Check off another country on the NBA's list of global markets. With the selection of 6'11", 240-pound power forward Andris Biedrins as the 11th pick in the 2004 draft, the Golden State Warriors ensured their ascension to cult status in Latvia, one of the three Baltic nations. Now the bazaars of Riga, the nation's capital, are teeming with Warriors jerseys.
The shirtmakers, however, have run into difficulties. Because the Latvian alphabet lacks the letter W, the jerseys have Biedrins playing for a variety of teams, from the VARIORS to the VERRIOZ to the VARZURS.
Linguistic differences aside, the Warriors have undoubtedly become Latvia's team. Over the summer Riga's Independent Morning News led each day's basketball coverage with an update on Biedrins, only the second Latvian NBA player. The paper featured a photo of the 18-year-old from Riga, clean-cut and smiling in an authentic Golden State jersey, and detailed his performance for the Warriors' summer league team. The coverage is sure to intensify when NBA training camps open next month.
Former Warriors star Sarunas Marciulionis, who has seen Biedrins play in Europe, says the teenager and Golden State will make a solid match. "Just imagine," Marciulionis says by cellphone from his native Lithuania, where he runs the Sarunas Marciulionis Basketball Academy. "You mix the Warriors and 2.5 million crazy Latvian fans. It's a good combination."
For a franchise mired in futility for the last decade, any positive attention is welcome. And Golden State's management is determined to help Biedrins become a success both on the court and in the global marketplace. Chris Mullin, the team's executive VP of basketball operations, stresses that in addition to raising the Warriors' profile abroad, their top draft pick will make an impact on the court. Biedrins, who averaged 18.0 and 8.9 rebounds for BK Skonto Riga in the Latvian league last year, is a strong defender with a nice drop step and turnaround jumper. "He just turned 18 in April," Mullin says. "I think anything is a possibility."
Signs from the summer were encouraging. In 42 minutes of a July 15 matchup in Long Beach, Calif., against the Lakers' summer league team, Biedrins gathered 13 rebounds, blocked two shots and scored 19 points in an 83-81 win.
There's also reason for hope at the ticket office. The Bay Area is home to a sizable Latvian population--nearly 4,000, according to the 2000 census. While that may not sound like much, Golden State could certainly use a spark. The franchise has been in the bottom third of the league in attendance for the last five seasons and consistently ranks last in revenue among the NBA's four California teams, trailing even the Clippers. In fact, Forbes recently ranked the Warriors 28th in franchise value among NBA teams, at $188 million. (The Lakers, in comparison, are worth $447 million.)
San Francisco lawyer Ivars Bars, an American born to Latvian parents, is typical of the hundreds of Latvian fans who are purchasing tickets. "I bought them the day after the draft," Bars says, "and I can't wait for the season to begin." At the press conference that introduced Biedrins to the Bay Area, local fan Andris Petersons shared his enthusiasm. "I'm originally from Latvia, just like the Warriors' Number 1 draft pick," he said. "And he certainly seems like a heck of a nice guy."
Biedrins, who speaks passable English, says he's willing to work hard and try to live up to that nice-guy image. He talks of the NBA with excitement tempered by wistfulness. "I've left my friends and family behind," he says. "Everything is unfamiliar--the city, the lifestyle, the food. My mother does not cook for me here. I worry that what I eat is unhealthy."
Biedrins lives in an apartment in Oakland, just down the street from his agent, Bill Duffy, who's helping his client adjust to the U.S. Duffy and his staff have shopped with him, showed him the city and even provided cooking lessons.
"Tonight," Duffy said by phone last week, "we're teaching him to make vegetable quesadillas." Sounds like a healthy start. ‚ñ†
Lithuania, rather than Latvia, has been the top Baltic country for producing NBA players, judging by this quartet's feats.
Sarunas Marciulionis (right)
Earned a rep as deadeye shooter and top sixth man over seven NBA seasons, four of them with Golden State.
Arrived Stateside in 1995 at 30 and established himself as one of the deftest passing centers in league history over seven productive seasons with Portland.
Cleveland's 1996 first-rounder has developed into one of the league's more reliable centers, averaging 14.4 points and 7.5 rebounds over six seasons.
Played in 73 games for Sacramento in '03-04 as 26-year-old rookie; averaged 4.6 points and 3.1 rebounds.
NOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
The 6'11" Biedrins, 18, has made Golden State his nation's favorite team.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH