After caring for wife and newborn, Jrue Holiday returns to help Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS — Expectant parents do not ask for much. Well, truthfully, they ask for a miracle: A stress-free and safe nine-month pregnancy, followed by a few hard pushes, a pair of sterile surgeon hands firm as a catcher’s mitt, a quick spank, followed by cries. Lots and lots of cries, from everyone involved in the process.

In that way, Jrue and Lauren Holiday were your normal husband and wife, only difference being the father was a solid NBA guard with an All-Star appearance on his resume while the mother was a former US national team member and one of the most decorated soccer players born on this soil. And then there was an additional twist. A cruel one, actually.

This summer and fall, Lauren was not only pregnant with their first child but coping with a brain tumor that put them all in peril. And so, what do you do in that situation, when joy intersects with fear, when there’s no way of knowing how this will end and there’s no blueprint on how to deal with it all?

“You pray,” said Jrue Holiday.

Of course. Therefore, after three months of pleading with the man upstairs, Holiday’s knees are perhaps battered and wearing scar tissue after hitting the floor for so many nights. Luckily, that was about the only concern when Holiday reported Thursday to the New Orleans Pelicans following his sabbatical to be with his family.

That’s because they are fine, he says. The mother. The child, a daughter. And a basketball player who, to be honest, finally discovered what real pressure felt like for the first time in his otherwise charmed life.

“I’m blessed, man,” he said. “Blessed to have my family back, blessed that we’re OK. So blessed for the support from especially the team. I can’t even explain how much they were there for me and my family through everything. Anything we needed, they provided for us. Players came down, coaches came down. The fans, so many prayers and supporters. Unbelievable.

“Obviously you don’t know what goes on while you’re in it. It’s stressful. I’m excited to be back. This team was there for me and my family. A lot of people were. I just can’t put it on one group of people. So many showed faith and support.”

The words, his first spoken in public on the subject since Lauren’s diagnosis, came tumbling out Thursday and Holiday looked … relieved. And at peace.

“He’s in a really good place,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “For him it’s just good to be back. It wasn’t a physical injury that kept him away so he’s been dying to get out and play.”

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Best 3 years of my life. I love you.

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Jrue and Lauren met eight years ago at UCLA, where they attended college together, and as the story goes, it happened at a women’s basketball game. He was approached by an autograph-seeking girl who mistook him for Darren Collison, his Bruin teammate. When Holiday gave the girl the bad news, she walked away. Just then, someone seated behind him offered words of encouragement.

“Don’t worry, you’re cuter than Darren,” Lauren Cheney wisecracked.

Hearing this the other day, Collison laughed. He and Holiday formed one of the country’s better backcourts and both left early for the NBA. Now with the Sacramento Kings, Collison knew fairly quickly the couple had long-term potential.

“I know Jrue liked her a lot and when I talked with him one time, he was contemplating marriage,” Collison said. “Sure enough, they got married about a year or so later. It was a good match. He came from an athletic family (Jrue’s older brother, Justin, plays for the Knicks) and she obviously was very athletic in her own right.”

Relatively quiet then, but upbeat now, Holiday’s personality and character were valued first by the Sixers, who drafted him, and currently by the Pelicans, who are desperate for him given their poor start to the season. It was easy to see what Lauren liked about him.

“Jrue is very charismatic,” said Collison. “Always fun to be around. He stays positive and carefree.”

Lauren Holiday made All-American all four years at UCLA, then embarked on a pro career that also made her a fixture on the USA national team starting in 2007 and earned international glow. She won Olympic gold in Beijing and London, along with World Cup gold and silver, then called it a career last year to start raising a family.

Nearly five months into pregnancy, a benign tumor was discovered and their lives were thrown temporarily into chaos.

“When I found out what they were going through,” said Collison, “I was like everyone else. I was hurt. I can only imagine the toll it had to take on him, because he’s a guy who’s all about family. I know he didn’t want to be anyplace else but with her during this time.”

Holiday skipped training camp and missed the first 12 games of the season while the family was stationed in North Carolina near the Duke University specialists who handled her condition. Their daughter, Jrue Tyler Holiday, was delivered in late September. Then last month, Lauren underwent surgery to remove the tumor.

“Through it all,” said Jrue Holiday, “we kept praying the surgeons could handle the tumor, and they did. It went great.”

He kept most details about her current condition private, as expected, but added Lauren will undergo rehab and therapy. She’s in the care of family members now, and Holiday felt secure enough to leave and resume his NBA career.

“She let me come back,” he said. “She can take care of herself and my daughter. My absence was really for me to see where my wife was and her recovery. Since she’s doing so well, and my family and her family are there to help out, I felt comfortable being back and comfortable leaving them. Obviously, I’m going to miss them.”

There are pressing basketball issues, microscopic by comparison. The Pelicans are sweeping the basement in the West at 2-10, the worst record in basketball, and Anthony Davis, their terrifically talented big man, is being swallowed up by the misery. New Orleans always seems to be missing key players with injuries and are currently waiting on Quincy Pondexter and Tyreke Evans to fully recover. They’re especially thin in the backcourt and therefore Holiday’s absence was painful; he’s a 6-5 combo guard who brings a reliable jumper and solid court vision and fits at home anywhere.

“He’s a big part of what we do,” said Gentry. “Everyone on the team likes and respects him. It’s great to have him back. And he needed to be in an atmosphere like this. He’s been through a tough time.”

Collison said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans begin to surge once his ex-college teammates rounds into NBA shape and gets his rhythm back. Holiday averaged 16.8 points and six assists last season and seemed to revert back to his All-Star form of a few years earlier, in a career often interrupted by injuries.

“I love his work ethic and I know from experience that Jrue’s a tremendous teammate for them,” he said. “Great player to have on your team, someone who’s unselfish, maybe to a fault.”

Holiday said: “I’m going to come back and fight for them the way they supported me.”

So there’s more of a sense of normalcy for a player and a father and a husband who dealt with an unusual and frantic few months. Starting tonight against the Trail Blazers, he’s back on the floor and in his professional element. The team will also grant him a personal leave whenever he deems it necessary. He no longer has only one person to check on at home. He has two.

And how was it, holding your first born, for the first time? Well, it was about what you’d imagine.

“I hadn’t experienced anything like it,” he said. “It was crazy. Friends say it changes your life. It does. Especially having a baby girl.”

After a pause, Jrue Holiday then spoke for two when he added: “She’s beautiful.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him onTwitter.

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