"My background was rough," Holley said shaking his head. "When you are a little kid with unfit parents--you're father didn't want you and your mother was on drugs--I was left alone and I had a younger brother I had to take care of. It grounded me, but it was still a burden on me that I had. Everybody else was going outside to play after school, and I had to go bag groceries at the corner store for some pocket change to buy lunch meat to take to my little brother.
"It was rough, but it was a life lesson. It helped me to be a leader and get through a lot. It makes life now a whole lot easier. People say this stuff is hard, but I say, 'If you went through what I went through, this stuff is easy. You should love to be here at a university like this with so much rich tradition.'
"People said that if I hadn't pulled my act together I'd have been either dead or in jail by age 16. My grandmother took us in and made things happen and turned it all around. I got into high school, started playing ball, and started liking sports."
And play sports he did. At Abraham Clark High School in Roselle, New Jersey--known locally as "Roselle," but not to be confused with Roselle Park--Holley became a two-sport star. He is currently the school's all-time leader in receptions (106), receiving yards (1,449) and touchdown catches (27) in football and the all-time leading scorer in basketball with 1,741 points over his four-year career. As a senior he averaged 22.0 points, 6.5 assists, 4.2 steals, and 7.2 rebounds on the hardwood (78% FT) (48.5% 3-pt).
Now he wants to do the same in college. As Holley's high school basketball coach, Stan Kokie was involved in Holley's college recruitment from his list of five finalists: Notre Dame, Virginia, UCLA, Ohio State, and UNC. "He can play Division I without a doubt," Kokie said. "He is one of the few who can play either sport at any school that recruited him… But he's more motivated to play football."
Through eight football games as a Tar Heel, the 6-3 (Author's Note: He looks closer to 6-1 than his listed height of 6-3) 190-pound wideout has made six catches and scored two touchdowns, averaging almost 12 yards per game, and he hopes to join the basketball team after the final football game against Duke on November 22. This was an agreement he reached with Head Coach John Bunting and former Head Coach Matt Doherty during the recruiting process, but he wasn't sure if that carried over when Roy Williams was hired in April.
"I wanted to call up and make sure everything was copacetic with Coach Williams," Holley said. "I had a meeting with Coach [Joe] Holladay and Coach [Jerod] Haase and talked to them on the phone. He said that once I'm done with football he has no problem with me making the switch."
Williams has cautious expectations about Holley on the hardwood.
"I met Jesse and told him we'd do what Matt told him he'd do," Williams said, "but I have no idea [what to expect from him]. He's a very gifted athlete--I can see that on the football field--but there's a huge difference between being an athlete and a basketball player. If he's good enough, I will welcome him with open arms. If he's not good enough, I will tell him he should stay in the weight room [for football]."
Bunting said, "I think there is only one problem with a two-sport guy, and that is spring ball. Depending upon the position he plays [determines] how it all sorts out. A quarterback--I think it was hard for Ronald Curry to do two sports. I think just about any other position can handle it, and I encouraged Jesse to come here and play both sports."
According to Holladay, there's room on the basketball team for Holley, no matter what the role.
"If it's OK with Coach Bunting and Jesse has his full--not permission--but he's happy that he's going, we would let him come over here for a couple weeks and see how it goes. If he's going to be good enough to contribute and help us, and he's happy with contributing at whatever level that might be--I'm not saying he'd play a lot or he might play no minutes--but contribute in practice and he's happy with that, we will find a spot for him on the team.
"If he comes over for a couple of weeks and it's a no-brainer that he won't be able to go anywhere then he needs to go back to football and get with his other peers and start working on next year, off-season. That would be worked out between Coach [Williams] and Coach Bunting, but we would honor what Coach Doherty said."
Holley already has plans to begin the transition when he goes home over the Thanksgiving break. "I plan to get in the gym a little bit, put a few shots up, run some wind sprints, and get the feeling of moving from the grass to the hardwood and just kind of get my mojo back," he said. "Getting stronger and lifting in the weight room, your shot changes a little bit, so I'm going to get in there for a couple of hours while I'm home. I already talked to my basketball coach at home to give me the keys to the gym and let me go in there and do what I have to do. Hopefully, when I come back I can get into the groove of things."
"I play the 'one' and the 'two,'" Holley added. "I was talking to Coach Haase and Coach Holladay and they don't really have a back-up for Ray Felton. They have Melvin Scott, who is primarily a shooting guard, so he said if my point guard skills are what they are looking for, I will have a chance to back up Ray Felton. We know he doesn't come out of the game much, but my five minutes to shine is needed somewhere."
But it's going to take a lot of work once he returns. He will have missed almost two months of basketball practice during the season, on top of all of the preseason individual workouts. He'll be way behind with a lot of ground to make up, in addition to his academics and obligations to football. The odds of success aren't in his favor--again.
"That's what drives me," Holley said with a look of determination. "When people say, 'I don't know if you can do it. That's a lot of work,' I just say that life is a lot of work and I'm doing it now. This is like second-nature--just do it and overcome it."
But he knows it's a zero-sum proposition. There may not be enough time to fulfill all of his obligations. One sport, plus academics, is difficult enough for most student-athletes. Two sports might not be manageable, assuming he's good enough to contribute. And if he has to give up the notion of being a basketball player?
"I'd have to face that," Holley said. "I'd take that and go with it. I don't expect it because I'm coming to work hard. But if it happens, it happens. If I can say I gave my best effort and put in 150 percent in learning the system and it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. I still have football… My football scholarship pays the bills. It houses me, feeds me, and gets me everything I [need]. If I don't get my academics in order, I'm not here anymore. It's academics, football, and basketball, in that order."
J.B. Cissell can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.