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The Olympic Games

Holden Out for An Olympic Medal
Text Isabelle Hale
Photos courtesy CSKA
During basketball season, American point guard J.R. Holden starts for CSKA (pronounced tse-SKA), the Russian Army Team, which he helped to win a European championship last May and an all-Russian league championship last June.
This month he’ll be with the Russian Olympic Basketball Team when they take the court in Beijing this month.
But don’t you have to be a Russian citizen to play for the Russian Olympic team?
Short answer: yes.
Long answer: Read on.

An American in Brussels — and Riga and Athens

Growing up, you only think about the NBA. That’s what you see on TV,” said J.R. Holden over Saturday brunch at a trendy Moscow eatery that looked like it could have been plucked out of New York’s West Village. “And going to a smaller university, I didn’t know if I would be playing basketball after college. I went to school to get an education first. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pursue athletics professionally. I’m lucky to be able to wake up every day and play basketball for a living.”

Holden’s road from his hometown of Pittsburgh to Moscow was hardly direct. After earning his degree, J.R. turned down corporate job offers to play (and win a few championships) in Europe. He sees his stints in Latvia, Belgium, and Greece as culturally broadening and an antidote to closed-mindedness, both on and off the court.

For example, in the U.S., there is an assumption that the best players are American or at least play in the NBA. But his international experience has opened his eyes to how many talented players there are in other leagues, he says.

More generally, Holden points out, “Living in Europe makes you realize that it’s not all that different from the U.S. You have good areas and bad areas, rich and poor, middle-class. Of course, in Moscow, there are more extremes than in other European cities, especially on the rich side.”

There are some differences, of course. Fans, for example. While some teams, like Maccabee Tel Aviv, have large followings, games in Europe tend to attract smaller crowds than in America. But the fans can be crazier and a little rowdier than in the U.S., Holden says. “It depends on the city and the country, but I’ve found that the Greek fans were some of the craziest. Th ey’ll throw things onto the court. You might have to duck to avoid getting hit with debris thrown from the stands, which wouldn’t happen in the States.”

An Amerikanski in Moscow

It was while visiting Moscow with his Belgian team for a game against CSKA that Holden first caught the eye of their management. The next year he played in the Greek league, at the time considered one of Europe’s toughest, and led an underdog team to the league championship. It was shortly aft erward that CSKA made him an offer.

Now, after six years in Moscow, he feels pretty comfortable here and has a lot of affection for the city, which he calls his “second home.”

“I love the city. I’m a city kid, I like having a lot of options, being able to go out when I want to, no matter the time of day. I like that it has a big night life. I love that there are so many restaurants. You can try new food. Moscow is a city where you can get almost anything you want, if you have a little bit of money.”

As to Russian culture, he says he’s come to appreciate it. “What I particularly like about Russians is that they’re straight shooters — pretty up-front and honest. And if they don’t like you, they let you know. And to me, that’s good because you don’t have to play a guessing game.”

But, he recalls, the adjustment wasn’t easy. Although the CSKA organization was extremely helpful and supportive, there were a lot of little things that were tough at the beginning. Getting pulled over by the traffi c police, for example. And the unreliable postal system. “And, if you’re already a little uncomfortable, then those things add up.”

Now that he feels more comfortable, things go more smoothly and the hassles don’t bother him anymore. “You get pulled over, you pull out your documents, and it’s a pretty good exchange.” And he’s learned to use DHL.

Sure, there are still some off-putting things like when the team management calls and says to stay indoors because it’s Hitler’s birthday. But, he said, “There’s racism all around the world. There’s racism in the States. It’s not like Moscow’s the worst on that score.”

He admits that navigating Moscow by car is still tough, so when driving he sticks mostly to Leningradsky Prospekt. If he strays more than ten minutes from that street, he jokes, there’s no chance he’ll find his way back.

As far as getting your paycheck, though, Holden says Russia has Greece beat. “I went three months without a paycheck in Greece.”

However much he enjoys Moscow, during the off-season Holden goes home to the U.S., where he has a daughter. This year, because of practice with the national team, his U.S. sojourn will be a little shorter than usual.

The Russian National Team

So how did Holden end up playing for Russia in the Olympics?

During his first season at CSKA, the national team was playing qualifying games and struggling. The CSKA vice president approached him and asked if he’d consider helping out. Holden, who thought he was joking, replied, “Sure, why not? I’m over here in Russia anyway...”

At the beginning of the next season, Holden’s second in Russia, he was shocked when CSKA’s vice president told him at practice one day that there was a car waiting to take him to pick up his Russian passport. Sure enough, Vladimir Putin had personally signed the paper work making Holden a Russian citizen.

Holden kept his U.S. citizenship as well and says he’s never used his Russian passport, always traveling as an American. But he does carry the Russian document with him. It comes in particularly handy, he says, if he’s pulled over while driving (along Leningradsky Prospekt, of course).

Of his “countrymen” on the team, he says they were very accepting from the moment he walked into the gym. “To me, it’s a privilege and an honor to be asked to represent a country, I don’t care what country it is. The team was so welcoming, made me feel comfortable, let me play my role and position. It is very touching for me. And for them to accept me — being black and not Russian — says a lot about their character.”

As for how far the Russian national basketball team can go in the Olympics, Holden says, “I don’t know. There are a lot of good teams. A lot of random things would have to go our way. Overall, we won’t be one of the top four or five basketball teams in Beijing. But when you get out there, anything can happen. And if you’re that team that catches the rhythm and gets on a roll, then anything’s possible.”

John Robert Holden


#10, CSKA point guard
Birthdate: August 10, 1976
Height: 185 cm (6’ 1”).)
Weight: 82 kg (180 lbs.)

Selected Awards:
Russian Superleague Player of Year, 2003
Euroleague Championship, 2006 & 2008

“When you love basketball as much as I do, perfection is what you aim for. My goal is to play the perfect game. Make every shot, catch every pass, don’t let your man score. Pushing myself to play that perfect game is my motivation. It’s what keeps me sane.”

Watch for J.R. during the Olympic Games (see Olympics viewing guide). And look for him — along with teammate and fellow American Trajan Langdon (who will be profiled in Passport’s October 2008 issue) — when the CSKA season begins again in October.

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