If not for Jan. 31, it could have been worse.
That's when Golden State Warriors center Andris Biedrins caught a pass on the right block, turned and dropped in a baby hook against the Sacramento Kings, getting fouled in the process. Biedrins then stepped to the line, jerked the ball above his head as if it were a helium balloon escaping his grasp and, with an awkward push, sent it hurtling toward the basket. To the surprise of both Biedrins and the crowd at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., it went in.
Warriors play-by-play announcer Bob Fitzgerald reacted with a mixture of shock and elation, shouting, "AND HE MAKES THE FREE THROW!" Meanwhile, a raucous cheer arose from the stands, and understandably so. It was the first free throw Biedrins had made all season. It would also be the last.
Eight other times over the span of 47 games last winter and spring, Biedrins stepped to the line. Eight times he missed. These misses were an issue, of course, but it was the number of attempts that were more worrisome. For an athletic, 26-year-old center making $9 million a year to play 739 minutes and shoot only nine free throws can mean only one thing: Something is going on inside Beidrins' head.
There are few sins in pro sports worse than losing your confidence, but admitting that you have is one of them. Confidence is the armor athletes wear to protect them against the media, opponents and, at times, coaches. It's what allows them to go 0-for-5 one day and return the following expecting to go 5-for-5. Somewhere in the prime of his career, Andris Biedrins lost his. He's been searching for it ever since.
Just over a week ago, Biedrins lowered his 7-foot frame onto a folding chair at the Warriors' practice facility in Oakland, awaiting the inevitable. It was the team's media day, the first chance for reporters to talk to players, and one by one the beat writers arrived, solemnly placing their digital tape recorders on the white linen tablecloth in front of Biedrins. Most genuinely like him. He is humble, funny and endearing, a rarity in the world of pro athletes.
Still, the reporters had a job to do. Presently, the questions came.
"Is it possible to get back to where you were three years ago?"
"Have you worked with a mental coach?"
Baby-faced, with short blonde hair that he had carefully parted and gelled into place, Biedrins looked uncomfortable in the way that a middle school student might upon being put on the spot. He said he was committed to the team. He said he wanted to revive his career. At one point he paused for a moment, trying to explain what had happened. Then he said, "You kind of stop believing in yourself."
Not long ago, everyone believed in Biedrins. The son of a champion discus thrower in Latvia, Biedrins began playing basketball at 6 and signed his first pro contract when he was 16. When the Warriors drafted him with the 11th pick in 2004, he was the youngest player in the league, at 18 years old. Within two seasons, he'd shown glimpses of greatness. "He's going to be one of the top 10 centers in this league," point guard Baron Davis told reporters in the spring of 2005. "It's just a matter of time."
When Don Nelson took over as Warriors coach the following season, he inserted Biedrins into the starting lineup and Biedrins responded by averaging a near double-double. A year later, at only 21, Biedrins led the league in field goal percentage while sinking 62 percent of his free throws. Nelson, caught up in the moment, mused that Biedrins might be "the best big man I've ever coached." After the season, the Warriors signed him to a six-year contract worth up to $63 million.
The following winter, despite the loss of Davis, who had fed Biedrins for so many slashing pick-and-roll baskets, the young, gangly center was a monster. He was longer than smaller opponents, quicker than larger ones and played with a joyous energy. By January 2009, Biedrins was averaging 14.2 points and 11.9 rebounds and had already racked up 20 double-doubles in the season's first 35 games -- the most of any Western Conference center at the time. There was talk of an All-Star selection and, had it not been for the Warriors' losing record, he might have earned it. "At some point he's going to be one of those top four centers in the NBA," then-assistant coach Keith Smart told the media.
It was a heady time for Biedrins. He was a cornerstone of a franchise and beloved by fans. Back in Latvia, he was a star -- reportedly the country's youngest millionaire. He drove a Porsche, went out to the coolest bars in the city. Life was good.
Usually there's a flashpoint. For Rick Ankiel it was one nightmareish inning in the 2000 NLDS during which he threw five wild pitches. Steve Sax one-hopped a routine relay throw against the Expos in 1983 and it haunted him for years. For Nick Anderson, the former Orlando Magic guard, it was four missed free throws in Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals that, as he once told me, became "like a song that got in my head, playing over and over and over."
For Biedrins, the decline, when it came, was precipitous. In 2009-10, he averaged 5.0 points and 7.8 rebounds in 33 games while shooting a ghastly 16 percent (4-for-25) from the line. A year later, it was 5.0 points and 7.2 rebounds and 32.3 percent on free throws. Then, last season, playing 15.7 minutes a game, Biedrins averaged less than a basket and made but the lone free throw -- a shot, it should be noted, that bounced off the front rim, back rim and front rim before going in.
