Retired soccer player Lauren Holiday was getting ready to welcome her first child when she received some terrible news. And when husband Jrue Holiday heard it, his reaction may have surprised her. That’s because Jrue made a move that matched any that he had laid down on the court in his career as a top basketballer.
The two must be one of the world’s most athletic couples, with Lauren a star in the U.S. women’s soccer team and Jrue a point guard for the New Orleans Pelicans. Having first met at UCLA when they were students, the couple had discovered romance together and tied the knot in July 2013.
Now it’s September 2016, and Lauren is going to have to call on all of her experience as an on-field warrior in a huge fight off the pitch. As pundit Christine Brennan put it to ABC News, “Everything that Lauren Holiday has been through as an athlete will make her tougher and stronger during these difficult times.” But, thankfully, she won’t have to do it alone.
A native of Indianapolis, Indiana, Lauren had played soccer from a young age. Up till age 12, she’d had to play with boys, but soon she was winning awards in girls’ soccer. Throughout high school, she’d smash in goals and make them for others as a star offensive player, leaving school midyear to join up with the national U-20 team.
By 2006 Lauren had signed up at UCLA, where the awards continued to flow. The budding star’s special talent as an attacker saw her break goals records, and she became the university’s highest scorer. Lauren’s prodigious talent would see her recognized as an All-American in all four years of college, and she was the first player to achieve that.
From there, Lauren moved into a glittering career with the national team. She scored gold twice at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012 and then was a member of the 2011 World Cup team that finished runners-up. Her career in soccer then enjoyed its pinnacle when she was a member of the 2015 World Cup-winning side.
However, Lauren called an end to her soccer career. She told Vox in 2015 that she yearned for “a new chapter of my life. I feel like this team isn’t my identity, it’s my choice. I think there’s power in making a choice. I chose this team for 10 years, and now I’m going to choose my family.”
Lauren had made her choice because trying to juggle a relationship and a career had become too difficult. Having to travel with the national team just meant she could only spend about seven days a month with her husband Jrue. That wasn’t enough, and it would become even harder if she hoped to have a family with him.
Lauren told Vice about how things had been in 2015, saying, “Jrue’s been phenomenal. He’s been to every major tournament of mine. I haven’t been able to reciprocate for him. So I think what I look forward to most is being able to be there. When he has a tough game, or something to celebrate, he can come home, and I’ll be there.”
For his part, Jrue, born in the L.A. suburb of Chatsworth, California, had first caught the eye in high school in Studio City, CA, ranking as the nation’s best high-school player. He’d then had a stellar season with the UCLA Bruins, which was enough for him to score an NBA draft spot and waive his final three years of college.
In the 2009 NBA draft, Jrue was taken 17th by the Philadelphia 76ers. For the next few years, he performed at an ever-increasing level, and in 2013 he became the youngest player on the team to ever to be chosen as an All-Star. Furthermore, around that same time he posted a career-best 35 points against the New York Knicks.
Jrue’s time with the Philly team came to an end in the summer of 2013, when it traded him to the New Orleans Pelicans. Sadly for the youngster, his season was cut short after he suffered a stress fracture of his right shin that needed surgery in February 2014.
Jrue and Lauren got together when both were students at UCLA, after meeting at a women’s basketball match. It’s there that Lauren paid Jrue a cute compliment, and they soon became pals. Friendship in turn grew into romance a while later, with the two somehow slotting each other into burgeoning sports careers, until finally, in July 2013 they tied the knot.
It wasn’t too long after her July 2015 retirement from soccer that Lauren fell pregnant with her first child. But although she had enjoyed a smooth ride with pregnancy, she started to suffer severe headaches, which later turned into facial numbness on her right side. Worried, she sought medical attention, and she soon found out that she had a brain tumor.
When checked out by MRI, Lauren could see the tumor sat on her face’s right-hand side, close to her eye. It turned out that she had a meningioma, a tumor of the membranes that enclose the brain. Although they tend to be benign, meningiomas can still pose a severe danger if they’re allowed to grow.
Dr. John Boockvar, who is director of Lenox Hill Hospital’s Brain Tumor Center, explained to ABC News in 2016 that meningiomas could not just be ignored. He said, “Meningiomas are the most common benign tumor in humans. Just because they’re benign doesn’t mean they don’t cause trouble. Meningiomas can be harmful if they get too big.”
That Lauren should fall ill was an odd twist of fate, since husband Jrue had struggled with injuries throughout his time with the Pelicans. After the shin problem in 2014, the next year had seen a break in his eye socket that brought his season to an end. So, fit and well, he was raring to go for the 2016–17 season.
Now the pair faced the terrible news that Lauren would need surgery. Doubtless their first question was about the baby, but doctors could reassure them that its well-being was not brought into question by the tumor. And they’d be able to cut the growth out, leaving Lauren perfectly able to return to good health.
However, Lauren couldn’t have the surgery before she’d had the baby, which was due mid-October. And that meant that she’d be having the operation and getting over it while Jrue was on court around the U.S. So the point guard made a stunning decision; despite having regained his own full health, he’d give up basketball so that he could be there for wife and child.
Jrue explained his decision to New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune in September 2016. He said, “My family comes before basketball. I’m obviously blessed to play this game and be in the position I am in, but my wife is the most important thing in the world to me. She comes before anything else.”
The basketball star continued, “Obviously, we were and are still very excited about the birth of our first child, but our focus shifted from having this magnificent blessing to making sure everything is going to be okay with Lauren and the child. Our priorities right now are being able to manage Lauren’s symptoms and still have a fairly healthy pregnancy.”
