Meet J.R. Holden, Russia's leading U.S. import
MADRID, Spain -- There's an American playing in the Eurobasket tournament, and he's even wearing red, white and blue. But his passport is maroon with Cyrillic lettering, and he has spent more time recently in Red Square than he has in the land of red states and blue states.
It's time for America to hear the story of J.R. Holden, a point guard who is bound to be branded a traitor in his homeland next summer if Russia qualifies for the Beijing Olympics.
That's because Holden is connected to a few super-connected folks in Russia, and he plays for a professional team, CSKA Moscow, that counts Russian President Vladimir Putin as one of its biggest fans.
And four summers ago when Holden stopped by a gym to watch the Russian national team practice, he and the team's president noticed that the squad was lacking at point guard. A light bulb went off in the team president's head, and he asked Holden a question.
"'Would you play for the national team if we got you a Russian passport?' And jokingly, I was like 'Yeah, I'll help you out.' I was just playing around," Holden said.
"So for the next year nothing else was said and I didn't think anything about it, but he came to me at the start of the next season and said 'You know what? We can get you a passport, and if you'll play for three years, we'll go ahead and do it.' "
The next thing Holden knew, he was being driven to a Russian passport office and was taken to the front of the line, where they snapped his picture, processed his paperwork and handed him the document that made him a citizen of the country once known back in the United States as the "Evil Empire."
"It took like 10 minutes," Holden said. "They took my picture, stamped it, said 'sign this,' and that was that. At first my mom was asking me 'Did you keep your U.S. citizenship?'"
Indeed, Holden had, and to this day -- almost four years later -- that Russian passport still does not have a single visa stamp inside it from another country. (That could still change in the decades ahead, however, as the passport does not expire for another 36 years).
"I travel and I do everything as an American," Holden said. "I just play basketball as a Russian. So nothing has really changed in my life outside as just playing basketball as a Russian."
I wouldn't see it that way -- I wouldn't see it that deep as being a traitor. All I do is play basketball as a Russian. I pay taxes in the U.S, I live in the U.S, I do everything in the U.S. except play basketball. So I'm a traitor because I'm over here making a living? What about all the businessmen who travel overseas to do business?
-- J.R. Holden
Holden does not speak Russian and cannot even read the lettering on his passport, but that apparently is of no concern to the Russian Federation or President Putin. What matters to them is that there is an accomplished playmaker leading their national team, which has been one of the biggest surprises of Eurobasket '07 in compiling a 4-1 record in the ongoing Olympic qualifier. And should Russia secure one of the two spots up for grabs in this tournament, there's a fairly strong chance that the 31-year-old out of Pittsburgh who played collegiately at Bucknell and never got much more than a sniff from the NBA, will be lining up opposite Jason Kidd trying to bring glory to the Motherland rather than the Homeland.
"I wouldn't see it that way -- I wouldn't see it that deep as being a traitor," Holden said Monday in an hour-long interview with ESPN.com. "All I do is play basketball as a Russian. I pay taxes in the U.S, I live in the U.S, I do everything in the U.S. except play basketball. So I'm a traitor because I'm over here making a living? What about all the businessmen who travel overseas to do business? So I wouldn't see it that way at all."
It remains to be seen how the folks back in the United States will view Holden's situation should a U.S.-Russia match come about, but the first thing Holden needs to worry about is getting the Russian team at least into the semifinals of Eurobasket.
That is shaping up as a distinct possibility, given that Russia often plays a lineup that includes Holden and four players -- Andrei Kirilenko, Sergei Monia, Viktor Khryapa and Nikita Morgunov -- who either used to play or currently play in the NBA. (They also are coached by an American, David Blatt, who is one of the most accomplished U.S. coaches on the international basketball scene.)
Holden's journey to becoming a professional basketball player and a celebrity in Moscow almost didn't happen. After he graduated from Bucknell with a degree in business management, he moved back home and was told by his mother that it was time to give up his basketball dream and pursue a career. He interviewed with the firm Anderson Consulting (now known as Accenture) and was waiting to go in for a second interview when he got a call from an agent from Finland who had seen an international basketball application document that Holden had filled out on a lark. The agent offered him $500 to travel to Riga, Latvia, for four days to try out for that country's top professional team.
"I said 'What? five hundred dollars for four days?' Coming from college where you have nothing, I was like 'I'll be there.' So I went over there, and they loved me," Holden said.
His season in Latvia, earning $2,500 per month, was followed by a stint in Oostende, Belgium, then a year with AEK Athens before he signed with CSKA six years ago. Holden has become one of the highest-paid American players in Europe (he would not say for the record how much he makes, but he lamented that his contract calls for him to be paid in dollars, rather than Euros, and he cringed when discussing the declining value of American currency), he receives a free apartment and a free Mercedes sedan from his club, and he has been able to fly his nearly 1-year-old daughter, Miyana, from her home in Lansing, Mich., to Russia twice since she was born.
But Holden has also had to travel to play games in the freezing cold northern and eastern regions of Siberia, including Vladivostok, and he endured many of the financial peculiarities that have driven many an American player back home from Europe.
"Greece is notorious for not paying guys, though I hear it's a lot better now," Holden said. "Their favorite term is 'avrio,' which means tomorrow. So you always hear 'avrio, avrio.' But avrio's like three months.
"We finished in first place, we hadn't won a championship in 35 years but we won the championship, and I can't get my money? And at that time, there was a guy I played with, Chris Carr, they sent him home after the first game of the finals. How do you send a guy home after we lost Game 1 of the finals? But that's how fanatical they are, if you're not doing something that's up to par for them, they'll send you home quick."
Holden, who said he has been shown the ropes by several American playing overseas including Tyus Edney, Anthony Bowie, Melvin Booker and Victor Alexander, has given up on the dream of playing in the NBA (he once spent two weeks riding the bench for the Hornets' summer league team, and he turned down a chance two years ago to sign for the minimum with the Memphis Grizzlies).
"OK, if I was 22, it would be 'Of course, why not?' But now that I'm older and I'm secure with my game and what level I can play at, I'm OK," he said. "I don't need to take a pay cut to go home and play at 31 years old."
He will return to Moscow after Eurobasket to start his sixth season with CSKA, and he plans to move back to the U.S. permanently in the not-too-distant future, perhaps to become an algebra teacher. For now, he isn't staying in five-star hotels on the road, and he doesn't see many people who look like him. But he is content. "Coming from America, you're so used to having things," Holden said. "But you come over here, and the bed is 5 feet long, and sometimes there's a shortage of food, or sometimes you can only get two glasses of water to drink, and forget about getting hot water. Things like that would never happen in the United States. There's also the language barrier, and let's be honest, I'm black. I stick out like a sore thumb. But honestly, playing for CSKA, one of the top clubs in Europe, it makes it a lot easier because people know who you are, so it makes it a lot easier than it would be for say an African who was going to school at a university there."
Holden also considers himself fortunate to have been exposed to a decade of soaking in other cultures and living a life he never would have imagined.
Yes, the money is great, but the exposure to the world beyond America's borders is something he cannot put a price on.
"The culture, there's just a whole world out there to see," Holden said, "and if you're close-minded to that, you miss out."
If Holden had waited for an invitation to join Team USA, he would have missed out. But that unstamped Russian passport he carries in his bag is opening new doors, and one of those doors just might lead to Beijing.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
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