Jan. 15, 2009
By Brian Tom
Justin Holiday arrived at the University of Washington last year as a wide-eyed freshman just hoping to adapt to life away from home for the first time and help the Husky basketball team win.
In that first year, for the most part, Holiday was relegated to the bench, where he learned the intricacies of playing at the collegiate level. He managed to appear in 19 games for the Huskies, averaging under a point in just six minutes per game - not exactly eye-popping numbers.
Fast-forward to Holiday's sophomore season and the numbers are still not jaw-dropping. But, anyone who closely follows Husky basketball can appreciate what Holiday brings to the table game in and game out. Simply put, Holiday just shows up to work and gets the job done when called upon.
"I'll do whatever it takes to win, and so far this season it's working," said Holiday. "I just wanted to be a better player this year and help the team out. Right now I'm getting a little more time and I'm happy with my role."
Holiday may not fill up the stat sheet, but he does the little things that draw praise from his teammates, and most importantly, coach Lorenzo Romar. On the defensive end, it is his ability to shut down the opposition's best player or block a shot that makes him so valuable. On the other end, it may be a key offensive rebound and put-back basket. Whatever the contribution, Holiday has made it very hard for Romar to keep him on the bench.
In the Huskies' first two losses of the season to Portland and Kansas, Holiday played sparingly, four and eight minutes respectively. In seven of the other first nine games in which the Huskies went 6-1, he played at least 10 minutes, including five games with 18 minutes or more. Holiday even raised some eyebrows in the box score when he grabbed 11 rebounds and scored six points (both career highs at the time) against Cleveland State.
"Justin is a lot like [former Los Angeles Laker] Michael Cooper," said Romar, referring to the five-time NBA champion, who he also compares favorably to former Husky Bobby Jones. "He does the little things that don't show up in the box score but are necessary for teams to win."
Like Cooper, Holiday possesses a rail-thin physique and has never been known for posting huge numbers. Cooper averaged just 8.9 points per game, but he lasted 12 years in the NBA and was a fan favorite for his ability to shut down the opponent's best players.
The comparisons don't stop at Cooper for Holiday.
"I call him the fireman," said Justin Dentmon. "He goes out and shuts down the hot player for the other team - kind of putting out fires."
"Justin told me about that one after he announced it to the media," said a laughing Holiday. "You know, if that is what other people think, then it is fine with me."
One comparison that is almost inevitable is the one to his younger brother, Jrue, who is a freshman at UCLA. The irony is that of the three - Cooper, a fireman, or Jrue - the similarities to his baby brother may be the least fitting.
Jrue's style is quite different than that of his older brother. Jrue is more of a pure scorer and shooter, and is also about three inches shorter than his big brother. While their styles may be markedly different, it didn't stop the brothers from carrying out epic battles on the basketball courts.
Their competitive nature got so bad at one point, the siblings were "asked" not to play one-on-one as kids. But Justin downplayed the rivalry, saying that they enjoyed competing together more than against each other.
"We'd fight, just like any other siblings would, but it was more when we were younger," explained Holiday. "But as far as sports, we wouldn't play against each other much. Instead, we'd be on the same team and beat everybody else."
The dynamic Holiday duo tore up the competition at Campbell Hall, a private school in Chatsworth, Calif. They won the Division IV state titles during Justin's senior and sophomore seasons. Each picked up numerous accolades and had their choices of colleges to attend. Ultimately, they ended up at different universities, but in the same conference.
After playing together for so long, the brothers will have to face each other at least twice this season. If Justin is considered to be like Michael Cooper, then Jrue may be Larry Bird. Bird did say that Cooper was the toughest defender he faced in his NBA days, so who could be better prepared to guard Jrue than his own brother?
Justin won't seek out coach Romar and request the defensive assignment of guarding Jrue when the time comes. He would prefer to just stick to his role.
"I would gladly guard him," said Justin about the prospects of facing Jrue. "But, if I need to shut down somebody else, I would be fine guarding them. Whatever I can do to help the team win, I'm able and willing."
Don't expect to see Holiday jumping into burning buildings anytime soon - but he is more than ready to jump into ball games to extinguish the opponent's best player. Like a fireman, it is not about the glory for Holiday: it is about doing a small role and getting the job done.