By Cody Westerlund–
(CBS) The realization hit Bulls wing Justin Holiday not long after he agreed to return to Chicago.
“Kind of weird to say, I think I’m one of the oldest people on the team, which is a first for me,” Holiday said.
Holiday’s words, past and role are symbolic of where the Bulls now reside amid an organizational rebuild. After a winding career path that has included him going undrafted in 2011 and playing in Belgium, Hungary and the then-named Developmental League, the 28-year-old Holiday figures to take on a leadership role for a young Chicago team. Holiday is the third-oldest player on the roster, and it’s in the realm of possibility that he’s the oldest by season’s end. Buyout speculation has swirled around the 35-year-old Dwyane Wade, while the 29-year-old Robin Lopez is a future trade chip.
“I can fall into some type of leadership role to help some of the younger guys because I have been through so much,” Holiday said on a conference call Tuesday. “Not saying I’m the main guy or this and that, just saying I know I can help the young guys especially getting through a season and dealing with certain situations that might not go your way because I have been through so much.”
Holiday certainly experienced a wild 2016-’17 season. After spending a few months with the Bulls after being acquired in a deadline deal in February 2016, Holiday was dealt to the Knicks as part of the Derrick Rose trade in June 2016. It was an eventful stint in New York, with star Carmelo Anthony and then-president Phil Jackson openly feuding and a series of Knicks dramas causing external chaos in a 31-51 season.
Holiday stayed out of those frays, focusing on himself. Individually, he got what he wanted: a chance to play regularly. He averaged 7.7 points and shot 35.5 percent on 3-pointers while playing in all 82 games.
That performance and Holiday’s professionalism attracted the attention of the Bulls, who aren’t in the business of spending big money or adding high-level veterans as they’ve embarked on a rebuild. The 6-foot-6 Holiday projects to be in the rotation and said he can fit in at shooting guard or small forward.
Holiday’s two-year deal was for a reported $9 million, stability he earned after a long journey. He’s played on nine different teams since leaving the University of Washington in 2011 — and that number is higher if you count short Summer League and training camp stints.
“I look back and see where I came from and see where I am and I’m just thankful,” Holiday said. “I’m blessed to be in this situation that I am in now. The one thing that does feel good to have especially with the career I’ve had is to be wanted somewhere and for Chicago to want me — and even other teams. To be able to get to that point and know that you’ve worked hard to get there, it is a great feeling. But at the same time, I guess because of everything I’ve been through, I know I’m not done yet. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied as a basketball player. There’s a certain fire I have because of all the things I’ve gone through. Regardless of me being stable somewhere and being in a place I want to be in, that fire will never leave me. So I do know that I’m going to give my all every time I’m on the floor because I have been on the other side. I know what it’s like not to be in the NBA, so I would never take that for granted.”
In choosing to return to Chicago, Holiday was undeterred by the Bulls’ rebuild.
“The funny thing is I’ve struggled my whole career to get to where I am, so that’s something I can handle very well,” Holiday said. “It’s going to be a learning process for everyone. We don’t know how bad. Everyone assumes it’s going to be very tough for us, but that’s what makes you grow. How you get through the tough times that makes you grow into the player and people we’re supposed to become. It’s not the good times that mold you. It’s the times you struggle and how you deal with it and how you face that. I think we’re going to come with the approach of whatever struggles we get hit with, we’re going to get through it as a team and try to learn as a team and move forward that way.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.