Ball Is in Pittsburgh Native's Court

Russian national team guard J.R. Holden looking to attack Thursday against Lithuania in a practice game in Moscow. (Vladimir Filonov / MT)
Sep 13, 2005
The Moscow Times

By Carl Schreck

His Russian is confined to a few curse words typically reserved for off-target jump shots, and when the Soviet national team was capturing Olympic gold in 1988, he was barely aware that basketball existed outside of the United States.

But despite his linguistic limitations and a distinctly un-Russian basketball pedigree, American basketball player J.R. Holden, a Pittsburgh native and naturalized Russian citizen, will lead a talented young Russian national team into the European basketball championships this week as his adopted country seeks to rejoin the game's international elite.

Holden, who obtained Russian citizenship almost two years ago and has established himself as one of the best point guards in Europe in three seasons with CSKA Moscow, will become the first American ever to compete for a Soviet or Russian national team when he suits up Friday for Russia to play Ukraine in Vrsac, Serbia-Montenegro, in the opening round of Eurobasket 2005, which will run through Sept. 25.

A national team led by a black American point guard might cause the more jingoistic Russian fans to wince, but Holden has been praised as a consummate professional by his Russian coaches and teammates, who have welcomed the addition of a speedy floor general who complements the athletic trio of young NBA forwards that form the core of the team: team captain Andrei Kirilenko of the NBA's Utah Jazz and Viktor Khryapa and Sergei Monya, both of whom are under contract with the Portland Trail Blazers.

According to Kirilenko, a former CSKA standout and an NBA All-Star with Utah two years ago, head coach Sergei Babkov has given Holden carte blanche to attack the basket and provide much-needed scoring.

"He is one of the three best point guards in Europe, and without a doubt he will strengthen our team," Kirilenko, 24, said of Holden at a news conference last week. "He knows how to play, and we've had no problems understanding one another on or off the floor."

Holden said he had a seamless integration into the team, which he joined two weeks ago for a tournament in Turkey, largely thanks to his experience playing at CSKA.

"I've played with a lot of the guys from CSKA and against the other players in the Russian league," Holden said. "They all know me, and I know them. I've even made friends with the guys I've played against, who are usually enemies in the regular season."

A two-time all-league point guard for Bucknell University, the 185-centimeter Holden has flourished at the highest level of European club basketball, leading CSKA to three straight Russian championships and three consecutive appearances in the Euroleague Final Four, Europe's premier club competition.

The drive to naturalize Holden began in early 2003 as a response by the CSKA front office to Russian Basketball Federation regulations limiting the number of foreigners, and U.S. citizens, on the rosters of Russian league teams. With Holden listed as a Russian player, CSKA was able to add an extra hired foreign gun to an already formidable lineup.

CSKA general manager Sergei Kushchenko had an ace up his sleeve when making the case for Holden's new passport, citing article 13.3 in the federal law on citizenship, which states that "a person of special merit before the Russian Federation may be accepted as a citizen of the Russian Federation" regardless of other standard criteria, such as living in Russia for a minimum of five years or knowledge of the Russian language.

Holden's "special merit," Kushchenko stressed, was playmaking skills that would come in handy for a national team desperate for a talented point guard in the prime of his career.

The argument worked.

With letters of support from Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the State Sports Committee, Holden became a Russian citizen on Oct. 20, 2003, by a decree from President Vladimir Putin.

While never excluding the possibility of playing for Russia, Holden remained quiet on the issue after receiving his new passport. He never made any official announcement regarding his participation while training in the United States over the summer, though Sport-Express confirmed with CSKA officials in mid-July that its point guard had decided to play for his adopted country.

Holden prefers to speak in generalities regarding his motivation for playing, saying only that "it was the right situation." He declined to comment on any incentives, financial or otherwise, that the Russian Basketball Federation may have offered him to play, though RBF president Sergei Chernov told Sport-Express that financial compensation in exchange for participation on the national team was "categorically excluded" for any player.

The results of the Holden experiment have been promising so far for the Russian team.

Russia, playing without Holden and Monya, lost an ugly warm-up game to Lithuania in Vilnius last month, but bounced back quickly in a tournament in Turkey after the American joined the squad.

The team went on to win three out of four games in the tournament, including victories over strong Turkish and French squads, and Holden led the team in scoring, averaging 17.3 points per game. In a rematch with Lithuania in Moscow on Thursday, Holden scored 17 points as Russia avenged the loss with a 77-71 victory over the defending European champions.

Success at the 15-team Eurobasket tournament, which will be held in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Vrsac and Podgorica, could help recover some national pride for Russian basketball, which has steadily declined since the crumbling of the Soviet sports machine and its once-formidable basketball school.

From 1947 to 1990, the Soviet national team captured 14 European championships, three world championships, and two gold and four silver medals at the Olympic Games. But Russia's talent pool gradually dried up in the 1990s, as the last generation of Russian players brought up in the Soviet school, including Valery Tikhonenko, Vasily Karasyov, Mikhail Mikhailov and Sergei Bazarevich, grew older and not enough talented young players appeared to replace them

The team finished eighth in the 2000 Sydney Games, and the decline was complete in the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, where it finished 10th, beating only lightweights China, Venezuela and Angola.

An eighth-place finish in the 2003 European Championships in Sweden, which cost the team an Olympic berth, was merely a continuation of the trend.

Holden is not exactly a student of the Soviet tradition, and he paid little attention when the Soviets captured the gold medal in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, beating the United States in the semifinals.

"I was 12 years old, and I didn't even know that they had basketball like that in Europe," he said.

But he has not excluded continuing to help revive Russian basketball. He said he is even planning to finally begin Russian lessons in November to improve his vocabulary beyond a smattering of swear words.

"Now that I'm on the national team, I should at least pick up a few words," he said.

Following the upcoming Eurobasket, Holden's next opportunity to play for Russia at a major competition could come as early as next year at the World Championships in Japan.

Assuming Russia qualifies for the World Championships, the Japan tournament could see Holden defending the Russian tricolor against a United States team loaded with NBA players.

Holden said there would be no conflict of interest in such a matchup.

"I wasn't picked to play for the United States, I was chosen by Russia," he said. "It would make it even more fun to try and beat them and knock them out."

© 2017 Carl Schreck. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

Site Design by Sam Tsohonis