Wilkinsburg Native Turned Russian Basketball Star | Program Notes

Wilkinsburg Native Turned Russian Basketball Star

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With March Madness kicking in, we caught up with a local guy who had a unique international basketball career. 

J.R. Holden claims to be the first African-American to be granted dual citizenship in Russia and the U.S. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in fact, he played for the Russian national team — whose opponents included the American "Redeem Team" (Kobe Bryant, et al) that was representing the country Holden was born in. (The accompanying game shot depicts Holdren and Bryant in competition.)

Holden retired as a player last summer, shortly after the release of his self-published memoir, Blessed Footsteps. But Holden's Olympic appearance was no one-off: By the time he retired, he'd spent 13 successful years hooping overseas. That tenure included eight consecutive appearances in the Euroleague final four, a record for an American.

The starting point guard's final season with CSKA Moscow — with whom he won two Euroleague championships — ended with the club winning the Russian League title. "I haven't done anything with a basketball since then," he said by phone earlier this week.

Though his cell phone still has a 412 area code, Holden lives in Atlanta now. He makes his living largely as an inspirational speaker. Recently, for instance, he set up shop at the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association annual tournament, in Charlotte, N.C., selling his book and T-shirts, wristbands and other merchandise bearing sayings like "I am For Greatness."

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Holden's book is an intriguing glimpse into the world of European pro ball. It's a world Americans have tasted via the globalization of the NBA, and through the Olympics. But Holden is our guide through the continent's multiple lesser-known leagues, and through the challenges that faced an American there, especially when the Bucknell graduate first reported for duty in Latvia, in 1998.

The biggest obstacle was communication. "Imagine you're going to work and you're the only one who speaks English," he says. The European game is also more physical, he says, and hence lower-scoring.

But if anything, during his tenure the European game grew more ... American. When he started, European squads were limited to two Americans each. Now, the rule is that each team is required to carry two native-born players.

More broadly, Holden says that perceptions of America changed during his time overseas, which included the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and more.

"I thought that Americans would always be seen in a certain light," he says — as admirable. But while citizens of other nations still voraciously consume American popular culture, they "look at us in a way that they're equal to us or even above us," Holden says. Meanwhile, he's noticed, "Americans don't care about anything that's going on overseas."

Holden says CSKA Moscow offered him a two-year deal to keep playing. But after 13 years overseas, he wanted to come home for good. His sister and mom remain in Pittsburgh, where he visits regularly, and his young daughter lives in Detroit.

And while his playing days are over, he's offering audiences some of the mottos that kept him going. A big one, he says, is "Try to be better than you were the day before."

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