The Spy Who Plays Ball

by July 03, 2008

By Corie Muhammad

J.R. Holden is one of the best basketball players in the world that you may have never heard of. Holden is the starting point guard for the top basketball team in Europe, CSKA Moscow. He has won the Euro championships 2 out of the last 3 years as well as the Russian super league 3 years in a row. He has also been named the leagues player of the year as well. Also, Mr. Holden will be the starting point guard for team Russia in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And guess what? J.R. Holden is a black man.

He holds dual citizenship with Russia and the United States. The request for him to become a naturalized Russian citizen came from the country’s top government and sports officials. I now introduce to you Jon Robert Holden.

SLAM: Out of all the places that you have played, where was it the toughest?

JR HOLDEN: I would say it was in Pittsburgh in a summer league located in the projects in the Hill district. The league was played at Kenard Field and it’s called the George “Dew” Brown league. We called it “Kenard.” You had many semi-pros, college players and your “hood stars” that were known up there. I mean everybody played hard. You were not getting a lot of fouls called.

SLAM: I heard that you put up big numbers in High School, but did not have many division 1 offers?

JR HOLDEN: Well, I really did not have any D1 offers. I wrote letters to maybe twenty schools and only 2 replied. Howard University, with coach Butch Beard was very interested but he ended up leaving Howard and taking a job with the New Jersey Nets. Bucknell University was the other D1 School that showed some interest and that is where I ended up.

SLAM: You have played in Latvia, Belgium, Greece, and Russia. And you have won national championships in all 4 countries as well. What is it about your game and personality that makes you a winner wherever you go?

JR HOLDEN: Honestly, I don’t really go to teams and feel that I have to prove something. I go there and have the attitude that I am going to do the best that I can. I do not promise to win, I don’t say I am going to average this amount or that amount. You see, a lot of players blame things on their playing situation, be it the coach, the country or whatever. My focus is just to go there and be the best player that I can. Also, I know with winning comes money (laugh). So my rookie year I met Tyus Edney and Anthony Bowie. They were like “you have a lot of game, you can play but what’s going to get you paid over here is winning.” See a lot of American come over here and they score a lot of points but they don’t win. Also, it is important that you try to fit in with your team and that you convey the attitude that we are all on the same level. I don’t think just because I am an American that I am the best player on the team.

SLAM: What were some of the adjustments that you had you make from playing college ball to pro ball?

JR HOLDEN: Well because I went overseas the adjustments are a little different as compared to the NBA. My first year overseas my coach could not speak English, so I had to be very open minded. I had to embrace the situation that I was in. I am not going to worry about what some other player on another team is doing. Also, I was not worrying about making it to the NBA. I think the focus should be on where you are at. Also, another adjustment basketball wise was that the players are a little bigger and faster. But outside of that, the overseas game is very much like college. Teams run a lot of different sets. It’s not a player’s league like the NBA; it’s more of a coach’s league in Europe. It is very much like college in that you eat all of your meals together as well. As I have gotten older and on better teams and more money is involved, then it becomes more like the NBA. Also in college you are not constantly playing against teams with a player with a name so to speak. Where as in the pros, every team has a notable player that you must be aware of. Even overseas, it could be Tyus Edney this game, LaBranford Smith, or Melvin Booker the next game, guys that I looked up to that were older than me.

SLAM: Do you aim at making it to the NBA?

JR HOLDEN: Honestly, it is not a goal of mine any more. The NBA is the best league in the world, and any player that says they don’t want to play in the NBA is lying to themselves. But once you have played against NBA guys, once you have won championships at the highest level overseas, I think you realize that the NBA is about opportunity. You understand the NBA is about getting with the right team and the right fit. I have played with guys that have played in the NBA for 3 years or 6 years. My best opportunity and situations have all come overseas. I have had 1 or 2 NBA offers, but they were always for the league minimum. For me, the previous NBA offers have not been the best investment for myself. When a coach or a team really wants you, they offer you a 2 or 3 ear deal, because they feel that you can really contribute to the team. To offer me a 1 year deal at the league minimum is like saying “you have earned your stripes overseas and we will give you a contract just to say that you played in the NBA.” I don’t play basketball just for that.

SLAM: In the 2007 Euro Basketball championship game you hit the game winning shot, what was going through your mind?

JR HOLDEN: Man, I remember that play like it was yesterday (laughs). We had played the Spanish team earlier in the tournament and they had beaten us by 10 of 15 points. My brother/best friend Darius Newsome was there with me and we both watched the game on tape. He felt that I was not being aggressive enough when the team needed me to be more assertive. So in the final game, we were down to the Spanish by 1 point and I had just missed 3 or 4 shots in a row. It was late in the game and I felt like I had to take over, it was my time. I was thinking, I work hard on my game and this is a make or break time for my team. So Spain had the ball with like 10 or so seconds to go. They were up 1 and they passed the ball in to Pao Gasol. I dropped down and stole the ball from him. I knew that I should take the last shot, but there was a part of me that was thinking “I am not Russian, and we have an NBA player on the team in Andrei Kirilenko. He was having a good game so I thought maybe I should pass it to him for the last shot. Things were happening so fast, so I looked at Kirilenko and he gave me the nod like “you go ahead.” So I passed the ball and got it right back. I drove hard right and the guy guarding me, Jose Calderon, I knew if I pumped faked and he did not go for it I would still be able to get the shot of if I fade right. However I had a step on him and he did go for the pump fake, so I just had to stay square and the ball went in. God was looking out for me. That was probably the best basketball that I have played consecutively in my career.

SLAM: You also have dual citizenship with Russia and the US. How do you feel having President Vladamir Puttin, the Mayor of Moscow and the head of the Russian state Sports committee all supporting the decree for you to be a National citizen?

JR HOLDEN: It is indeed and honor. I never thought in a million years that I would be playing in the Olympics, let alone for another country. It is an honor and privilege for someone to think that high of me as a person first and as a basketball player. It goes beyond Basketball. Because win or loose they look at me as one of them to a degree. It is a great honor and I take it very seriously. I try to do my best to represent Russia, the best I can. You have to understand I represent Russia as a basketball player. They are not interested in me running for office, or coaching a team 10 years from now. They want me to play basketball and I understand that. But outside of that I am a U.S. citizen. I even travel in Russia as a U.S. citizen. My Russian passport has never been stamped. It just says that I can play basketball as a Russian.

SLAM: What advice can you give to ball players out there playing low mid major d1, d2 or d3 basketball that would like to play pro ball and have a piece of the success that you have had?

JR HOLDEN: First I would say get your education off the top. The thing that helped me was that I had my degree. I did not have to take just any overseas job, because I didn’t need to. I took a job that I wanted to take. If I had not played ball after school I was secure with that because I had options. So get your degree first. In fact, I turned down 2 jobs in Holland for $ 1,600 and Hungry for $1,800 a month. I was like; I am not going overseas for that. I was young and educated with options so I was not going to just take anything. I want young players to know that, basketball is something that I you might love to do, but it’s not something that you have to do. Also, to work hard and never limit yourself. We all had dreams of playing in the NBA growing up. However, if another opportunity comes your way, don’t be closed minded to it. Be it overseas, D-League, CBA or whatever and take full advantage of it. Don’t compare yourself to Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant or even myself (laughs) just do the best that you can do.

SLAM: Lastly, what are your plans for the future?

JR HOLDEN: I am going to look at a few opportunities over here as far as the NBA – my agent is looking into that. I am under contract in Russia for 1 more year; there is a buy out clause however. So, if the opportunity is right I would definitely come here and play in the States.