Once he’d made the decision, Jrue then shared it with his family. Mom Toya explained to official site Pelicans.com in 2017, “He came to us and said, ‘You know, with Lauren being ill, I have to talk to the Pelicans and tell them that I’m going to be with my wife.’” And he was well aware that this might be the end of his basketball career.
But Jrue’s parents could not have been prouder of him. Mom Toya apparently told the basketball star, “Hey, we’re standing behind you. It’s not a big deal. You can go back to school. We’re good with that.” Jrue’s mother added, “I was really proud of him, because he could have ran away from that.”
The Pelicans’ top brass’ response was astonishing: not only did they get right behind him, but they confirmed that they’d be okay with him missing preseason and the start of the season. The management team also got together with Jrue in August 2016 to figure out the way forward with him.
In a statement, head coach Alvin Gentry said, “The most important thing for Jrue to do right now is be with his wife and family.” And the former stressed the togetherness of the Pelicans, adding, “Every one of our coaches and players understands what Lauren and Jrue are going through, and they know we’re behind them 100 percent. We’ll continue to do everything we can to support them and help them get through these hard times.”
In the meantime, general manager Dell Demps echoed those thoughts. In a separate statement, he wrote, “We encourage Jrue to take as much time as he needs to be with his wife and family before returning to the Pelicans.” He confirmed that the franchise’s owners put the well-being of their people first, adding, “We understand that Jrue will miss some games, and his teammates are prepared to step up in his absence.”
As it happens, Dell had a special insight into what Jrue had been going through. His own spouse, Anita, had fought through cancer of the ovary and had a tumor excised from her brain a few years before. And the Pelicans organization was no stranger to tragedy; one of the team’s players was sadly shot dead in 2013.
Naturally, Jrue appreciated the backing that the organization had given him. He told the Times-Picayune, “The Pelicans have been great. There wasn’t any pressure to be with the team or to choose between my team and my wife. They told me to be a husband first. I don’t think they know how much their support means to me and my family.”
Support also came in from elsewhere, with Lauren’s former teammates sharing their thoughts. Becky Sauerbrunn, who had also played alongside Lauren at F.C. Kansas City, told ABC News, “She’s just a very resilient, strong person and she has strong faith, and that’s helping her in keeping her strong during this time, because it is scary.”
Another fellow F.C. Kansas City and national team star, Heather O’Reilly, expressed the backing that the world of soccer offered Lauren. She added, “We’re there for her. We’re all behind her. That’s kind of what times like these sort of show, is how close-knit this soccer community is.”
Two months after she had received the diagnosis, Lauren had her baby. Her daughter was in good health, scaling a bit more than six pounds. Mom and dad named the newborn Jrue after her father. And once the birth had passed off, it was time for the serious business of beginning Lauren’s return to health.
Because doctors wanted to get at the tumor as quickly as possible, Lauren had not been able to let her pregnancy run its natural course. She had undergone an induction to allow Jrue Jr. to be born a little early. However, neither mom nor baby was any the worse for the procedure.
A month after her birth, Lauren then went in for surgery at Duke University Hospital. Cutting out a meningioma can be difficult work, as surgeons need to excise as much as possible of the tumor while avoiding cutting vital parts of the nervous system. After the surgery, Lauren faced the prospect of radiation therapy to attack any remaining bits of tumor.
Lauren showed off her child in an Instagram post at the time, in which she shared what she had been through. She wrote, “I have never quite known suffering like I experienced the last six months. I can remember countless nights repeating ‘there may be pain in the night but joy comes in the morning.’ I remember half believing it and half still in disbelief that this was my life.”
Lauren continued by telling her followers how she had relied on her faith. She wrote, “I memorized scripture and some days my faith felt unshakable and others I was scared to death. Every time I see this smile I’m reminded that joy does come in the morning. Maybe not the next day, maybe not even the next month but it comes. I can’t imagine what heaven will be like if this is the joy I get to experience on earth. Psalm 30:5.”
Then on Mother’s Day Lauren shared a picture of herself, noting, “I have been hiding myself from a camera for the past seven months. I didn’t want anyone to see my paralyzed face, my eye that is now crossed, the bald spots from radiation and my half shaved head. Granted you can’t see any of those things in this picture, just a patch… it’s a huge step.”
Once Lauren was back on her feet, her husband Jrue could then return to basketball. And he did so with a vengeance, beating his career tops for shooting, scoring and rebounding. His experience had taught him a lesson in humility, though, and he batted away the high praise his stellar performances gained for him.
Jrue told USA Today, “I have people in my circle who tell me all the time how good they think I am, which I’m just going to say is my wife.” He then went on to explain how valuable he found her opinion because “she’s probably the most successful athlete in my family.”
And Jrue had gained another huge fan: daughter Jrue Jr. The former said, “She loves seeing me at certain instances in the game – if there’s a timeout, or there’s a break – and I can look up to her and wave at her and blow a kiss. I think there’s joy in just knowing that my family’s okay. Being able to know that my home life is fine, I feel like it reflects the way that I play.”
At the time of writing, Jrue is preparing for the 2019–20 season. And his comfort in his family’s well-being seems to be reflected in a player who could prove to be one of the NBA’s best. Having gotten past Lauren’s surgery, he’s ready to move on to new highs. And doubtless there’ll be quite a few kisses for little Jrue Jr. too.