Former Bison Hoops Star J.R. Holden Thriving in Russia
Jan. 28, 2004
November 19, 2003
A Russian joke tells of an American spy who, though he speaks perfect Russian and has a fake passport, is immediately exposed as an imposter. The giveaway? He is black.
J.R. Holden, a black American basketball player from Pittsburgh, is equally conspicuous when he takes the floor for CSKA Moscow as a Russian citizen. The difference is that unlike the doomed fictitious spy, Holden's Russian passport is legit.
A two-time all-league point guard for Bucknell University, the 185-centimeter Holden was three days away from hanging up his sneakers and starting to look for a "real job" after graduating in 1998 when he got a call from a professional basketball club in Riga offering to pay him $3,000 per month to quarterback the team.
"I thought I had hit the big time," Holden said. "I thought I was rich."
By accepting the offer, Holden embarked on a career that took him from Latvia to Belgium to Greece and eventually to the Russian capital last season, where he has become a star for CSKA Moscow, the defending Russian champion and one of Europe's strongest clubs. And the most intriguing turn in Holden's journey came last month, when, by presidential decree, he became a citizen of the Russian Federation.
The idea to make Holden a Russian citizen came from CSKA Basketball CEO Sergei Kushchenko last January in response to new regulations from the Russian Basketball Federation dictating that Russian league teams can have no more than five foreigners on their game roster. Of those foreigners, no more than two can be U.S. citizens, and no more than three can be on the court at once.
Similar regulations are common in European leagues in order to prevent hired foreign guns from dominating play and to keep a semblance of national flavor.
Kushchenko said the new rules created problems for CSKA, which, until Holden's naturalization, had five foreigners -- including three Americans -- on its roster.
With Holden, who rarely plays less than 35 minutes of the 40-minute games, listed as a Russian citizen, CSKA was able to keep its other two Americans -- veteran center Victor Alexander and guard Marcus Brown -- and free up a spot for another foreigner.
CSKA began doing the paperwork for Holden's citizenship in May on the basis of 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.
"We had to convince the authorities that J.R. fit this description," Kushchenko said. "He is one of the best guards in Europe, he was the MVP of the Russian league last year, and at age 27, he's at the peak of his career."
Holden said he thought Kushchenko was joking when he first brought up the idea in January.
"But then this summer, while I was in the States, [CSKA] kept writing me e-mails asking about my mother's name, my sister's name and things like that," he said. "And I thought, 'They're really serious about this.'"
Finally on Oct. 20, with letters of support from Mayor Yury Luzhkov and the State Sports Committee, J.R. Holden became a Russian citizen by a decree from President Vladimir Putin.
It may seem suspicious for a government to go out of its way to help out one particular club team in the national league. But Kushchenko had an ace up his sleeve when making the case for Holden as a "person of special merit."
"We said we could use him in the national team," he said.
The idea of a black American point guard running the show for the Russian national team might seem like science fiction to someone waking up from a Cold War-era coma, but assuming both Holden and the Russian Basketball Federation are willing, there is nothing to prevent such a scenario.
According to the regulations of world basketball's governing body, FIBA, a naturalized player is eligible to play for the national team of his adopted country if he has never played for a national team in his native country.
Since he has never played for a U.S. national team, Holden is free to play for the red, white and blue of the Russian flag.
Russian Basketball Federation president Sergei Chernov said he is very interested in putting Holden on the floor with his new compatriots, especially considering the problems the national team had at the point guard position in the most recent European Championships, where it failed to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
"We have two deficiencies in our national team: at the center and point guard positions," Chernov said. "He would immediately take care of our problems at point guard. He's a great dribbler, defender, passer and shooter."
Chernov said that official talks with Holden will take place after the New Year, when a replacement will be named for current national team coach Sergei Yelevich. He noted, however, that the federation had already had informal talks with Holden, who expressed interest in playing for Russia.
Chernov said he does not foresee any problems arising among the players should Holden take over as the team's floor general.
"If he can make his teammates better, why wouldn't they want to play with him?" Chernov said. "We want to defend the honor of our country, and if he's ready to do that, then we'd be pleased to have him."
The national team's next major task will be to qualify for the 2005 European Championships in Belgrade.
For now, Holden is keeping mum on whether he will play for Russia, finessing questions like a seasoned diplomat.
"I can't really talk about it," he said. "Right now I'm only focused on playing for CSKA."
After some prodding, Holden did admit that "the national team is pretty good. I could probably help them, but I don't think I'd make them a lot better or worse."
He would not say how much he earns now playing for CSKA, only that it is "considerably" more than when he started in Riga.
How has Holden adapted to his new homeland?
He says at first the language barrier gave him the impression that people were cold.
"My teammates told me just to give it time," he said, "and they were right. I began to realize how friendly people actually are here."
Not that his Russian has improved markedly. As the CSKA floor leader, he directs his teammates exclusively in English. But he is obviously getting some tutoring from his teammates, as he can quickly reel off the preferred Russian curse words that follow a missed shot.
Being black can also be another obstacle in Moscow, where attacks on dark-skinned foreigners on the street are a common occurrence.
Former Spartak Moscow soccer player Jerry-Christian Tchuisse, a naturalized Russian citizen from Cameroon, said earlier this year that he was scared to leave his apartment in Moscow for fear of being assaulted because he was black.
But Holden said he has never experienced such problems since coming to Moscow, noting that did not grow up in the "best neighborhood."
"I'm used to being aware of danger and protecting myself," he said.
Holden says he sees himself playing professionally for about five more years, and that he would not mind finishing out his career in Moscow.
"Moscow's been great to me," he said. "It was here that for the first time people considered me one of the best point guards in Europe."
Holden said his family was supportive of his decision to obtain Russian citizenship, though there was some typical parental concern.
"They just said, 'Make sure you can come home and that you keep your U.S. citizenship,'" he said.
According to James Pettit, consul general at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, it is improbable that Holden's new red passport would affect the status of his old blue one.
A U.S. passport instructs its holders that they may lose U.S. citizenship by, for example, "being naturalized in a foreign state" or "accepting employment with a foreign government."
Pettit says, however, that such cases are highly unlikely to result in loss of citizenship, and that voluntarily renouncing citizenship before a U.S. consular officer is the only surefire way of having your U.S. citizenship revoked.
Which is good news for Holden, especially given the line in a U.S. passport that states one my lose citizenship by "serving in the armed forces of a foreign state."
CSKA is popularly known as the Red Army team.