his life, he could pursue a coaching job or go to TV. When Holiday speaks, people listen.

For the first time in a long time, he’ll get to choose where his fresh start lies. But Lauren insists there’s still one job that has been waiting for him since they met 15 years ago.

“You want to know what his dream job is? He wants to bag groceries at Vons. I’m not kidding you,” Lauren said. “From the time I met him, he told me that he used to beg his mom to get him a job at Vons to bag groceries. Let me tell you, when we go to the grocery store, Jrue is packing our bags.”

Holiday’s mom knew bagging groceries would get him a little extra money to go out, but managing the tennis team would pay off in the long run. He might finally get his wish. But, as always, it won’t just be for him.

Like with Antetokounmpo and so many others he’s guided over the years, he’ll try to show his kids the way. Then they’ll forge their own path.

“Maybe I’ll take my kids with me,” Holiday said. “They need a little hard living. My kids are really spoiled, so maybe they need to go and serve other people more. I do my best to try to get them to, but you know how kids are. They end up doing their own thing. You never know.”

(Photo illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photo: Christopher Polk, David L. Nemec / Getty Images)

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