During the cold war, when movies like Red Dawn envisioned Soviet "reeducation camps" for American citizens and bumper stickers declared their owners better dead than red, the idea of an American playing point guard for the Soviet team seemed as laughable as, well, the plot of Red Dawn.
But it's amazing what glasnost and a good crossover dribble can accomplish. Last week J.R. Holden, a 29-year-old former Bucknell star from Wilkinsburg, Pa., became the first American to compete for a Russian or Soviet national team when he started for Russia at the European basketball championships in Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro. Holden averaged 12.5 points as Russia made it to the quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion Greece 66-61. "He is one of the three best point guards in Europe," says forward Andrei Kirilenko. "He knows how to play, and we've had no problems understanding one another on or off the floor."
Holden's journey from the Patriot League to Moscow began in 1998. After graduating that year with a degree in business administration from Bucknell--where he was a two-time all-league player who, Bison coach Pat Flannery says, went "100 miles a minute on every play"--Holden was ready to give up on basketball and look for a "real job" when he was signed by a pro club in Riga, Latvia. Holden spent one season with Broceni Riga, then went on to play in Belgium and Greece before signing with CSKA Moscow, a top Russian pro team, in 2002. He helped lead CSKA to three consecutive Russian championships and three straight appearances in the Euroleague Final Four.
But in 2003 the Russian Basketball Federation announced it would limit the number of foreign players on its teams. CSKA's roster was laden with Americans (such as ex-Golden State Warrior Victor Alexander), so the club came up with a creative solution: Make Holden a Russian. Citing Article 13.3 of the federal law on citizenship, which states that "a person of special merit before the Russian Federation may be accepted as a citizen," CSKA CEO Sergei Kushchenko lobbied the Russian government on his player's behalf, but only after Holden was sure it wouldn't affect his U.S. citizenship.
Holden's "special merit," of course, is his ability to run the point, which, Kushchenko stressed, might come in handy for a once mighty national team that finished 10th at the 2002 world championships. On Oct. 20, 2003, President Vladimir Putin signed a decree making Holden a Russian citizen.
Holden is now one of the stars of Russia's rejuvenated national team, along with Kirilenko, the Utah Jazz star, and forwards Sergei Monya and Viktor Khryapa, who will both suit up for the Portland Trail Blazers this season. At the European championships Holden was embraced by the small contingent of Russian fans who'd made the trip. "It doesn't matter if he's Serbian, Japanese, black or Chinese," said Oleg Romanyuk, who'd come from the Siberian city of Omsk and was sporting a Jaromir Jagr jersey. "He has Russian citizenship and has decided to defend the honor of his new home country."
Others haven't been as welcoming. Some basketball officials and journalists grumble about the "savior" who shoots too much. And the fact that Holden is African-American might also be an issue; Russian fans have thrown bananas during hockey games when a black athlete was competing; and Jerry-Christian Tchuisse, a former soccer player for Spartak Moscow, said he was scared to walk the streets for fear of being attacked. Holden, who grew up outside Pittsburgh, minimizes any problems he's had. "Somebody might make a racist comment to me on the street, but I hear the same thing in America," he says. He adds diplomatically of the Russian fans, "It's nice that they support my playing for the national team. I think that makes things a lot easier."
Holden still uses a translator in huddles because he hasn't learned Russian (besides a few swear words). "I tease him about the language," says Flannery, who keeps in touch with Holden. "He told me that he's going to start taking lessons this November."
Russia's eighth-place finish last week means it must be invited to play in next year's world championships in Japan. Should that happen, Holden wouldn't have a problem facing his home country. "I wasn't picked to play for the United States; I was chosen by Russia," he says. "It would make it even more fun to try and beat them."
The performance of Dirk Nowitzki (right) at the championships confirmed that he's one of the world's best players. He led all scorers (26.1 ppg) in carrying Germany to a runner-up finish against Greece and heads our list of the top NBA players at the tournament.
PLAYER Dirk Nowitzki
NBA TEAM Mavericks
2005 FINISH 2nd
No one else on the German squad averaged double-digit points
PLAYER Andrei Kirilenko
2005 FINISH 8th
Led all players in boards, steals and blocks--despite broken nose
PLAYER Mario Kasun
NBA TEAM Magic
2005 FINISH 7th
NBA reserve outshone league starters Rasho Nesterovic, Primoz Brezec
PLAYER Boris Diaw
NBA TEAM Suns
2005 FINISH 3rd
Dividend of Joe Johnson trade finished in the top 10 in points, assists
PLAYER Jose Calderón
NBA TEAM Raptors
2005 FINISH 4th
Averaged 10.5 points as Pau Gasol--less Spain made it to the semis