By Mark Emmons, Mercury News
Andris Biedrins had just signed a slew of autographs before a Warriors game and was strutting down the hallway to the locker room, giving high-fives to security guards, looking like an oversized, giddy kid enjoying a grand adventure.
"Of course I'm having fun!" he said later.
How could he not?
Biedrins, the NBA's youngest player, is finally getting some playing time and showing some hints of potential that's as large as his 6-foot-11 frame. The bonus is living a life he never imagined possible while growing up in Latvia.
He has a 23rd-floor Oakland apartment with a commanding view of the Bay Area. He drives a Porsche Cayenne -- base price: $89,300.
"It's so fast that it's unbelievable," said Biedrins, who has one speeding ticket. "It's got a turbo in it. It's sweet."
He has adjusted so well to life here -- notice his correct usage of the word sweet -- that Mom was able to return to Latvia in December.
"I told her, `It's time for you to go home, although you can come back later if you want,' " Biedrins said.
Now the final weeks of his rookie season -- which was supposed to be something of a redshirt year considering he just turned 19 on April 2 -- have become a sneak preview of possible things to come from him. Midseason trades have allowed Biedrins (pronounced BE-a-drinsch) to play about 12 minutes a game.
"He's the baby-faced giant," Warriors point guard Baron Davis said. "He's going to be one of the top 10 centers in this league. It's just a matter of time."
Biedrins is still more baby than giant. He's a good-natured teen who is liked by teammates and seems stunned at the turn his life has taken.
"Right now, all of my friends are sitting in a high school classroom," Biedrins said. "I can't believe how quickly all of this happened."
A quick study
After practice one day last week, as Biedrins strolled to a downtown Oakland restaurant, he got long looks from passersby. Their faces said: "I should know this guy, but I can't quite place him."
Biedrins, like most players his height, has grown accustomed to the stares.
"People are always asking me, like in the elevator of my building, if I play basketball, and I tell them no, I play soccer," he said with a grin.
Biedrins is conversant in four languages -- Latvian, English, Russian and German. And although he speaks English well, when he's ticked off, he switches to Russian.
"Russian has many more bad words," he said.
His quick wit helps explain Biedrins' quick adjustment to life in the United States -- and in the NBA.
"There's no way I would have been ready at his age, not emotionally or physically," said Warriors forward Mike Dunleavy, 24. "But there's something about him that's grown up even though he likes to have a good time, too."
Then Dunleavy thought for a moment.
"But if you were a teenager, in the NBA, driving a fast car, and not having to do homework, who wouldn't have a smile on their face?" he added.
Adonal Foyle can relate to the adjustments Biedrins has had to make. The native of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean moved to the United States in high school. He lived with married college professors before attending Colgate.
"My first season in the league, I brought my parents out with me," said Foyle, 30. "I had been in the United States several years already and went to college, and I still needed my mommy.
"But not him."
Yet there have been moments Biedrins has felt like a stranger in a strange land. Early on, he preferred to stay at his apartment, playing pool and video games and keeping up with news from home on the Internet.
"Maybe I was a little bit lonely, I guess," he said.
He started feeling more comfortable when midseason trades brought Nikoloz "Skita" Tskitishvili and Zarko Cabarkapa to Warrior-land. Tskitishvili is a native of the Republic of Georgia, and Cabarkapa is from Serbia-Montenegro. The three "Euros," as they've been nicknamed, are inseparable.
"They just yap all the time," Foyle said. "You can't get them to shut up. I've instituted a rule that they have to speak English when they're playing. But their enthusiasm is really infectious. They're always together on the road."
During a trip to New York, the three even took a horse-drawn carriage ride together around Central Park.
They form a mutual support system that includes Mickael Pietrus, a native of the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe who played professionally in France.
"We can just hang out," Biedrins said. "All three of us, and Pietrus, we all know how we feel about being away from home and how different it is here from Europe."
It's also another reminder of how international the NBA -- which has 77 players from 34 foreign countries -- has become. If a guy can play, NBA scouts know.
Even if he's in Latvia.
And still growing
A Baltic country in northern Europe, Latvia was part of the former Soviet Union. Biedrins' father, Aivars, was a champion discus thrower, and his mother is of above-average height. But Biedrins can't explain how he got to be almost 7 feet tall.
"`Maybe in two years, I might be 7-2," said Biedrins, whose size-17 sneakers look like small boats. "I think I'm still growing."
He has been playing basketball since 6 and signed his first pro contract at 16. He was with the team Skonto Riga when Chris Mullin, the Warriors' executive vice president, made a visit.
"Back home, everybody dreams of coming to America," Biedrins said. "But I had no idea that I could make it. I was very excited when I heard Chris Mullin is coming to see me."
Biedrins was still available as the Warriors made the 11th pick of last June's draft, and Mullin all but did backflips.
Nobody expected him to be an instant contributor. He played in just four of the Warriors' first 54 games -- a total of 21 minutes. He spent most of his time in the weight room and on the practice court.
But after veterans Dale Davis and Cliff Robinson were traded, Biedrins got his chance.
"What was really impressive is how hard he worked when he wasn't playing," Mullin said. "He never sat around sulking or feeling sorry for himself."
The early reviews have been predictable for a raw rookie. Biedrins has shown good instincts and moves well for a guy his size, averaging 3.4 points and 3.3 rebounds in 26 games. He has also been hopelessly outmatched at times.
Against Dallas late last month, he was left shrugging his shoulders after repeatedly being whistled for fouls while trying to cover Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki.
"When you play against good players such as Dirk, what are you going to do?" Biedrins said. "There's no sense complaining. All you can do is smile."
That attitude is not defeatism, said Warriors Coach Mike Montgomery.
"He has a tremendous resiliency," Montgomery said. "You would think that when something bad happens, especially to a young kid, he would really get down. But nothing bothers him. He just bounces back and just tries to make the next play."
There's even a puppy-dog quality to his style.
"If there's a rebound available, he goes for it," Montgomery added. "If there's a loose ball, he thinks he's supposed to get it. If a guy drives the lane, he defends. He's really unspoiled."
What he doesn't have is strength or go-to offensive moves. But that figures to come in time. Biedrins still weighs 240 pounds but thinks he has added muscle to his lanky frame. Recently Foyle hooked him up with his chef to get him to eat better.
In the meantime, Biedrins is hoping to complete high school through the mail. And he'll be heading home for a few weeks after the season.
He's big enough there that Latvia's president planned to attend last Friday's game against Phoenix as part of a Bay Area trip. Instead, she traveled to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II.
If things develop as the Warriors hope, Biedrins also will soon be familiar to American sports fans.
After lunch, as Biedrins was riding the elevator to the Warriors' practice facility, a man got on and kept glancing at him. He didn't ask if Biedrins played basketball.
Too bad. Biedrins looked eager to use his soccer line.
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