“When I was eight,” Harvard’s normally soft-spoken co-captain says, “that’s when I started playing. I was the only girl on a boys’ team up until sixth grade.”
Years before she headlined a regional powerhouse at Sidwell Friends High School in Maryland, earned the nickname “Smooth Operator” from The Washington Post, and so consistently dominated the Washington, D.C., area’s Independent School League that she earned honorable mention from the famed McDonald’s All-America team; and even longer before she paced the Ivy League in assists, became Harvard’s most dangerous scoring threat, and led the Crimson women’s basketball team to an Ivy title, Holsey accomplished something far more basic, wonderful, and gratifying.
“I played with all the boys in the neighborhood and beat them,” she laughs.
Holsey, who returns to the floor for her final collegiate season, can do it all. She shoots, slashes, passes, and leads. A “combo guard,” as she calls herself, Holsey is arguably the Ivy League’s most multidimensional offensive threat.
So why the sensation that her best is yet to come?
On a recent weekday evening, Holsey is uncannily chirpy about the 2005-06 season of Harvard women’s basketball—and, for once, herself.
“Whatever [position] I’m playing, the one or the two,” she says, “it just feels natural for me.”
To unlock the scary potential of her top returning scorer at 11.9 points per game, head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith has moved Holsey to the shooting guard position—an audacious move, considering that Holsey led the Ivy League in assists with 4.71 per game a year ago. The talented 5’8 passer is now ready to shoot.
“It’s wonderful to see her in her natural position,” Delaney-Smith says. “She’s quicker than ever, she’s more confident, and we love what she’s doing on the floor.”
Helping her cause will be three talented guards—sophomore Lindsay Hallion, who returns from an ACL injury, promising freshman Emily Tay, and steady senior Laura Robinson—who will man the point this season. With the departure of All-Ivy center Reka Cserny, the Crimson will employ a more aggressive, motion-oriented attack that better suits Holsey’s skills.
“I can get passes and create my own offense, and drive and dish?that kind of stuff,” Holsey says. “It’s fun, because I can come off a screen, get it and throw up a shot.”
On a consistent basis, then, fans can expect from Holsey what they saw only in occasional outbursts last year—a 28-point masterpiece against URI, 23 points each against USC and Princeton, a 21-point game against Yale. Now on the wing, Holsey will be less constrained to create her own shot.
“She has the green light, and she’s a kid who’s not taking bad shots,” Delaney-Smith says. “She’s never really taken bad shots. You’ve got to give a player like that the green light. You’ve gotta let her loose.”
* * *
On her way to 2,000 points in the competitive D.C. Independent School circuit, Jessica Holsey didn’t need to learn much.
From her earliest moments on a basketball court, Holsey found the requisite basketball skills within herself.
Her father, Ron, is a restless athlete in his own right. He played basketball and football in high school, and still entertains himself with golf—“all the time now,” she says, exasperated.
“He basically taught me most of what I know,” she says. “If I had a bad game, he would take me out in the back yard and show me what I did wrong. And he always gave me books to read, stuff like that.”
And still, Holsey thrills coaches and observers when she plays within her instincts. Delaney-Smith gives her high marks for reacting to defenses—“rather than react[ing] to a pattern,” she says—and finding open teammates with graceful looks. The coach has said that she believes Holsey’s time at point guard, where taking orders and following set patterns is the norm, “distracts from her natural game.”
And then there’s Holsey’s athleticism. It manifests itself in a slithery move to the basket; an elegant dish to the outside; an effortless jump shot that she hits with startling regularity.
“She’s just smooth, with God-given speed off that first step that just scares people,” Sidwell Friends coach Ann Reninger told The Washington Post in 2002. Holsey was 17 at the time.
“When you have a great first step, you are great,” Reninger added. “You don’t teach that, you don’t learn it, you just perfect it.”
Holsey was already attracting attention in the Washington metro area as early as 1999, when as a 14-year-old she scored 18 points in an ISL championship win against Bullis High School in her hometown of Potomac, Md.
She had played basketball since second grade. But for Holsey, who enjoyed testing her mettle in all kinds of sports while growing up with the neighborhood boys—“baseball, tackle football, basketball,” she says—hoops remained a second thought.
“If you’d asked me when I was younger what I would do,” Holsey says, “I probably would have said I’d play soccer.”
But there was little denying her early basketball talent. In one of her first junior recreational YMCA games for an otherwise all-boy team, she scored four points—“huge, for like a second grade game,” she laughs.
Her coach was infuriated.
“What took you so long to start passing to her?” he asked the squad. “She’s the best player on the team!”
Holsey tells the story with gusto, becoming alternately proud and bashful.
“I just remember that,” she says, smile still glowing. “That’s the only thing I remember.”
* * *
Holsey’s basketball dreams never burned so brightly as they did during her freshman year at Harvard.
The Crimson was well on its way to a perfect Ivy League season and an NCAA Tournament bid. Holsey was doing her part, averaging 15 minutes per game in early action, and even saw significant floor time in a 79-76 stunner of Syracuse, her first collegiate game. She drained two three-pointers and finished with nine points.
Her season, and her budding career, soon went sour. Against Yale, she dislocated her shoulder, the first of four such instances that would ruin her freshman and sophomore years. It was the first time she had been sidelined by even a minor injury.
“Four dislocations in two years really, really changed her game,” Delaney-Smith says. “She was playing with one arm, she was playing in pain and she was playing in fear because her shoulder kept coming out all the time.”
Luckily for Harvard, Holsey’s injury woes—and the balky brace that epitomized two years in basketball purgatory—have become yesterday’s news.
The team’s 2004-05 run to an Ivy League title was a year of new confidence for the junior guard, who won new legions of adoring fans, not the least of whom were her teammates. At times, she carried the team on her back.
“Her calmness really helps us through intense game situations,” says fellow senior Maureen McCaffery, herself a study in clutch cool—her long-range shooting down the stretch helped defeat Dartmouth in March.
“She is never frantic, always level, and she makes all of us feel the same calmness when we play with her.”
And so the countdown closes in on home tip-off. Not even Holsey knows yet what she has in store for Fairfield, the Crimson’s first visitor to Lavietes Pavilion on Nov. 27.
“I actually have learned that I like to rebound,” Holsey says of her new swing role. “I didn’t know that before this year.”
She smiles. The plot thickens. The best, she knows, is most certainly yet to come.
—Staff writer Alex McPhillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.