The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 21, 2011

Grad returns as J.R. the Great

By William Bowman
The Daily Item

— LEWISBURG — When J.R. Holden left Bucknell University after graduating in 1998, he had no idea the sleepy Central Pennsylvania campus would catapult him into the world of international basketball, where he became as well-known to Russians as Michael Jordan to Americans.

Four years after the former Pennsylvanian became a Russian, by decree of President Vladimir Putin, Holden beat the final buzzer with a shot and qualified his team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he competed against Americans Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

Not that you will read about all those accomplishments in “Blessed Footsteps: The Memoirs of J.R. Holden,” the book he wrote and will sign Saturday at the Barnes & Noble at Bucknell University bookstore in Lewisburg from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“Sure, there is some basketball in there, but it is mostly about life,” said Holden, who will return to campus for the first time since graduation for homecoming weekend. “It’s about, whether you are 16 or 66, not giving up on your passion and finding a way, to some degree, to live a life without boundaries.”

Since leaving Bucknell, Holden conquered any boundary he confronted, be it in Latvia, Greece or Belgium, where he played professionally, or in Russia.

An all-star at Bucknell under coach Pat Flannery, Holden was ready to land a job and get on with his life after graduating with a business degree.

But when he was offered $2,500 a month to play in Latvia, he jumped at the chance.

“I was thinking outside the box,” Holden said. “I thought ‘This can be a stepping stone and if it doesn’t work out, I still have that Bucknell degree.’ I decided to give it my best shot and things sort of went from there.”

That they did. He then played in Greece and Belgium before signing with CSKA Moscow — one of Europe’s top squads — and there his career took off while he struggled with the transition of living in Russia.

The first struggle was the language barrier.

The second, that he was not only an American living in Russia, but a black American.

“Americans are seen as know-it-alls and arrogant and they had a lot of same stereotypes toward blacks that we have in the United States,” he said. “Breaking through all that was tough at first.”

His exploits on the basketball court certainly helped him in the transition. He played for nine seasons in Moscow and was named the Russian Superleague Player of the Year in 2003. He led CSKA to EuroLeague titles on two occasions and, after announcing his retirement earlier this year, was named one of the five all-time most influential American players in Europe by ballineurope.com, an ESPN affiliate.

His tenure in Moscow led him to perhaps the most awkward part of his career. In 2003 he was approached about becoming a naturalized Russian citizen, which would allow CSKA to not only add another foreign player — European teams have limits on the number of Americans who can be on their roster — but it would allow him to play point guard for the Russian national team.

It was a difficult decision for Holden and a long process, which eventually led to Putin signing a decree naming Holden a Russian citizen thanks to his “special merit,” which, of course, was his ability to play basketball.

“It was very hard early on because I didn’t know how it would affect me, or what my friends and family would think,” said Holden, who has dual citizenship and splits his time between homes in Atlanta and Detroit. “I honestly didn’t know if I was built for it.”

Things worked out because he filled a role on the national team, which had a glaring hole at point guard. He played alongside the likes of NBA player Andrei Kirilenko in the 2007 EuroBasket championships and hit a shot in the final five seconds to beat host Spain, which included current Los Angeles Lakers’ forward Pao Gasol, giving the Russians the title and a spot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“I was accepted in a place like Russia because I was a good guy and I could play basketball,” said Holden, who recently retired and is now running the J.R. Holden Foundation to help children.

His book came out of nowhere, he said. When his daughter was born in 2006 he started keeping a diary because she was too young to understand what he was doing and why he was away so much.

“I wanted her to know what I was doing as a father,” he said. “I sent it to a friend of mine who was starting a publishing company. He loved it. He told me ’You keep writing. I’ll keeping editing.’ And this is what happened.”

— Email comments to bbowman@dailyitem.com