“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
The golden Russian
The case of Jon Robert “J.R.” Holden is not the first nor the last to confirm a rule of life: it’s not how you start, but how you finish. What’s also true is that his pro career was unusual because of many things. His path to glory was neither fast nor easy. Holden, who was born on August 10, 1976, in Pittsburgh, had to go step by step, from third-level clubs to the elite; from countries with no basketball tradition to a world power in the sport, which he led to a new European crown after a long wait.
After four years in Bucknell University, where he averaged 17.8 and 18.1 points in the last two, Holden was not drafted into the NBA. In fact, his future looked unlikely to involve basketball at all. But as often happens, chance would change his life. A Finnish agent offered Holden a tryout with ASK Broceni Riga, a team that existed for just 10 seasons total, between 1992 and 2001. Many years later, when remembering the start of his European adventure, Holden admitted he had problems locating Latvia on a map. He had no clue about the country, and he went there for 400 dollars a week. He is still grateful to Larry Daniels, who also played for Riga, and who helped him a lot during his first days there. In the 1998-99 season, ASK Broceni played in Belgrade against Partizan and won 89-87 with 18 points and 4 assists from Holden. After winning the Latvian League title, Holden switched countries and signed for Telindus Ostend in Belgium. In the 2000-01 FIBA SuproLeague, he would again play Partizan in Belgrade. This time, Partizan prevailed 89-80 thanks to 38 points by Miroslav Beric. But Holden netted 30 points, confirming the impression he had left the previous season. He was a talented player who deserved to play on a more powerful team.
Explosion in AEK
After a couple of conversations with Vlade Divac, who then was a player for the Sacramento Kings but also the president of Partizan, Holden was really close to signing for the team, but eventually he would stay one more season at Ostend. In the summer of 2001, after winning the Belgian League and Belgian Cup, his next stop was Athens, Greece, but the club was the humble AEK. Humble? Maybe because of the budget, especially if compared to Panathinaikos or Olympiacos, but not for its history and a group of excellent players Holden found there. Head coach Dragan Sakota had with him Dimos Dikoudis, Michalis Kakiouzis, Nikos Chatzis, Nikos Zisis, Jim Bilba, Andy Betts and Holden, a huge Holden. The result? AEK won the Greek League, the only title that Panathinaikos didn’t win between 1998 and 2011. Coach Sakota tells us about what happened:
“We had not played against Holden; his signing was the result of general scouting. We looked at several players and I concluded that Holden would be the one who would contribute more. Officially, the MVP of the season was Dikoudis, but Holden was the most consistent player. He was irreplaceable.”
Sakota highlights a feature by Holden that not many people know.
“He was a relentless player. At the beginning of the season, some people criticized me for having him 35 to 40 minutes on the court, but his body just didn’t need any rest. He was able to play at the same intensity all the time. In a technical sense, his best weapon was his speed and, after that, his fighting character. He was not such a big deal with long-range shooting or assists, but he was correct in everything and with his huge speed, everything looked much better. I knew we would not be able to keep him for the following season.”
The kid who played his first season in Europe for some 6,000 dollars per year signed for the powerhouse of CSKA Moscow just four years later, with a multi-million-dollar deal at the start of a big project meant to take CSKA to the top again. CSKA’s last EuroLeague title was more than 30 years before that, in 1971. During Holden’s first season in Moscow, CSKA reached the EuroLeague Final Four, played in Barcelona. The seven following years, Holden and CSKA would become regular guests at the end-of-season event in the top European competition.
Due to the restrictions on foreign players in the Russian League, Holden was offered a Russian passport so that he could play as a national in the league, and he accepted. On October 20, 2003, under the signature of president Vladimir Putin, Jon Robert Holden became a Russian citizen. It was a decision that changed his life, but also the history of basketball. As the USSR, the country had been European champ 14 times and won three silvers and four bronzes, as well. But as Russia, it had only a silver medal from the 1993 EuroBasket in Munich. But that would soon change.
