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Courting Americans to Win

With an assist from President Putin, Russia's flagship pro basketball team has wooed three U.S. players, bringing flash to Moscow's game.

January 02, 2006|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — It was a home game for CSKA Moscow, a top Russian professional basketball team, complete with hoopla and smart marketing: flashy play on the court, scantily clad dancers performing during breaks, even a pregame Christmas-themed laser show.

University student Yulia Tsyganova, 18, herself a fervent street basketball player, was having a fabulous time cheering on the home team.

"We're great fans," she said, offering particular praise for J.R. Holden, an American who also holds Russian citizenship.

"Jon-Robert Holden is himself the whole team," she gushed. "He's wonderful. His reactions are fantastic. His passes are superb."

President Vladimir V. Putin signed a decree granting a Russian passport to Holden in 2003 so that he could play as a local, which lets the country's flagship team finesse a Russian Basketball Federation rule that limits each team to two American players.

The name CSKA reflects the team's roots as the Central Sports Club of the Army, and its illustrious history includes being champion of the Soviet Union 24 times between 1945 and 1990.

Tsyganova said she had no problem with the Americans playing dominant roles on such a prominent club, which also is Russia's representative in the 24-team Euroleague.

"The fact that they're black is cool," she added, describing Holden as one of her two favorite players on the team. Suddenly, seeming to fear she might be misunderstood, she hugged the young man next to her on the bleachers and kissed him on the forehead, declaring: "I love him."

Holden, a 29-year-old Bucknell University graduate, came to CSKA in 2002 after playing professionally in Latvia, Belgium and Greece. He is an unintended symbol of U.S.-Russian friendship, and he wears the distinction lightly.

"I was comfortable here and the fans liked me," he explained, so when the idea came up of helping his team by taking Russian citizenship, he was open to it.

CSKA's chairman, Sergei Kushchenko, "is pretty well in cool with President Putin. They're pretty good friends," Holden said. "I don't know all the ins and outs of how things happened, but it's an honor and a privilege to have citizenship both in the United States and Russia."

In September, Holden became the first American to compete for a Russian national team when he played in the European basketball championships.

"I think the fans just appreciate the way I play," Holden said. "I'm a smaller guy. Most fans can relate to me because I'm their height. I'm 6 foot tall, not a real big guy.

"And I'm a black guy," he added, breaking into laughter. "So of course, it adds a little bit to it."

As a professional team, CSKA is now barely associated with the Russian army. But at a recent game against Partizan Belgrade, which CSKA won, 89-58, the Moscow team's historical links to the military were humorously played up in huge banners that depicted its players in camouflage uniforms of blue and red, the team colors, holding basketballs like weapons as they charged forward.

David Vanterpool, 32, another CSKA player from the U.S. -- he is formerly of the NBA's Washington Wizards and New Jersey Nets -- said his portrayal on the stadium's oversized banners made him look like "a spy or something."

"I mean, it's like a little scowl on my face, sneaky," he explained, laughing as he tried to imitate the expression. "If I didn't know him, I wouldn't trust that guy.... It's very witty and very smart."

Trajan Langdon, 29, the third American on CSKA, played in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1999 to 2002, then moved to teams in Italy, Turkey and Russia.

"I love what I do, and I'm fortunate with the people I'm around, a great organization, great teammates," Langdon said.

Communication with his Italian coach and Russian teammates isn't really a problem, Langdon said. The Russian players know enough English to get by, and basketball isn't really about words, anyway.

"Sometimes you don't even need to communicate with language when you're on the court," he said. "It's eye contact, different movements.... Basketball itself is a language."

American players tend to have flashier moves, often picked up as teenagers playing street ball, compared with the more disciplined approach traditionally imposed by Soviet and Russian coaches.

"I will never forget how in my young basketball days I once raced to the basket and dunked the ball in from behind my back, making a 180-degree turn in the air," said Sergei Tarakanov, a member of the Soviet Union's 1988 gold-medal winning Olympic team who is now a basketball commentator on television. "All the coach said to me was, 'Why don't you quit showing off?'

"These American players do it all the time. They teach Russian players to add the spirit of a highly breathtaking show to the game," he added.

Of Holden, Tarakanov said: "Sometimes you realize that what you see him performing is not really basketball but some kind of street ball, when he gets carried away and forgets that he is a team player too.

"But the audience falls for it, and Jon Holden thus won the hearts of thousands of fans. Whatever he does, it is always fun to watch him play."

Foreigners have helped basketball reach new heights of popularity in Russia, and the players earn good money, Tarakanov said. Some make as much as $1.5 million a year.

Holden says he earns more than twice as much as he would get if he were earning the NBA minimum. "Being over here is more valuable to me because in the NBA I would be sitting on somebody's bench right now, making the league minimum and not playing," he said.

Holden described his Russian language skills as "awful." "I only know the basics, like 'hello' and 'goodbye,' and 'good morning' and 'thank you,' and things like that," he said.

But he promises to do better. "Like I say, it's an honor having Russian citizenship," he said. "So I'm going to start taking classes in the new year, and just do the best I can."

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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