Those who know Biedrins offer theories as to what happened. They talk of how he suffered a succession of injuries, including a groin issue that limited his mobility. They note that Biedrins was affected by the departures of Davis and Stephen Jackson, who were adept at finding him in the half-court offense. They talk of how Biedrins became tentative once he started missing free throws -- how you could see him shying away from the basket. And they'll tell you of the about-face of Nelson, who began to publicly question the desire of his center in 2008.
"He really revered Nellie," said Bill Duffy, Biedrins' agent since his first year in the league. "When he fell out of favor with Nellie, it was almost like falling out of favor with your father."
Biedrins professes to be at a loss. At this year's media day, after the beat writers cleared out, we talked a bit. There was no defensiveness or bravado. He spoke about how "my goal is to feel good about myself"; how he'd avoided reading any articles about himself for years but to no avail -- his friends see them and text or call. And he spoke of how "free throws are more emotional for me than anything else."
Plenty have tried to help. A few years ago, Nelson brought in Rick Barry to teach Biedrins to shoot underhanded from the line. Biedrins declined, miffed at the suggestion. Others mentioned the idea of shooting right-handed, for Biedrins has a soft release with his opposite hand. "I kind of tried for a week and it felt weird," he said. Every day, there is a new suggestion. "They think it's always something wrong technically, your release," he said. "I don't think so. I don't have the perfect shot but I can be in the gym shooting and do really well. " He paused. "It doesn't matter how you shoot. It's how you think on that line."
For Biedrins, the free throws have infected the rest of his game -- he avoids contact, plays tentatively -- even though this needn't be the case. Three of the most dominant big men of the last 40 years have been poor foul shooters -- Wilt Chamberlain (51.1 percent), Shaquille O'Neal (52.7) and Dwight Howard (58.8) -- but none ever stopped bulling to the basket. Over the years, the Warriors' staff has tried to address the issue. Smart went to Latvia for two weeks one summer to work with Biedrins, then returned for 10 days a year later. "We're still trying to make sure he doesn't get frustrated on the floor with the one thing he's doing wrong," Smart said at the time, "when he's doing 99 things well."
Then, last year, the Warriors and Duffy's agency, BDA, put together a "reclamation regimen" that included a "mental training program," but nothing worked. By last March, Biedrins had lost his starting job to Jeremy Tyler, an unheralded rookie, and was being booed by fans during pregame introductions. It was mystifying: He was a healthy 7-footer in the prime of his career, a player who'd once averaged a double-double, and the Warriors were considering using the amnesty clause on his contract.
And now here he is, in the fall of 2012, entering Warriors camp as an afterthought, the team's second center, behind Andrew Bogut. It's possible Biedrins may even drop to third by the time camp is over, if rookie Festus Ezeli plays well. Already, coach Mark Jackson is upset because Biedrins chose not to join the rest of the team during the month of September in "voluntary" workouts -- the only one of the 15 regulars who didn't. That Biedrins arrived at camp with a dark tan, the result of spending the last month training instead in Santa Barbara, as he has for years, did not help the perception.
"That's on him," Jackson said when I asked how the coach could help Biedrins regain his confidence. "At the end of the day, you got to find a way to get it done."
This is a mantra of sports: Protect your ego at all costs. LeBron James once told me he felt "invincible." Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski claimed never to have felt fear on a football field. When I asked Jackson if he ever lost his confidence as a player, either during his years at St. John's or his 17 seasons in the NBA, he cut me off mid-question. "No. Never," he said loudly, chin raised and back straight, eyes fixed somewhere beyond me. "I'm from New York City. I understand it but at the end of the day, I'm a God-fearing man. As the Bible says, 'Cast not away your confidence.' "
To hear Utah Jazz center Al Jefferson tell it, Biedrins still has his. Last fall, during the NBA lockout, Jefferson and Biedrins worked out together in Santa Barbara, Calif., alongside other Jazz players. The two did it again last month, and Jefferson remains perplexed by the contrast. "The player I see in the workouts is not the player I see in games," Jefferson said by phone from Jazz training camp. "His footwork is great, he can finish with either hand around the basket." Jefferson goes on, talking about how Biedrins attacks the hoop, how he uses his spin moves and height and athleticism to get to the rim, how every action is explosive.
Jefferson advises Biedrins to pretend he's the one guarding him in games. Biedrins tries, but it's hard. "He always tells me to play in the game like I do in the practice," Biedrins said. "He says, 'C'mon, you can be so much better than that.' " Biedrins pauses. "And I kind of agree with him."
On Oct. 31, the Warriors will open the regular season against the Suns at US Airways Center in Phoenix. Chances are, at some point during the first half, Biedrins will enter the game and jog down on offense. And chances are, whether one minute or four minutes later, there will be a long rebound, or an open lane to the basket and Biedrins will receive the ball facing the rim. It is then that he'll have to make a decision. To go forward, or to fade away.