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Point guard paces Russian team

By John Grupp
Sunday, Aug. 3, 2008

Wilkinsburg's J.R. Holden, who once dazzled summer league opponents in the Hill District, is the starting point guard in the 2008 Olympics -- for Russia.

Holden, 31, will lead the Russian team in Beijing, where he faces possible matchups against NBA stars Jason Kidd and Chris Paul.

The Russians will play in the first men's basketball game of the Olympics, meeting Iran on Aug. 10. Later that night, Team USA will face China.

"It's an unbelievable story," said Terence Parham, the boys' basketball coach at Shady Side Academy and Holden's longtime friend and classmate at Bucknell. "That kid deserves everything he has. It couldn't happen to a better person."

Holden, who has dual citizenship, was traveling with the Russian national team in Europe for the past few weeks preparing for the Olympics and was not available for an interview, but his family and friends are secretly pulling for the kid they called "Booper."

"He's a great kid," said Art Griffiths, who coached Holden when he was a freshman at Wilkinsburg High School.

Holden, who transferred to Linsly School in West Virginia as a high school sophomore, was an all-league guard at Bucknell. After playing pro ball in Latvia, Belgium and Greece, he signed with CSKA, the highly regarded Russian team, eight years ago.

One day about five years ago, Holden was watching the Russian national team practice when the team's president asked the point guard if he would play for the former communist power, provided they secured him a passport.

Jokingly, Holden said yes. But before the next season, with a special nod from Russian president Vladimir Putin, Holden was taken to the passport office and given dual citizenship.

He is the first American to play for the Russian national team and the only black player on the team. He can't speak or read the language and returns home for most of the offseason.

"I travel and I do everything as an American," Holden told last year. "I just play basketball as a Russian. So nothing has really changed in my life outside of just playing basketball as a Russian."

Holden is considered one of the top point guards in Europe. In September 2007, he hit the game-winning shot as the Russians defeated Spain to win the European championship and earn a spot in the Beijing Games.

Holden is one of the highest-paid American players in Europe. He reportedly receives a free apartment and free Mercedes sedan from his club in Russia. He turned down a chance to sign with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2005 for the league minimum. It would have been a pay cut from his reported salary of about $1 million per season.

What about his nickname• Turns out some visiting relatives from New York wanted to come up with some monikers for their cousins. They put a bunch of choices in a hat. Each time they pulled a nickname for little Jon Robert Holden, they pulled the same one, "Booper." One time. Two times. Three times.

"It stuck," said his sister, Robyn Horne, 29, of Wilkinsburg. "I heard about it every year. Whenever they would come back, they would say, 'We named him.' "

Parham, who grew up in Wilkinsburg and went to Shady Side Academy, recalled their senior years in high school when Holden, despite excellent grades, was largely overlooked by Division I basketball programs.

"I would be opening up letters from Division I schools," Parham said, "and he's writing letters. He wasn't real confident about Bucknell. But the rest is history."



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