History in Prague and Madrid
However, before winning the 2007 EuroBasket in Madrid with Russia, Holden took CSKA Moscow to the top again, 35 years after its last EuroLeague crown. After a 10-4 record in the regular season, a 5-1 run through the Top 16 and a 2-0 sweep of Efes Pilsen in the playoffs, CSKA reached the Prague Final Four – its fourth in a row – with a great desire to finally triumph after three consecutive semifinals defeats. The first rival was FC Barcelona, whom CSKA defeated 84-75, led by the great duo of Holden and Theo Papaloukas. Each of them scored 19 points, but Holden played 35 minutes, controlling the tempo of the game. In the title game against Maccabi Tel Aviv, Holden didn’t shine as against Barcelona, but coach Ettore Messina kept him on the floor for 36 minutes and CSKA won 73-69. Points were provided by Papaloukas (18) and David Vanterpool (16). Holden got stuck at 6 points and 4 assists, but his averages for those two games also showed 2.5 steals and just 1.5 turnovers in more than 35 minutes, plus 12.5 points with 45.5% two-point accuracy and 41.7% on three-pointers. As always, his defense on the ball was impeccable and the basis for CSKA’s league-leading points-against average. The title, won after 35 years, was dedicated to the father of Russian basketball, Alexander Gomelskiy, who had died a few months earlier.
In 2007, at the Athens Final Four, CSKA lost in the title game against Panathinaikos, 93-91, in an unforgettable game. But some months later, Holden lived one of the best moments in his sports life with what is the dream of any player: winning an important title with a basket by him on the last play of the game.
His sweet moment took place on September 16, 2007, at the Palacio de los Deportes in Madrid, during the EuroBasket final between Russia and Spain. The hosts were the world champions at the time and big favorites. During halftime, the organizers even handed out invitations for the Spanish title celebration. But Holden’s Russia didn’t agree to that. A slight Spain advantage was reduced to only two points at the start of the final quarter with a triple by Holden at 51-49. The game would remain close until the last 43 seconds, when Spain led 59-58 and had the ball. But the hosts didn’t get a shot off on that possession because Holden stole the ball from Pau Gasol. The ball stayed in his hands until, with a little over 2 seconds left, Holden rose on the right wing to shoot over Jose Manuel Calderon. The ball hit two sides of the rim and then high off the backboard before falling in. A timeout by Spanish coach Pepu Hernandez was useless even though Gasol managed to take a final shot that missed by a hair. Russian basketball was back with a new title, thanks to Holden’s shot.
The coach for Russia in 2007, David Blatt, told me about the game and that last play:
“When Spain missed its play, I didn’t have another timeout, so I just shouted to J.R. to wait a little and finish off the play by himself. What he did reminded me a little of that famous play by Michael Jordan in the sixth game of the NBA Finals in 1998. Holden almost did the same.”
About Holden’s general features, Blatt said: “He was a leader but also a team player, with lots of self-confidence and trust in his teammates. His path to glory was slow, but more than deserved.”
Madrid was now a good-luck city for Holden. In the spring of 2008, he celebrated his second EuroLeague title with CSKA on the same stage where he had become the Russian hero the previous summer. In the Final Four, CSKA defeated Tau Ceramica in the semis by 83-79 with 15 points by Holden, while in the title game against Maccabi it was a bit easier, 91-77, with J.R. scoring 14 points.
After the triumph in Madrid, Holden played in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, fulfilling another dream. Although Russia didn’t prosper and finished ninth, Holden played really well, with 17.6 points and 4.8 assists on average. It was his last appearance with the Russian national team.
Holden would play four more seasons for CSKA, where he retired in 2012 at 36 years old. He left behind two EuroLeague crowns, a EuroBasket gold medal with Russia, plus six national league and five cup titles won in Latvia, Belgium, Greece and Russia. He also earned a spot on the EuroLeague all-decade team for 2000 to 2010. One of Holden’s most remarkable feats he shares with Papaloukas, his former backcourt partner: eight consecutive Final Four appearances, a record that will be hard for anyone to break. All of this for a player who literally played his first season in Europe for a fistful of dollars.